LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – Steve Schaeffel got out of bed with a prayer on Wednesday, as he always does. But this rainy morning, 17 months after his teenage grandson was shot to death, Schaeffel offered extra thanks.
The boy’s killer had finally been convicted and was permanently behind bars.
“It’s just a huge feeling of relief that justice is served,” Schaeffel said as he sat next to his wife, Bonnie, on Wednesday afternoon.
“But Nick and Haile still aren’t here,” Bonnie Schaeffel added. “It does not change the loss.”
The day after a Morrison County jury swiftly convicted 65-year-old Byron Smith on four counts of murder for shooting 17-year-old Nick Brady and his cousin 18-year-old Haile Kifer as they burglarized Smith’s home on Thanksgiving Day 2012, the Schaeffels were reliving and processing the case.
Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison, was being transferred from the county jail to a state correctional facility in St. Cloud, his brother Bruce Smith said.
The Schaeffels, who with the trial over finally felt free to talk, said they understood how the case had captured national attention and divided the local community in the debate over self-defense and so-called castle-doctrine laws.
They don’t disagree that Brady and Kifer were breaking the law and deserved consequences, they said. They agree that homeowners have a right to defend their dwellings.
But they had also understood early on, they said, that Smith had gone too far, appearing to have set a trap to lure burglars, then continuing to shoot the unarmed teens after they were wounded and no longer a threat to him.
All along, prosecutors had assured them the case for murder was strong, they said. But they had wondered if the jury would see it as plainly as they did.
For most of the 17 months, as they drove past Smith’s riverside house to go into town for groceries or other supplies, they would see the place where Brady and Kifer died and know that the man who killed them was walking free, out on bail.
“We really appreciate the jury and that they came back so quickly” after just three hours of deliberation, Bonnie Schaeffel said.
During trial, Bonnie Schaeffel said, it felt to the families as if the teens were being tried, too. She was relieved Wednesday to be able to defend them.
Brady, whom they helped raise, was quick-witted, enthusiastic and always smiling, they said. Underneath his teenage bravado, he was softhearted, always sticking up for the underdog.
Kifer, she said, was close to Brady and was “delightful.” The high school athlete also liked to giggle and have fun, as she did having a “spa night” with Bonnie Schaeffel shortly before the shootings.
Brady and Kifer were supposed to come over for Thanksgiving dinner the day they died. When they didn’t show up and didn’t answer their phones, the family began to panic, Bonnie Schaeffel said.
The Schaeffels, retired and married for 39 years, have fostered more than 100 children, many of whom had troubling issues, some including problems with theft, Bonnie Schaeffel said. She wonders now whether seeing that had an influence on Brady.
“Was he a saint? No. He was just a kid growing up,” she said. The family would have wanted him to be prosecuted for burglary, she added, to face consequences so he would learn from it and understand it is a serious crime. “You never want to see your child make poor choices.”
But Smith’s actions, they said, amounted to setting up an assassination. He moved his car away that day. He sat in his basement, not calling police or yelling out warnings to intruders after hearing the glass in his upstairs bedroom window break. He uttered “you’re dead” and “bitch” while shooting the teens as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart. He dragged their bodies to a basement workshop and left them there for a day before calling a neighbor, who notified police.
The trial was the first time the Schaeffels heard Smith’s own chilling surveillance audio of the teens being shot — how the teens cried out in pain, how Smith later called them “vermin.”
That was “the absolute most difficult day for me,” Steve Schaeffel said. “It absolutely devastated me to know that their final moments were in such agony and fear and brutality.”
When the audio recording became publicly available through the state courts website late Tuesday, Steve Schaeffel told doubters to listen to it, he said, telling them: “There is your proof.”
On Wednesday, the Schaeffels continued to process everything the best way they know how, keeping busy with chores around the farm while feeding, brushing and training the dogs they breed and show.
“It’s the details of life that kind of carry you on,” Bonnie Schaeffel said.
But, Steve Schaeffel added: “the hole in our hearts will never go away.”