LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - More than 500 friends, relatives, classmates and neighbors turned out to mourn Nick Brady and Haile Kifer on Saturday, their community reeling from the Thanksgiving Day shootings that left the two teenagers dead.
Vehicles filled the parking lot at Living Hope Assembly of God Church and poured onto a busy nearby street as the 11 a.m. service began.
Two caskets carrying the cousins were lifted into side-by-side white hearses as the ceremony ended.
For many of the mourners who turned out on the dreary December day, the shock of losing Brady, 17, and Kifer, 18 -- and the way they were killed -- is still too much. The community, more than a week later, is grappling with more questions than answers about the crime.
"It's been really sad. A lot of people want to know what happened," classmate Shania Morawczynski said.
Homeowner Byron Smith, 64, has told police he shot Brady and Kifer multiple times in his basement Thanksgiving Day after they broke into the home where he lived alone. The break-in followed several other burglaries to his home, said Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee who was charged last week with two counts of second-degree murder. Police also have connected Brady and Kifer to a burglary the previous day, when six bottles of prescription medicine were stolen.
But on Saturday, many classmates from the town's 700-student high school, like sophomore Brianna Harnick, just wanted to focus on the good memories, showing support for Brady and Kifer's grieving family. They remembered Kifer, a senior at Little Falls High, as a kind but competitive athlete and Brady, a junior at Pillager High School, as an outgoing jokester with a striking smile.
"Nick had the biggest smile ever that would light up the room," she said. Added classmate Shelby Fairbrother: "Everybody knows them."
Some friends honored Brady and Kifer by wearing shirts printed with their photos. Many others were too emotional to talk or yelled at reporters standing outside the church after the one-hour service.
Off the town's main street, it was clear the Thanksgiving shootings have shaken the whole community and left lingering doubts, as regulars at the small West Side Cafe disputed whether Smith's actions were justified.
"When you're my age you put yourself in his shoes -- you had a nice career and people are breaking into your home. But now his life is ruined too," lifelong resident George Kleinschmidt, 72, said. "I think there's something cockeyed about the whole thing."
Over a turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes, Kleinschmidt said the few details made public have left too many unanswered questions. But the link to thefts of prescription pills shows that, while crime may not be a big problem in Little Falls, prescription pill abuse "is an epidemic," he said.
"It's certainly a tragedy for everybody, including the town," he said. "We need to get involved with these kids and those medications."
Sam Muhlbauer, youth pastor at Living Hope, knew Brady, who attended the church. "People are really rallying around each other," he said.
"It obviously hurts people in different ways," he said. "It's important we talk and find these people to connect those shared memories and not bottle up the emotions of what's going on."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib