LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - The two teenage cousins shot to death during a home burglary on Thanksgiving were no strangers to police, who confirmed Wednesday that the pair had committed an earlier burglary and that officers are looking into the possibility of them being linked to more in the area.

Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel said a search of a car seized after Nick Brady, 17, and Haile Kifer, 18, were slain by homeowner Byron Smith turned up items reported stolen in a home burglary the previous day, including six bottles of prescription medicine.

Little Falls Police Chief Greg Schirmers said Wednesday the cousins were among a group of young people with whom police in the area "crossed paths frequently," but not involving any major crimes.

Schirmers said his department or the sheriff's office had 19 "contacts" with Kifer this year, ranging from traffic stops to reports of suspicious activity or theft.

Police had contacts of a similar nature with Brady, Schirmers said, though he declined to be specific, citing Brady's status as a juvenile when killed.

Neither were known to be part of any crime ring, he said.

"I can't say they stood out from any other bunch we came in contact with," the chief said.

The sheriff's office said in a statement that the shooting investigation, "as well as other burglaries that may be connected" to the cousins, was continuing, but provided no further details.

Schirmers said Little Falls had 33 reported burglaries in the past year, a number he called typical.

"Pills are always a target, as are small electronics and that kind of thing," he said.

Byron Smith, 64, a retired federal employee, is charged with second-degree murder in the two deaths. Smith, whose brother said he had endured numerous break-ins in recent years, remained in the Morrison County jail Wednesday night after earlier admitting that he repeatedly shot the intruders, including final shots at close range, then left their bodies in his basement for a full day until deputies arrived to check on a neighbor's concerns that he might have killed somebody.

Prior trouble

Richard Johnson, the retired Little Falls High School teacher who authorities believe also fell victim to a burglary by Kifer and Brady, showed a reporter the French door where the thieves entered his elegant Tudor house after smashing the glass while standing on his deck.

He said the thieves rifled most of the drawers in the home but took only coins of little value and his non-narcotic prescription drugs.

"I'm surprised they didn't smash the place up," said Johnson, who was out of the country at the time.

A neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she and her spouse called 911 the night before Thanksgiving and reported a suspicious car -- a red Mitsubishi Eclipse -- parked near the end of their driveway.

They waited near the car and spoke to deputies when they arrived. Just then, Brady walked up to the car and told the deputies that he and Kifer had run out of gas and that she had left to get some.

The deputies gave Brady a ride to town and released him, the sheriff said.

"It was just a strange place for the car to be, in our driveway like that, and we were concerned about our home," said the woman.

Johnson, who had been in Spain for two weeks, said the break-in at his home wasn't discovered until Sunday morning by an 81-year-old friend checking on the house, who in turn called 911.

Deputies began tying the two incidents together.

"During the search of the red Mitsubishi Eclipse, deputies discovered six bottles of prescription medication bearing the name Richard Johnson," the sheriff's office said.

Steve Schaeffel, Brady's grandfather, said the boy's family isn't ready to comment.

"We're going to let everybody else have their say and then gather our thoughts," Schaeffel said.

Smith's brother, Bruce Smith of California, whom Byron Smith called after the shootings, said his brother was the victim of a string of break-ins over the past couple of years. Byron Smith reported one, on Oct. 27, to the sheriff's office. He told investigators that $500 in cash and a $3,000 camera were stolen.

When asked about possible suspects, Byron Smith said he often worked with kids and used to allow his friend's son and his friends to have band practice in his garage. He stopped it when they kept inviting too many friends and it got out of hand. "That would have made kids aware of where he lives and how secluded his residence is from the road," the incident report said.

Johnson, 68, is saddened by the whole turn of events. Of the teens' deaths, he said: "I feel bad for them but also for Mr. Smith. His life is over with, too."

Also Wednesday, some continued to speak out on behalf of Smith. Among them was neighbor William Anderson, who said he's probably Smith's best friend.

"I've known the family for 40 years, and they're good people," he said. "I have nothing else to say." • 612-673-1751 • 651-925-5038