(MCT) — LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — Insisting the case crosses the line from self-defense to a cold-blooded double execution, Morrison County authorities filed second-degree murder charges Monday against a 64-year-old man who killed two teenage cousins after they’d broken into his home on Thanksgiving.
This woodsy central Minnesota town of 8,000 was jolted as the gruesome details spilled out in a criminal complaint, alleging Byron David Smith put a handgun under the chin of wounded and gasping 18-year-old Haile Kifer for what he told police was a “good clean finishing shot.”
Smith, who according to a friend and a relative had endured previous break-ins, sat shackled in an orange jail jumpsuit as County Attorney Brian Middendorf accused him of “cold-blooded murder of two teenagers under circumstances that are appalling and far beyond any self-defense claim.”
Sheriff Michel Wetzel said Monday that he believes the teenagers were committing a burglary but said Smith’s reaction went beyond legal protections of Minnesota law that allows crime victims to use reasonable force to protect themselves and their property during a felony.
“We understand and respect that right exists, but what happened in this case went further,” Wetzel said. “The law doesn’t permit you to execute somebody when there’s no possible way the crime can continue.”
And the law requires people to notify police, said Wetzel, who learned about the shooting from a neighbor the next day. The sheriff said the reason Smith gave for never calling police was “it was Thanksgiving and he didn’t want to bother us on a holiday.”
Hamline University School of Law professor Joseph Olson, who has studied self-defense laws, noted that the number of Smith’s shots will make it difficult for him to claim self-defense in court.
“I think the first shot is justified,” Olson said. “After the person is no longer a threat because they’re seriously wounded, the application of self-defense is over.”
Judge Douglas P. Anderson set bail at $2 million or $1 million with conditions that Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee, surrender his passport and firearms and not leave the state. Prosecutors cited Smith’s years of international travel to Moscow, Bangkok and Beijing among the reasons for the high bail.
Smith’s attorney, Gregory Larson, did not immediately contest the bail, and a jail worker said Smith informed the staff he doesn’t plan to post bail.
About a dozen friends and relatives of the victims attended Smith’s 10-minute hearing, including 16-year-old Serina Poppen, who wore a brown Little Falls Auto and Transmission sweatshirt. Nicholas Brady, 17, the first victim Smith shot, lent her the sweatshirt a month ago when she was cold and the two had dated in recent months.
“No amount of bail is fair and no amount will bring them back,” Poppen said. “He took it way too far. He could have just showed them his gun and told them to sit still until he called police.”
Tessa Ruth, Brady’s aunt, also was at the hearing and acknowledged outside the court room that “it wasn’t right to be in the house and, yes, he has a right to defend himself, but not to execute them like that.”
John Lange, who describes himself as Smith’s best friend, was in the courtroom and visited Smith in jail.
“Byron is holding up just fine, but he shouldn’t be in there,” Lange said. “You have the right to defend your home, and he’s been through hell.”
Lange said Smith’s house has been broken into six times, although authorities say they have only one report of a break-in, in October.
“They tortured him and targeted him, and it’s not good,” Lange said. “If you’ve been broken into one time, that would be enough. But it’s terrible.”
Smith’s brother, Bruce Smith, said about $10,000 worth of guns, electronic gear and cash were stolen in October.
Wetzel, the sheriff, declined to discuss what was taken in the October theft and said they have no suspects. He also declined to say whether the teens knew Smith, insisting the investigation is ongoing.
According to the complaint, Smith told police that he heard someone breaking into his house at noon on Thanksgiving. He showed police the window he says Brady and his cousin, Kifer, used to enter his house, which he said had been broken into several times before. Lange, his friend, said he kept his valuables downstairs.
Smith told police he armed himself with a rifle and a handgun and waited downstairs until he saw the first person’s feet, then legs, then hips.
He said he fired and the first victim, Brady, tumbled down the stairs. While Brady looked up at him, he shot him in the face, according to the complaint.
“I want him dead,” he told investigators.
He put Brady’s body on a tarp and dragged him into his basement workshop and sat back down in his chair.
Several minutes later, he heard more footsteps and saw Kifer coming down the stairs. He waited until he saw her hips, then fired. She also fell down the stairs, but then his rifle jammed and Kifer laughed.
That angered Smith. “If you’re trying to shoot someone and they laugh at you, you go again,” he told police.
He then pulled out the .22-caliber, nine-shot revolver that he was wearing, and fired “more shots than I needed to.” He dragged Kifer into the workshop, placed her next to Brady and noticed she was still gasping for air.
“Smith stated at this point he placed the handgun under the woman’s chin and shot her ... up into the cranium ... a good clean finishing shot.”
He told police neither of the teens were armed but he feared they might have had a weapon.
He asked a neighbor the next morning if he knew any lawyers, and that neighbor apparently called police.
Larson, Smith’s lawyer, declined to discuss the case as he left the hearing, saying he needed more time to respond to the county attorney’s accusations.
Middendorf, the county attorney, asked community members “not to rush to judgment. This is a terrible tragedy for the whole community,” he said. “And Mr. Smith is entitled to a fair process.”
At Smith’s house, where a “keep out” sign blocked the driveway, kids drove by who knew the victims.
They remembered two teenage cousins who were inseparable and texted each other thousands of times.
“Nick was always energetic,” said Alex Janey, 18. “They had so much more to give and to just shoot them like that, it just isn’t right.”
Other kids rumored that drugs might have been involved, a subject authorities declined to get into, saying the case is ongoing.
Poppen said her close friend, who lent her the sweatshirt she was wearing, “was always hilarious and lived for the moment.”
Throughout the town of Little Falls, stunned residents weighed in.
“This ... doesn’t happen in our community,” said Liberty Nunn, 20, a friend of Brady’s sister. “If it was 3 o’clock in the morning, I’m a shoot first and ask questions later kind of person.
“But this was the middle of Thanksgiving Day and to not bother to call the cops? It’s just not right to take a life. ... He got to shut the basement door and go on with his Thanksgiving,” Nunn said, “while two families were grieving.”
(Staff writers Pam Louwagie and Joy Powell contributed to this report.)