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Byron David SMITH

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Shot two teens to death after break-in
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: November 22, 2012
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: June 11, 1948
Victim profile: Haile Elaine Kifer, 18, and her cousin, Nicholas Brady Schaeffel, 17
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Belle Prairie Township, Morrison County, Minnesota, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without parole on April 29, 2014
 
 
 
 
 

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Byron Smith

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Criminal Complaint

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Byron David Smith killings occurred on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day), 2012, when Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin, Nicholas Brady, 17, broke into the home of Byron David Smith, 65, in Little Falls, Minnesota, in the United States.

Smith, armed with a Ruger Mini-14, shot the teens separately and minutes apart as they entered the basement where he was, later stating to police he was worried about them being armed.

The case sparked debate over the so called "Castle doctrine", which allows a homeowner to defend his home with lethal force. The prosecution alleged that Smith's actions show aspects of premeditation and he used excessive force in relation to the threat. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Lead up

Smith, 64, was retired from the U.S. State Department and had a history of international travel to Moscow, Bangkok and Beijing. Smith's brother described him as a retired security engineering officer.

Prior to the incident, Byron Smith had been burglarized at least half a dozen times over the past few months. Among the items stolen were thousands of dollars in cash, the watch his father had received after spending nearly a year as a POW in World War II, medals and ribbons Smith had earned in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, several firearms, and jewelry. Smith began routinely wearing a holster with a loaded gun inside his home.

There is some evidence that Kifer and Brady committed at least a couple of the previous break-ins and were being investigated for prior robberies, including one earlier on the day they were killed. Smith installed a security system to protect himself.

Incident

On November 22, 2012, Kifer and Brady broke into Smith's home. Video surveillance captured the teens casing the property prior to the break-in. By his own account to police, Smith was in the basement when he shot Brady twice at the top of the basement stairs, and once in the face fatally after he fell to the bottom of the stairs. Minutes later when Kifer entered the basement, he shot her at the top of the stairs. Wounded, she fell down the stairs, and after Smith's rifle jammed, he shot her multiple times in the chest with a .22-caliber revolver, dragged her across the floor to set her beside the body of her cousin, and then shot her fatally under the chin.

Smith then waited until Friday to have a neighbor call police, saying that he did not want to bother law enforcement on Thanksgiving. Audio and video of the events was recorded by Smith's security system.

Investigation

The deaths were not immediately reported to police. Smith waited until the next day to notify police of the shootings, claiming he didn't want to bother the police on Thanksgiving.

Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel has acknowledged that Brady and Kifer were there to rob Smith's residence. Brady's sister claimed Brady stole drugs from her home August 28 in a case that was still under investigation. Evidence recovered from the car driven by Brady was linked to a burglary of the residence of a retired teacher the night before he and Kifer were killed by Byron Smith.

Smith's statements to police describe delivering killing shots to the heads of both victims after he had shot them on the stairs and they had fallen to the basement floor wounded. In his statement, Smith said that Kifer had let out a short laugh after she fell down the stairs, saying "If you're trying to shoot somebody and they laugh at you, you go again." In police interviews Smith acknowledged "firing more shots than I needed to" and that he fired "a good clean finishing shot" into Kifer's head.

Castle doctrine debate

Legal analysts have stated that the initial shootings most likely would have been justified under Minnesota's Castle law, but that the subsequent shots were not justified once any threat had been removed. Sheriff Wetzel said that the law "doesn't permit you to execute somebody once a threat is gone." Hamline University School of Law professor Joseph Olson: "I think the first shot is justified. After the person is no longer a threat because they're seriously wounded, the application of self-defense is over."

A number of aspects of the case were noted by police as being inconsistent with self-defense. Smith moved his truck earlier in the day. He claimed it was in order to clean his garage. Prosecutors argued at his trial that it was an attempt to make the house look abandoned in order to lure the burglars into his home.

In addition to his home security system, Smith also recorded at least 6 hours of audio on a digital recorder in the basement of the residence. He was sitting in a chair at the bottom of the stairs with a loaded rifle and a tape recorder that captured not only the shootings, but also a monologue by Smith. Prior to the break-in, he is heard saying “In your left eye.” and "I realize I don’t have an appointment but I would like to see one of the lawyers here". The prosecution noted that Kifer was later shot in the left eye by Smith and allege that the other statement is a rehearsal of what he would say after the shooting—an indication that he knew he would soon need an attorney.

Following the shootings, Smith captured a number of statements including: "I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess - not like spilled food, not like vomit, not even like…not even like diarrhea - the worst mess possible. And I was stuck with it…in some tiny little respect…in some tiny little respect. I was doing my civic duty. If the law enforcement system couldn’t handle it, I had to do it. I had to do it. The law system couldn’t handle her and if it fell into my lap and she dropped her problem in my lap…and she threw her own problem in my face. And I had to clean it up.”

Smith's recorded statements, the evidence indicating he had planned the shootings, along with the excessive number of shots fired led to the charge of second degree murder. Smith was initially charged with two counts of second-degree murder, however, in April 2013, he was indicted on two counts of first degree murder. Bail was later set at $50,000, which Smith posted.

Hamline law professor emeritus Joseph Daly commented that the laws surrounding the case are dividing the Little Falls community. "In some states, somebody breaks into your home you are allowed to shoot them dead. Period," said Daly. He pointed out others states, such as Florida have a "stand your ground" law, but Minnesota has what's known as a reasonable person doctrine. "If a reasonable person would see if you are in fear of great bodily harm of death. That's our statute. It comes down to what would a reasonable person see in this situation for Mr. Smith?" said Daly.

Fox News host Sean Hannity supported Smith's actions on his show citing the fact that the teens broke into Smith's house to commit a robbery. Another guest on the show agreed, stating: “The guy should get a medal of freedom for what he did.” Geraldo Rivera also stated that he would have shot them as well.

Trial

On April 29, 2014, Byron David Smith was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder with premeditation and on two counts of second-degree murder after three hours of jury deliberations. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The audio recordings were named by the jurors as the biggest influence on their decision. "That was the most damning piece of evidence in my mind," Wes Hatlestad, one of 12 jurors, said following the trial. "That audio recording of the actual killings and the audio recording of Mr. Smith's interview immediately after his arrest ... pretty much convinced me that we were dealing with a deranged individual."

Wikipedia.org

 




Byron Smith gets life sentence for murdering two Little Falls teens

Little Falls man who shot two teens to death after break-in was convicted of 4 murder counts. The jury needed only three hours to weigh self-defense claims. He was sentenced to life in prison.

By Pam Louwagie - Star Tribune

April 30, 2014

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – When it was all over Tuesday, moments after he had been swiftly found guilty on four counts of murder for shooting two teenage intruders in his home, Byron Smith did not stand in respect for the jury.

Instead Smith, 65, sat at the defense table, silent.

Everyone around him rose to attention as jury members filed out of the Morrison County courtroom where during the tense, searing trial, they all had heard audio recordings of gunshots booming out, then of two teenagers groaning and screaming, then Smith muttering as they lay dead on his basement floor: “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”

Smith was sentenced immediately after the jury’s verdict to a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Though Smith had been free on bail during the trial, deputies took him into custody as he left the courtroom.

Smith’s attorney, Steve Meshbesher, told the judge that Smith plans to appeal.

Asked if he wanted to speak before his sentencing, Smith said only, “Thank you for the opportunity, your honor. I decline.”

Jurors took three hours to deliver their verdict. They were charged with answering the question of whether Smith acted as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances when he killed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady, unarmed cousins who broke into his home through a window.

Family members of the victims cried quietly as the verdicts were read.

The verdict and immediate sentencing inside a packed courtroom brought the nationally watched trial to a close. Smith had become a symbol in the countrywide debate over so-called castle doctrine laws, raising questions about how far a homeowner can go to defend himself and his property.

‘Robbed of their lives’

Relatives took the opportunity to give victim impact statements before Judge Douglas Anderson imposed two concurrent life sentences.

Shot on Thanksgiving Day 2012, the two teenage cousins loved family gatherings, Kifer’s aunt Laurie Skipper said. “Now there are two empty seats at every one of them.”

Brady’s grandmother, Bonnie Schaeffel, told the judge: “Smith was robbed of things. Nick and Haile were robbed of their lives.”

Prosecutor Pete Orput had asked the judge to impose consecutive life sentences as a symbolic gesture, but the judge declined.

Orput said outside the courtroom that he was grateful that justice was done but also saddened. “We’ve got two dead kids over nothing,” he said.

Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said late Tuesday that Smith was “very distraught, he was emotionally upset.”

Meshbesher told throngs of reporters after the trial that he wasn’t allowed to show jurors all the evidence that he felt was necessary.

He had sought, for instance, to introduce evidence of Kifer and Brady’s previous troubles with the law, including Brady’s connection to prior burglaries. Anderson ruled, though, that Smith didn’t know who he was shooting that day, so their histories or reputations weren’t relevant.

“I think [jurors] had a very limited view of the case,” Meshbesher said.

Setting a trap

Prosecutors contended from the beginning that Smith had crossed a legal line into cold execution when he continued to shoot Brady and Kifer as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart. They quickly charged him with second-degree intentional murder and later secured a grand jury indictment for first-degree premeditated murder.

They argued that Smith, whose home and adjoining property had earlier break-ins, had planned to take matters into his own hands.

In closing arguments Tuesday morning, Orput said that Smith was setting a trap for a neighbor girl who he believed had been behind the break-ins.

The prosecutor contended Smith saw her drive on his street that morning and set the plan in motion: moving his truck to appear as if he weren’t home, activating an audio recorder in his basement, loading his guns and settling into a basement reading chair with water, snacks and a novel.

Orput said Smith had a tarp ready in his basement to wrap the body of Brady after he shot him.

“Some of you hunters will think this sounds like deer hunting,” Orput told the jury.

Later, showing a photograph of the chair where Smith sat in his basement, he called the scene Smith’s “deer stand.”

Orput questioned why Smith didn’t call police, why he didn’t shout a warning before shooting. “Is that reasonable?” he asked the jury.

Meshbesher said Smith was increasingly scared as burglaries increased at his home, then was frozen in fear once he saw shadows outside and heard someone break glass in his upstairs bedroom window the day of the shootings.

He said if Brady and Kifer hadn’t broken in, there would have been no trial.

“Homes are where we live to feel safe, and it’s our castle in this country,” Meshbesher said. Smith, he added, grew more and more afraid to live in his own home. He’d been carrying a gun around with him inside.

A case about limits

Prosecutors used Smith’s own chilling audio recordings of the shootings against him, playing them for the jury three times over the course of the trial.

In the closings, the jury again heard glass breaking, booming gunshots and the groans and screams of the two teens. They also heard Smith utter, “you’re dead” and call Kifer names.

As the recording of the shots rang out in the silent courtroom, Smith sat at the defense table with his hands in his face, trembling. A juror cried.

Orput also played excerpts from Smith’s recordings before and after the shootings when he was presumed to be talking to himself.

Before the shootings he can be heard asking to see a lawyer — what Orput called a rehearsal. After, he talked about how he did his “civic duty” and said “like I give a damn who she is.”

Smith’s friend and neighbor Bill Anderson was visibly upset after the verdict. He had testified in the trial about how fearful Smith had become after repeated break-ins and said Tuesday that Smith was the victim.

“Byron Smith is one of the nicest gentlemen you’re ever going to meet,” he said. “If one of you people would have a flat tire in front of the courthouse today … that gentleman would go buy you a new tire and send you on your way.”

After the verdicts, Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel implied that some watching the case had turned it into something it wasn’t.

“This isn’t a case about whether you have the right to protect yourself in your home. You very clearly do. That’s a given,” Wetzel said.

“Rather, this was a case about where the limits are, before and after a threat to you or your home occurs. In this case, a jury decided there are limits and they decided where they are.”

 




Jurors were quickly convinced the shootings had been planned

By Joy Powell - Star Tribune

April 30, 2014

Byron Smith’s fate was known almost from the beginning of Tuesday’s jury deliberations.

“For the most part, we were all pretty much in agreement from the start,” juror Thomas Strandberg said. “We just wanted to make sure that we thought about all the evidence that was in front of us, and we wanted to go over everything that we had in front of us. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of sticking points, so to speak.”

Juror Evelyn Mrosla agreed, saying one juror held out from agreeing to the guilty verdicts for a while, “but it just went fast, though.’’

Even the lone holdout wasn’t arguing for acquittal, but “just wanted to be sure,” said Strandberg, 32, of Swanville, Minn.

The jury deliberated only three hours before convicting Smith of two counts each of first-degree murder and second-degree murder for the shooting deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and Nick Brady, 17. The teens were shot during a daylight burglary of Smith’s Little Falls, Minn., house on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

The two jurors, speaking just hours after their verdicts were delivered, said the picture of Smith that emerged from days of often chilling testimony was of a man who methodically planned for a violent confrontation rather than a homeowner surprised by intruders.

Several other jurors declined to comment in detail, saying only that it was a tough case to hear but not a tough one to decide.

Smith’s planning before the shootings — from moving his truck off his property to a neighbor’s home, to surveillance devices set up inside and outside of the home, to laying a tarp at the foot of his stairs — pointed toward him preparing for what happened, Strandberg said.

“It seemed like he had done many things to either lure them into the house or into the basement itself,” Strandberg said. “Moving the truck was the very first big sign that he had planned something. And then moving the bodies and having the tarp handy had a lot to do with it.”

Beyond that, Strandberg said, “it seemed like he sat there and waited for it.”

“It appeared to be that it was, for lack of a better term, his kill zone, where he wanted them to come in and enter, so he could have ample opportunity to kill them,” Strandberg added.

Some of the jurors believed that Smith waited a full day before reporting the shootings because he wanted to see whether other burglars would show up — even unscrewing bulbs from fixtures as night fell so that any new intruders wouldn’t be able to see in his basement.

“That was a major issue for us as well,” Strandberg said.

“We agreed that might have been part of a plan to see if there were more people coming, possibly, or to possibly clean something up or get rid of something,” Strandberg said.

“I definitely thought that everything he had done was precalculated,” Strandberg said.

Smith was a trained security engineer for U.S. embassies until his 2006 retirement. Fed up over a series of burglaries on his property, he had set up a surveillance system that picked up images of Kifer and Brady outside his home. Inside the house, police found hours of audiotapes on a digital recorder, with sounds of shots fired, bodies dragged on tarps and Smith taunting the dying teens.

The teens were shot repeatedly about 10 minutes apart, with Brady killed first.

Prosecutor Pete Orput portrayed a killer who sat in a reading chair with two guns nearby until the break-in, then methodically dispatched Brady and Kifer with final shots at close range.

The audio was particularly difficult for the jurors, Strandberg said.

“The whole audiotape itself was pretty hard to listen to,” he said. “It was pretty bone-chilling.”

Strandberg said jurors didn’t learn a whole lot about Smith’s background, except that he served in the military, had worked for the State Department overseas for about 20 years and was trained in surveillance.

Smith’s defense might have been more plausible, Strandberg said, if it had appeared that he had “just been doing something around the house” when people broke in and he confronted them.

Jurors also discussed why Smith hadn’t called 911 before the burglary, when he heard the sound of breaking glass and saw the shadow of someone peering in the window.

“Obviously, he might have had a little bit of fear, I mean just with the whole situation itself,’’ Strandberg said. “But as far as everything else goes, I feel that he had pretty much planned just about everything out and was ready for whatever came his way.”

Strandberg said there were a couple of nights where he lost sleep over what he heard and saw in the courtroom.

“It was a tough job, no doubt about it,” he said.

For Mrosla, a retired farmer from Bowlus, Minn., the verdict was the right one but also completed the destruction of three lives that began that Thanksgiving Day.

“It’s a terrible tragedy, because not only did the children lose their lives, but they destroyed the man, too, by coming into his house,” Mrosla said.

“Nobody won. The children lost, and now he has lost, too.”

 




The bright line between self-defense and murder

By Jon Tevlin - Star Tribune

April 29, 2014

LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - “This case is big. This is Minnesota’s Trayvon Martin case,” prosecutor Pete Orput said before the Byron Smith murder trial.

Except it never really was.

Unlike the Florida case that became a lightning rod on race and the boundaries of self-defense, the Smith case got national attention but never gained the traction some predicted among gun proponents.

Joe Olson thinks he knows why.

Olson is as big of a gun advocate as you will find. The Hamline University law professor has worked on behalf of gun owners at the Capitol for 25 years and written book chapters on self-defense. Olson is president of Academics for the Second Amendment and once served on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association.

But just before the verdict, I asked Olson about those who say Smith’s actions were justified.

“The only one who was really saying that was his lawyer, and he doesn’t really have any alternative,” Olson said. “It was clearly a bad shooting.”

Olson said that “everybody I talk to at the shooting range knows Smith crossed a pretty clear line. [The law] allows a homeowner to stop a felony in the home with deadly force. It does not allow a subsequent murder after the danger has passed. Anyone who has taken a carry permit course in Minnesota knows that.”

So, apparently did the jury, which quickly convicted Smith on all counts for the murders of Haile Kifer and Nick Brady.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the Legislature’s strongest gun rights proponent, agreed that “justice prevailed.”

“It proves we do have a castle doctrine and it does work,” Cornish said. “If somebody tries to claim the doctrine in absurd times, it doesn’t hold.”

A website was set up after the shootings to collect donations for Smith’s defense. This week, it contained just one donation of $50.

Something out of ‘Fargo’

“It’s a quiet place, a place for people who desire a safe haven to plant their roots,” the website for the city of Little Falls says.

It’s also home to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. A zoo. A fishing museum. It’s hard to find a place that is more Minnesotan than Little Falls.

But the small town is now also the place where the idyllic and mundane gave way to fear, then terror.

Now, outsiders are less likely to know of the town slogan, “Where the Mississippi pauses,” than Smith’s coldblooded phrase, “a good, clean finishing shot.”

This is what happens when a story of troubled teens, drugs, burglaries, a mysterious and fearful man and a killing unfolds.

In the past two weeks, reporters from NBC’s “Dateline” have been here. Of course. It is the perfect “Dateline” story, with odd characters, funny accents and incongruous violence.

“Like something right out of ‘Fargo,’ ” one reporter quipped during a break last week.

Quietly, many residents predicted Smith would be convicted. Yet it was never really certain because fear is a powerful emotion up close.

You could see that when Smith’s attorneys passed a photo of his stolen Remington 12-gauge shotgun around to jurors. The message: The gun was still out there. What would you do?

But in the end, the Morrison County jury chose the rule of law over fear and emotion.

As neighbors of Smith got up to talk about him in court last week, they portrayed a place where people alternately cared for one another and deeply distrusted each other.

Neighbor William Anderson talked about how he and his wife looked after Smith’s parents, “blew snow and cut grass,” but he also spoke of their suspicions of another nearby family and about several burglaries at Smith’s house.

“Dogs all come to the dish again,” Anderson said he warned Smith. “I know this isn’t over yet.”

Asked if he liked the suspect family, Anderson replied, “They are my neighbors, and I have to live with it.”

Neighbors helping neighbors. Neighbors watching neighbors. Neighbors burglarizing neighbors. Neighbors killing neighbors.

Another witness with the lyrical, “Dateline”-worthy name of Brian-Paul Klein Crowder, showed just how intertwined the town is and why so few were willing to talk about the case.

Crowder serves as the city’s alderman. And hair stylist. And cemetery keeper.

He made cemetery arrangements for Smith and cut the hair of Smith’s mother. As alderman, he represents many of those involved.

Crowder talked about sensing Smith’s fear when he and his mom visited Smith in the days before the shooting. It was a nice tour of his property, with a man increasingly frazzled and unstable, and apparently so angry he hid his truck to lure the teens to his home.

And now Crowder stands to go from a witness to a character on “Dateline.”

The town will never be the same. Reporters like to say that. But it will, or at least close to it.

Normalcy will return to most of the people, apart from the occasional nod to the “old Smith place.”

Or maybe school kids will always remember the strange words Smith uttered to himself after the shootings on a recording that turned out to be the best witness against him:

“It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable until someone kills you.”

For those who choose not to see the bright line between self-defense and murder, maybe that’s the message that matters most.

 




Jury to hear final arguments in Smith intruder shooting trial

The defense rested Monday in the first-degree premeditated murder trial, and closing arguments will begin Tuesday.

By Pam Louwagie - Star Tribune

April 29, 2014

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – For 17 months, they’ve debated whether Byron Smith acted in self-defense or killed two teenage intruders in cold blood.

For 17 months, the people in this river town of 8,300 and the rest of the country have wondered what really happened inside Smith’s house that Thanksgiving Day in 2012.

The evidence — the chilling screams and booms of gunshots on surveillance audio, the graphic autopsy photos that are part of the formal court record — has been presented. The answer will soon be in the hands of a jury.

The 12 men and women who will decide Smith’s fate won’t hear from Smith himself, however. He waived his right to testify Monday as defense attorneys rested their case. Closing arguments are slated to begin Tuesday morning, and then the jury will deliberate whether Smith should be found guilty of murder.

Smith, 65, claims that he acted in defense of himself and his home when he killed 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady after they broke into his home. His defense attorneys tried to show evidence that Smith was terrified after a set of prior break-ins in which guns were stolen.

Prosecutors say Smith, a retired State Department employee who set up security at embassies, had set out to take matters into his own hands with the intruders. They contend he waited in ambush, then coldly murdered the unarmed teens as they descended his basement stairs about 10 minutes apart, continuing to shoot after they no longer posed a threat.

He faces two counts each of first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree intentional murder.

Jurors will have to decide whether Smith acted as a reasonable person would have under the circumstances. Minnesota law allows a person to take a life to avert death or great bodily harm or to prevent a felony in his or her home. Jurors were instructed to consider whether the defendant perceived the gravity of the situation in a reasonable way and whether his decision to shoot was reasonable in light of the danger. Because Smith was in his home, he had no duty to retreat.

The case has become a flash point nationally as communities debate so-called “castle doctrine” laws and how far a homeowner can go to protect himself and his property.

Testimony of family, friends

Defense attorneys Monday called their final witnesses in the case — friends and family who testified that the Byron Smith they know is an honest man.

Steve Meshbesher, Smith’s lead counsel, said outside the courtroom that he advised his client not to testify, though Smith was willing. There was no reason for Smith to take the stand because jurors had already heard him through audiotaped police interviews, he said.

The prosecution had played the interview on the first day of the trial a week earlier. On it, Smith calmly and politely told a sheriff’s sergeant how he assumed the intruders were armed thieves who had been targeting him and how he decided it was shoot or be shot.

Prosecutors also played chilling surveillance audiotapes that Smith had recorded of the shootings and the aftermath, when he continued talking, apparently to himself.

The recording captured the sound of two booming gunshots as he shot Brady first, then Brady’s groan as he was hit. Then Smith fired again saying, “You’re dead.”

Smith moved the boy’s body to a basement workshop to prevent him from bleeding on the carpet, he explained to police officers as they questioned him later.

About 10 minutes after he shot Brady, Kifer came down the basement stairs calling “Nick.” The recordings captured more gunshots, then the sound of Kifer falling down.

“Oh, sorry about that,” Smith told her.

“Oh my God!” Kifer screamed, while gunshots rang out.

“You’re dying … bitch,” Smith responded.

Prosecutors said Smith fired nine times using two different guns.

Later, he is heard on the recording saying he did his “civic duty,” and “I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin.”

Smith left the teens’ bodies in a basement workroom until the following day when he called a neighbor, asking for help finding a lawyer. The neighbor called police.

When asked outside the courtroom whether Smith might want to address the audiotape, Meshbesher said, “I’m going to address it for him” in closing arguments.

Troubled histories

The weeklong trial was marked with several motions for a mistrial by Meshbesher, who sought to bring in evidence about trouble in Brady’s and Kifer’s pasts. After the shootings, Brady was linked to two felony burglaries of Smith’s property in the previous months when a friend of his pleaded guilty to helping Brady steal items from Smith’s residence. Kifer had 19 “contacts” with law enforcement ranging from traffic stops to reports of suspicious activity or threats.

Judge Douglas Anderson had ruled before the trial that the victims’ reputations and histories weren’t relevant because Smith didn’t know who Brady and Kifer were when he fired his gun.

Smith had thought that a neighbor girl had been involved with the break-ins, possibly keeping watch, according to testimony at trial.

Friends described Kifer, a senior at Little Falls High School, as a kind girl and competitive athlete who struggled with drug abuse.

Brady, friends said, was an outgoing junior at Pillager High School, who worked at his father’s tree-trimming business.

Byron Smith’s brother Bruce Smith, neighbor Kathleen Lange and 16-year-old neighbor John Lange testified that they believe Smith is an honest person. Smith has been living with the Langes since the shootings.

On his cross-exam of John Lange, prosecutor Pete Orput asked: “It’s well known around here that you don’t mess with that guy”?

Meshbesher objected to that question and asked for a mistrial.

After court recessed for the day, Brady’s grandfather, Steve Schaeffel, said that mentally and emotionally the family had been “a wreck” through the trial and that hearing and seeing the evidence of the cousins’ deaths was “brutal.”

Attorneys on both sides are slated to give their closing arguments starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The jury will be sequestered for their deliberations.

 




Little Falls jury must decide: Was Byron Smith driven to shoot by fear or revenge?

The trial of Byron Smith opened in Little Falls, with the jury hearing his interview with police after he killed teen intruders.

By Pam Louwagie - Star Tribune

April 22, 2014

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. – Just a day after he had shot two teenagers dead in his home, Byron Smith spoke with calm precision and polite cooperation as he explained to a sheriff’s sergeant that fear and a series of thefts drove him to fire the fatal shots.

In a recorded interview played for jurors in the opening day of his murder trial Monday, Smith described how he assumed the intruders were thieves who had been targeting him, stealing thousands in cash and a couple of his guns. He decided, he said, that it was shoot or be shot.

“I was far over the edge,” Smith said. “I was reacting.”

Smith, now 65, sat quietly in the Morrison County courtroom Monday, dabbing his reddened face with a tissue.

More than a year after the Thanksgiving Day break-in and shootings made him a potent symbol in the national debate over the rights of homeowners to defend their property and families, a rural Minnesota jury must decide if Smith was a beleaguered victim or calculating killer. Smith is claiming he was defending himself and his home when he shot 18-year-old Haile Kifer and 17-year-old Nick Brady after they broke into his house in 2012. Prosecutors say he crossed the legal line into murder when he continued to shoot after each unarmed intruder was wounded and no longer posed a threat. They contend Smith was a vigilante waiting in ambush for the teens.

In the interview recording with Morrison County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeremy Luberts, Smith talked about being hounded by the thefts and how he thought the neighbor’s daughter was in on them.

Sitting in his favorite basement reading chair with a paperback that day, Smith said he got “seriously stressed” when he heard someone rattle the door handles to his house and saw a shadow through a picture window.

Soon, he heard a window break, then he heard someone walking upstairs and when the intruder descended, Smith saw feet, legs, then hips and shot twice. The intruder fell face up, Smith could see it was a male.

Then, “I shoot him in the face. I want him dead,” Smith told the sergeant. He put the bloody body on a tarp and dragged it into a basement workshop to keep from staining his basement carpet, he said.

‘Ganging up on me’

He reloaded his rifle and sat again. He tried to calm down, but blood was pounding in his ears and he heard more footsteps upstairs and feared, “they’re ganging up on me,” he told Luberts.

He shot the next intruder, wearing a black hoodie tightly drawn to her face, in much the same way. She tumbled down the stairs, too.

“My thinking was, I’m not going to ask if there’s a gun,” he said. He pulled the trigger to shoot her again, he said, but when the gun clicked in a misfire, he heard her laugh at him. He pulled out another gun and shot more.

“Yes I fired more shots than I needed to,” he told Luberts, adding that he was feeling threatened and “I was no longer willing to live in fear.”

When the female stopped moving, he dragged her by her clothes and into the workshop, too. There, he said, he noticed she was still gasping and didn’t believe she should suffer, so he gave her “a good clean finishing shot,” he said. “She gave out the death twitch.”

Questioned about why he had continued to shoot, Smith explained that he was afraid the intruders would get up again and he didn’t want to wait for them to pull out weapons.

“I wasn’t looking at her hands,” he explained, adding that he believed they were gun thieves. “As far as I was concerned they were totally dangerous.”

His voice cracked on the recording as he talked about spending 20 years overseas and never having any problems like he was having in his hometown.

Smith said he ended up hiding in the basement through the night and into the next morning before calling a neighbor because he was afraid of an accomplice. He thought the neighbor girl’s father might come looking for her, he said.

“The first couple hours I was just shaking and I gradually shifted into worrying,” he said. “I was pretty much afraid to do anything.”

He also realized the incident was over ­­— the intruders were dead — and nothing was going to change by waiting, he said.

“I saw it as a static situation,” he told police. He said he also thought for a bit that although his Thanksgiving was ruined, he didn’t have to ruin it for others by calling authorities that day.

Was it reasonable?

Smith later volunteered to give his fingerprints, agreed to give a sample of his DNA and explained to authorities how they could access the video surveillance he had installed on the exterior of his house.

Jurors will have to decide whether Smith, who faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder, acted reasonably that day.

Minnesota law allows a person to take a life to avert death or great bodily harm, or to prevent a felony in his or her home. Juries are instructed to consider the circumstances and whether it was a decision “a reasonable person would have made in light of the danger perceived.”

Opening statements

In opening statements Monday morning, prosecutor Brent Wartner portrayed Smith as a vigilante who sat waiting in his basement in the chair tucked between two bookcases, with loaded weapons, water and food.

He highlighted that Smith had an audio recorder running for six hours before, during and after the shootings. Wartner claimed Smith waited before calling anyone because he “wanted to be ready” for when he thought the neighbor girl’s father would come looking for her.

Defense attorney Steve Meshbesher said Smith shot the two teens — that is not in dispute — but that Smith is not guilty of murder for doing it. He outlined Smith’s life history, including his years in the military, his work with Scouts and later his employment with the U.S. State Department.

“This case is a tragedy, make no mistake about it. There are two people who are dead and I will not attempt to de-emphasize or downplay that reality,” Meshbesher said.

“Mr. Smith is the person who shot and killed those two people, but he is not criminally responsible for their deaths.”

 




Bail lowered for man accused of killing 2 Little Falls teens

In an audio tape, he taunts and curses at the 18-year-old victim, and tells her, "You're dying."

By Joy Powell - Star Tribune

December 18, 2012

LITTLE FALLS - Byron David Smith taunted the teen as she lay dying, shooting her again and again, according to a prosecutor who said an audio recording shows Smith went beyond self-defense in the Thanksgiving Day shootings of two cousins trying to burglarize his home.

"The state will show that this was an ambush, and a murder," prosecutor Todd Kosovich said in a court hearing Monday, recounting the chilling details the recorder captured.

Kosovich also argued for an increase in Smith's $1 million bail, but Judge Douglas Anderson ordered that Smith could be released from jail if he posted $50,000 in cash or a $500,000 bond and met conditions, including surrendering his passport.

Smith, 64, whose friends and relatives say had endured several previous break-ins, turned over the passport to authorities Monday night, but remained in Morrison County Jail as relatives worked to raise the bail money.

He is charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin, Nicholas Brady, 17. The teens were apparently trying to break into Smith's red-brick rambler along the Mississippi River when he shot them and then dragged their bodies into a workshop where they remained for more than 24 hours.

Kosovich said that on the day of the killings, Smith had guns within reach as he sat in a chair, between tall bookshelves, facing the basement stairs.

He had unscrewed light bulbs from sockets, save for one above the stairs.

There was a loaded rifle next to him and a loaded .22-caliber revolver strapped to his side.

Search warrants have revealed that Smith, a former security engineer for U.S. embassies, also had a surveillance system that picked up images of Kifer and Brady outside his home. Inside the house police found hours of audiotapes on a digital recorder.

Kosovich said a recording includes the sound of breaking glass, presumably when Brady broke a rear window, crawled in and then went downstairs.

Smith shot Brady three times, telling him, "You're dead," according to the recording. Within 18 seconds, Kosovich said, came the sound of Brady's body being dragged on a tarp to a workshop.

"That's how fast, that's how well equipped he was to deal with the death of Nick Brady," Kosovich said.

Ten minutes after the last shot, as Smith sat in his chair, Kifer's voice can be heard on the tape, calling out "Nick?"

Twelve seconds pass and Kifer begins down the stairs.

"Then we hear the first shot," and the sound of her body falling down the stairs, the prosecutor said.

Smith's rifle jams. The click is audible and Smith is heard saying, "Oh, sorry about that,"

As Kifer moans, Smith switches to the revolver.

After the second shot, Kifer says, "Oh, my God," and on the third shot, "Oh, God."

After the fourth shot, she utters "aw" and Smith says to her: "You're dying."

Now, Kosovich said, she's on the basement floor, "helpless," and Smith calls her "bitch." The sound of Smith dragging her to his workshop is audible and she is heard gasping.

One minute and 15 seconds later, again calling her "bitch," Smith fired a shot beneath her chin and into her cranium, the prosecution contends.

"He shot Haile Kifer three times in the head," Kosovich told the judge. "There's no way that's self-defense."

The prosecutor noted that from the sound of the window breaking to when Brady came downstairs, seven minutes passed during which Smith could have called police.

At that, Smith's older brother, Bruce Smith of California, laughed in the courtroom. The prosecutor also quoted Smith's description of Kifer's death to police: "She gave out the death twitch; it works the same as in a beaver or deer," the prosecutor quoted Smith as saying.

"Oh, my God," one of the teens' family members whispered in the courtroom.

In asking for lower bail, Anderson's attorney, Steve Meshbesher, said Smith is a Little Falls native who retired after 16 years with the Department of Homeland Security in a computer job.

Meshbesher also said Smith had written a memo to the sheriff's office about his Oct. 27 burglary and others in the area. His basement door, on a walkout level, had been kicked in, and a lock broken, and guns, cash and other items stolen.

"He told the police his story because he wanted their assistance and guidance," Meshbesher said, calling Smith a concerned, good citizen.

Kosovich argued that Smith is a danger to the community, noting that "he admitted he sat with the bodies for 24 hours."

A neighbor, William Anderson, contacted the sheriff's office 24 hours after the slayings because Smith called him, asking if he knew a good attorney.

After the hearing, Brady's grandparents, Steve and Bonnie Schaeffel, said the bail should not have been lowered.

"That is not who you want to see walking down the street," Bonnie Schaeffel said.

She doesn't believe the cousins were involved in the earlier burglary at Smith's home, and said they would have deserved legal punishment for breaking in on Tanksgiving.

Instead, she said, they ran into an enraged homeowner who carried out "a vigilante-style murder of children."