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LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - The teenaged cousins were buried two weeks ago. The homeowner who shot them after they broke into his house has sat in the county jail ever since he spelled out the chilling details to local police.
But more than three weeks after Byron David Smith confessed to killing Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, in the basement of his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day, the cold and gruesome nature of the crime continues to haunt and divide.
Some here, sympathetic to Brady and Kifer, who had already broken into a home and stolen prescription medicine the night before burglarizing Smith, say their execution-style slayings were too steep a penalty for invading Smith's property.
"They were teenagers," said Hope Barton, a cook at Donna's Big Johns cafe. "He could have just held them and called police."
But others, many of whom grew up with Smith and know him as a friend, classmate or neighbor, argue that he was simply defending his home after repeated break-ins, even though he fired shots into the teens' heads after wounding them, then left the bodies in a basement work room for a day before calling a neighbor.
"He didn't ask for this to happen," said John Lange, a neighbor. "It's just sad. Byron wasn't bothering nobody."
As Smith, 64, prepares for a Monday court hearing seeking a reduction in bail -- currently $2 million without conditions or $1 million if he surrenders his passport and firearms and doesn't leave the state -- on two murder charges, the debate over his actions surfaces daily across this scenic Mississippi River town 100 miles north of the Twin Cities.
From Donna's Big Johns on the west side of the river to the Coborn's deli out near the freeway, residents dissect and argue the case over and over, trying to make sense of killings that seemingly make none.
"It can get pretty loud," said Donna Beto, speaking of the daily debate inside her restaurant. "Some go berserk and we have to put a stop to the conversation."
Tensions flared at the cafe one morning last week after George Moore, a retired police officer, and some of the regulars stopped for coffee and a game of dice.
As Moore grabbed a coffee mug, a bearded customer sitting at a nearby table who had just finished a breakfast of eggs and hashbrowns loudly defended Smith.
"He was scared," hollered the man, who said he didn't want his name printed in a newspaper. "He didn't know if they had a gun."
"OK, then," Moore snapped sarcastically, "Let's kill 'em."
"They broke in!" the man quickly countered, standing and raising his voice. "You don't know what was going through his mind. I've never been in that position before and I never want to be. Would I have done it? No. But you can't understand where the man was at."
"That don't justify it," Moore said. "I don't give a [damn] if you're scared. You don't shoot somebody like that. They're already down. Now he fires more shots. That's overkill."
'A sad case'
Emotions run high, in part because the victims were attractive, fresh-faced teenagers, and in part because Smith's confession, which included references to "I want him dead" and "a good clean finishing shot" was so chilling.
"Some people think he had every right to do it," said Colt Litzau, 16, a friend of Brady's who worked with him cleaning up Smith's property this past summer. "He did, but he didn't have to execute them. He could have let them live."
Fueling tensions is that the shooter and his victims were raised here and known to many. Some won't talk publicly about the case for fear of alienating the families.
"His dad used to come in here every day for coffee with my dad," one man said of Smith over breakfast at the West Side Cafe. "And the kids, I know their parents and their grandparents. They're all nice people."
Others won't talk, "because they don't want to offend the kids," Barton said.
While some struggle to comprehend the storyline -- a respected, law-abiding citizen shooting and killing law-breaking teens -- Lange, who has known Smith for about seven years, said his neighbor was tormented by repeated break-ins, including one he reported to police in late October, when about $10,000 worth of guns, electronic equipment and cash were stolen.
"They just kept coming and coming," Lange said. "It's a sad case. I just hope justice will be served. And I'm just hoping it's in Byron's favor."
Rich Kliber, 65, a local dairy farmer who graduated with Smith, said he remembers him as "highly intelligent, articulate and creative.
"Fifteen to 20 classmates have contacted me and not one of them ever thought he'd be aggressive," Kliber said. "Everything he did was so calculated. I just think he's the type of guy who was fed up."
Yet when word spread last week that police search warrants showed Smith, a retired U.S. State Department worker who set up security systems for embassies, had audio recordings of the shootings and had a surveillance video of the teens outside his house before they broke in, it fueled speculation that Smith may have set a trap.
"Some think he planned to catch 'em," Litzau said.
"We'll never get the kids' perspective, because they are gone," said Marge Krinke, owner of Good Book & Gift in downtown Little Falls. "But, obviously, he thought it out. He had two guns. ... He sat there waiting for them.
"Yes, they were where they were not supposed to be. But two young lives were lost and we'll never have a chance to know what they could have accomplished."
Barton said she worries that if Smith's bail is lowered and he is able to get out, "his life would be in danger. A lot of people here want to see him get the same sentence as the kids," she said.
Lange, too, fears "it's not over."
As he recently walked the long, snow-covered driveway leading to Smith's house, which sits on the wooded bank of a Mississippi back channel, he stepped over a chain blocking the drive's entrance. Several signs also were put up by Lange and neighbors last week to keep trespassers away.
Even then, several hundred cars have stopped in recent weeks, Lange said. Some, he said, are filled with teenagers, a few of whom he believes are intent on getting even.
"They are waiting for Byron," Lange said. "This is not over."
Lange said he's received several anonymous calls in recent days from people asking why he defends and supports Smith. Two callers threatened him, he said.
"They are asking 'Why are you standing up for the old bastard? You could be next,'" he said. "And then they hang up."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425
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