LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – It’s been more than a year since the killings of two teenagers here in a home break-in, and townspeople said they had stopped talking publicly about the divisive case for fear they’d ignite an argument. But the mood shifted this week as prosecutors laid out their case against the 65-year-old shooter, Byron Smith.
Using audio recordings captured by Smith, the prosecution portrayed him as a vigilante who set an ambush for the teens, who can be heard screaming and groaning on the recordings while Smith makes a chilling, sarcastic crack and then calmly says to one of them: “You’re dying, bitch.”
In the aftermath of the killings, Smith called them “vermin” and said he was “doing my civic duty.”
“What he said to those kids while they were dying was not OK,” said Jaelyn Lemke, who said the town this week grew increasingly tense. If people had felt ambivalent before, that changed by Friday, she said. “There’s probably a good portion of the town that feels he probably would be safer if he went to prison because he pissed a lot of people off.”
Smith stands accused of first-degree premeditated murder for the Thanksgiving Day 2012 deaths of Haile Kifer, 18 and Nick Brady, 17. The killings and subsequent criminal trial have drawn national attention in the debate over how far homeowners can go to defend themselves against intruders.
The Little Falls homeowner had suffered a few break-ins in his home and his adjacent property in the fall of 2012, but didn’t go to the sheriff’s office until after an Oct. 27 break-in, when a shotgun and rifle, as well as other items were stolen from his home.
But he had grown fearful in the weeks after, so on Thanksgiving Day, after moving his truck a few blocks away so he could clean out his garage, he told authorities, he sat in his favorite basement reading chair with a paperback when he heard someone fumbling at the door and saw a shadow pass by a picture window.
He shot Brady first as the teen descended the basement stairs. The audio recording captured the sound of two booming gunshots, then Brady’s groan as he was hit in the torso and shoulder. Then Smith fired again, saying “You’re dead.”
About 10 minutes later, Kifer called out for Brady. “Oh my God!” Kifer screamed, while gunshots rang out. “You’re dying, bitch,” Smith said.
Prosecutors said Smith fired nine times using two different guns. They rested their case this week, allowing Smith’s defense to begin making their case that Smith was frightened from earlier break-ins and trying to defend his home.
That message didn’t resonate with locals at James Green Park along the Mississippi River on Friday evening, where people stopped to watch the Mississippi River, full of snow melt, slip over the town dam in a frothy roar.
“There was something that happened there that we don’t know about,” said Stephen Wood. “I suspect the kids were familiar with that house for some reason.”
Wood said he’s been following the trial intently this week, and has been led to believe that Smith’s life wasn’t being threatened. But it’s not something he’s about to share in a conversation in town, in case he’s speaking to someone who supports Smith.
“People might talk about it with a couple of their friends in private, but at the barber shop, where you think everybody talks about everything, they just steer clear of it.”
Lemke said talking about the trial is almost “taboo” in Little Falls because of the invisible fault lines between those who support Smith and those who vilify him.
“It’s such a close-knit community. Everybody knows everybody around here. You don’t want to say something to the wrong person,” she said.
Those feelings can be closely held in Little Falls, population 8,288, where it’s not hard to find people who knew the teenagers or Smith.
Brianna Thompson, 17, said Kifer would sometimes play volleyball with her extended family on Sundays. The trial this week brought everything back for Thompson, leaving her in tears after watching a recent newscast.
“I think it made people more angry that he was saying, ‘Sorry about that’ when the gun jammed and calling them names. That’s just horrible,” she said.
Even those who want to see both sides of the case were struggling after learning about the recordings, said Tyler Eckel, a first-year body shop student who stopped at James Green Park while cruising in his 2005 Ford Mustang on Friday.
“As far as those two kids, I feel bad for them,” he said. “I can see both sides of a situation but … he had some pretty dirty thoughts,” he said of Smith.
Driving around town that evening Eckel said he passed by the Morrison County Courthouse just as the day’s proceedings ended. Spectators were spilling out of the courtroom and two TV news crews were set up to beam their stories out of Little Falls.
Passing by, he said, “you just get a cold feeling.”