Questions tear at those who knew two slain Little Falls teens

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2012 - 12:11 AM

As investigators sought answers in Thursday's killings near Little Falls, scores gathered Sunday for a vigil.

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On the outskirts of Little Falls, Minn., Crystal Shaeffel walked down the long driveway on Sunday, past the "keep out" sign, to see the house where her teenage brother and her cousin were shot to death on Thanksgiving Day.

She was met in the driveway by the brother of Byron David Smith, the man who is in the Morrison County Jail on suspicion of second-degree murder after telling deputies he shot the pair when they broke into his house, where he lived alone. He is to make his first court appearance on Monday.

The bodies of Nicholas Brady, 17, and his cousin Haile Kifer, 18, both of Little Falls, were discovered on Friday when authorities began investigating a missing-persons report and after a car parked down the road from Smith's home prompted a neighbor to report suspicions that something was wrong.

"They were 17 and 18 years old, and they didn't need to die," Shaeffel told Bruce Smith as she stood in the driveway, tears flowing down her face.

"That all depends on your perspective," he told her.

A series of break-ins had made Byron Smith, a 64-year-old retired U.S. State Department worker, frustrated and fearful, his brother said Sunday.

In the rear of the house, which sits on the bank of the Mississippi River, surrounded by tall pines and birches, is a shattered bedroom window, now boarded over. It was where, Bruce Smith said, the teens used a lead pipe to break the glass, crawl in, walk down a hallway and go downstairs, surprising Byron Smith as he tinkered in his basement workshop over the lunch hour.

Byron Smith never called 911 but let the bodies lay in his home for just more than 24 hours while the teens' families tried to find them. Bruce Smith said his brother was distraught and didn't know what to do.

"Put yourself in his shoes after you shoot two people in your basement. How are you going to react?" he said during an interview at the house.

The brother said this was the latest of eight burglaries within the last few years, with the most recent on Oct. 27, when about $10,000 worth of guns, electronic gear and cash were stolen after thieves broke out a panel in a lower-level door. He said not all the burglaries were reported but that the one last month was reported to the Morrison County Sheriff's Office.

Loved ones of the two teens, as well as authorities, say the shootings went beyond self-defense. Neighbors described Byron Smith as a loner who liked to shoot his guns often, intimidating and worrying nearby residents.

Shaeffel said investigators told her that Brady had been shot in the shoulder and head, and that then Kifer was shot.

She said her brother made good money working for their father's tree-trimming business and didn't have to resort to burglary.

She said that Kifer had been in treatment more than once for abuse of controlled substances, and speculated that her cousin might have been after pills. Kifer had recently returned to school and had been trying to straighten out her life, Shaeffel said, adding that Kifer had stolen Adderall pills from Shaeffel's home.

"Yes, she had an addiction problem and stuff, but that doesn't mean she deserves to get murdered at 18 years old," Shaeffel said. "I understand they came there to rob them, or whatever, but shoot them in the shoulder and call the cops."

Shaeffel, 27, lives near the Smith house and went there Sunday with her close friend, Tiffany Kostohryz.

"I just wanted to see," Shaeffel said, looking toward the garage. The red-brick house with peeling paint is tucked out of view from the road.

Smith's neighbor Lori Williams said she had complained to authorities about the frequent shooting on Smith's property, worrying that children playing outside could be hurt. But deputies had told her and her husband that nothing could be done because his property was outside city limits, the couple said.

They described Smith as an odd man who kept to himself. "He didn't say 'boo,'" Scott Williams said.

Bruce Smith said his brother, who never married, had traveled the world as a federal employee, working mostly desk jobs and managing as many as 50 people at a time.

"He was a security officer for the State Department over the past two decades and was responsible for plans and specifications of State Department buildings worldwide," Bruce Smith said.

He said his brother was upset on Thursday evening when he called him in Baltimore, where Bruce Smith was with his daughter for the holiday.

"I need you up here now," Bruce Smith said his brother told him.

When he arrived on Saturday afternoon, sheriff's deputies and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension were there, and his brother, whom he described as a highly intelligent man, was behind bars.

Bruce Smith said he believes his brother fired in self defense.

On Sunday night, a vigil

Sunday evening, about 200 mourners braved cold temperatures and a biting wind for a vigil at Little Falls High School. They released balloons, tried to keep candles burning, and listened as Nick Brady's older sister, Rachel Brady, told of using social media to ask others whether they had seen the two cousins.

"They were just really great people," said Rachel Stauffer, 15. "They could make anyone laugh."

Others spoke of Nick Brady's perpetual smile and how he loved to tell them to "turn a frown upside down."

Carlee Davich of Little Falls, who coached Kifer in swimming as assistant coach two years ago for the Little Falls High School team, described Kifer's upbeat, infectious personality.

"She was always happy. She had a way that just made everyone happy. A lot of the swimmers and divers looked up to her," Davich said.

Emma Schmidt, a senior at Little Falls High School who had known Kifer since middle school, said she was talented and that both were well-liked.

As for what Kifer was doing in Smith's basement, Emma had no idea. "Everyone's wondering that," she said.

Staff writer Kim Palmer contributed to this report. Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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