Retired security expert kills unarmed teen burglars, records reaction, waits 24 hours to report
04/19/2018 4:55 pm PDT
Little Falls is a small rural town in central Minnesota. It's never been the same since Byron Smith returned, living like an old hermit on Elm Street in a house that would become the scene of the kind of horror that movies are made. And to many in town, old Byron Smith was Freddie Kreuger.
"But on the other hand you had your people that felt that Byron was a hero," said Morrison County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeremy Luberts.
Byron Smith had always been an enigma in Little Falls, where he was born and raised. He was widely respected as a man who'd spent his life serving his country, first in the Vietnam War, and then as a security expert for the U.S. State Department at American embassies around the world. But there were also those who thought of the lifelong bachelor as a strange, mysterious recluse.
Kathy and John Lange, as well as other neighbors, say Byron would rarely venture far from his beautiful sprawling estate on the banks of the Mississippi River.
"He loved that house. He loved that land. That was his pride and joy," said neighbor Bill Anderson. "When he returned from his job, he was going to retire and move back home and live peacefully."
Anderson, who lives next door, says Byron had been living alone at the property for several years since retiring and inheriting it from his parents. But despite some perceptions to the contrary, Anderson says, Byron actually turned out to be very friendly and likable once he got to know him. The Langes say they also became good friends with Byron Smith.
"He turned out to be a nice guy," said John Lange. "I would go down there two, three times a week and help him do stuff on the river. We'd shoot guns, and go fishing, and we'd go out to different events in town."
But Little Falls had changed a lot since Byron had left town decades earlier. And he was said to be dismayed about the drug-related crime, including a recent wave of burglaries.
"I can remember him saying a few times when all these things were going on, 'Boy, when I traveled the country, I traveled the world, I never experienced stuff like this. Never experienced it until I retired and moved home,'" said Anderson.
Anderson says Byron's home had been burgled several times, and although nothing of significant value was taken, the man was living in fear of someone possibly breaking in while he was there.
"And then as it went on, the break-ins kept on going," said Anderson. "In fact, it got to a point when he told me one day, he says 'Bill, when you come down to visit me, ring the doorbell, count to 10 and ring it again so I know it's you."
Byron had never reported any of the burglaries to police. Until finally thousands of dollars worth of possessions, including treasured keepsakes, were stolen from him.
"He said he had some old coins that were taken, and he also had a camera, and it sounded like he was very attached to this camera, and he said that he spent a lot of money on the camera," said Morrison County Deputy Sheriff Jamie Luberts. "So he was pretty upset when he found out his camera was taken."
Luberts, who had gone to the house to investigate, says Byron Smith also told him about the previous burglaries.
"I can tell that he was very upset about it," said Luberts.
Deputy Sheriff Luberts says Byron told him some firearms had been stolen in one of the earlier break-ins, and that he was afraid the thieves might return armed with them.
"He did not have any type of surveillance at the time, and I suggested to him that he maybe put up cameras," said Luberts.
And Byron conceded he should have already done that.
"He was very proud of the fact that he worked for the State Department. He told me his job was doing a lot of audio recordings and setting up a lot of footage and that, for the state, and said so maybe it'll document these break-ins that are going on," said Luberts.
Bill Anderson helped Byron install a state-of-the-art surveillance system.
"We put the cameras in. He put them in spots where they were sort of hidden," said Anderson. "I think there was four or five cameras around the house."
And Byron would become even more reclusive, staying home monitoring the security cameras on his computer.
"He didn't want to go anywhere because every time he left, he would be robbed," said Kathy Lange.
Kathy Lange says Byron wouldn't even join them for Thanksgiving dinner, as he had done every year since he'd been back in Little Falls.
"He was fearful," said Kathy Lange. "He didn't know who was doing this. Plus they stole his guns."
And eerily it's on that very same Thanksgiving day as Byron Smith is home alone, guns at his side, monitoring his surveillance cameras that alarm bells go off.
It was the day of Thanksgiving 2012, and retired military veteran Byron Smith was home alone watching surveillance cameras, fearing his house might get hit again by burglars.
The horror of what has happened begins to come to light on this Black Friday around noon, when Bill Anderson gets a cryptic phone call from his Elm Street neighbor Byron Smith.
"He says 'Could you find me a lawyer that I could talk to and send him down here?'" said Anderson.
He assumes it's regarding the string of break-ins at Byron's house and calls around for him.
"No luck at all. So I called Byron back and he asked me to get in touch with this Deputy Luberts that was at his house and see if he would come out there," said Anderson.
Deputy Sheriff Jamie Luberts is the officer who is already investigating the burglaries.
Did Byron tell you something significant had happened at his home?
"He actually told me, 'I blew the top off the break-ins down here,'" said Anderson.
Bill Anderson calls the sheriff's office to ask for Deputy Luberts.
"We've got a serious problem out here in the Riverwood area. We have a break-in situation that happened on Elm Street."
When Deputy Luberts can't be reached, his twin brother Sgt. Jeremy Luberts, also with the sheriff's department, goes out to visit Byron. And Sgt. Luberts has a feeling something is amiss the moment he arrives at Byron's house.
"He had his hands raised above his head like he was giving himself up for something, and that was just odd, you know, nobody usually does that," said Sgt. Luberts.
Even stranger, it doesn't initially appear to Sgt. Luberts that Byron Smith has done anything wrong.
"And he put his hands down and invited us into his house and then started telling us what happened," said Sgt. Luberts.
Byron tells Sgt. Luberts and a patrol partner there has indeed been another break-in the day before, on Thanksgiving afternoon. And he leads them down the hallway to his bedroom, showing them a window that the intruders had smashed to gain entry to the house.
"So he then tells us he has something to show us downstairs," said Sgt. Luberts.
Byron has turned his basement into a cozy man cave where he likes to sit and read. Sgt. Luberts quickly becomes alarmed as he looks around the room.
"I can see on the floor, on the rug, right at the bottom of the stairs, what appears to be a blood spot," said Sgt. Luberts. "And then I can see what appeared to be a smear of blood on the wall."
He also spots a pair of what are obviously kids' sneakers and really starts to get the creeps.
"This just seems odd. Something weird is going on here," said Sgt. Luberts.
And it's about to go beyond weird to downright gruesome.
"There's a door closed. And he said 'The bodies are behind here,'" said Sgt. Luberts.
The bodies of two intruders Byron Smith admits he shot dead.
And tragically, the slain intruders turned out to be a pair of unarmed local teenagers who were still in high school: Nicholas Brady, 17, and his cousin Haile Kifer, 18.
"All of a sudden we have two dead kids in a guy's house," said Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Pete Orput.
"I knew we had one mess of a case," said retired Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel.
Byron Smith is taken into custody on second-degree murder charges, and waives his Miranda rights to tell Sgt. Luberts his version of what happened that deadly Thanksgiving afternoon.
"I was in the basement in my favorite reading chair reading a paperback. And I see a shadow go past the picture window, and then somebody's rattling the basement door trying to get in, but it also is locked and dead-bolted."
Byron says he watches the monitor of his new home surveillance system, where cameras he's just mounted outside show two intruders prowling around his house.
"And then the shadow leaves and I hear somebody walking across the deck."
He watches as the intruders peer inside his windows. They're also checking if any doors are unlocked.
"And I'm getting seriously stressed because somebody wants in and they're trying to sneak in, and it's happened before. And I hear a glass window broken."
So the old man says he grabs two of his guns, a Mini-14 rifle and a .22-caliber pistol.
"In the past couple weeks I've gotten into the habit of carrying my guns with me inside my house 'cause I don't know who's going to break in when."
And now he says he might have to use them.
"So I'm sitting there, and I hear the steps come down the hallway, turn around, and come down the stairs."
Byron tells detectives he has a tough choice.
"And I decide that I've got a chance of either shooting or being shot."
Suddenly a dead Nicholas Brady is lying dead at the bottom the stairway.
"After I shot him, I sat down in the chair and I was just tingling, adrenaline. I hate adrenaline. And my blood was pounding in my ears and I just wanted to calm down more than anything else."
But the killing isn't over yet because Nick Brady's partner in crime is right behind him.
"And I hear more footsteps coming down the hallway and somebody else starts down the stairs."
And Haile Kifer is a dead girl walking.
"I just couldn't think. I didn't think. I wasn't thinking. I was just, 'They're ganging up on me.' So I killed her too."
But Sgt. Luberts can't understand why Byron Smith would let the bodies of the two teenagers lie rotting in his home for a full day before calling police.
"I have to ask, Byron, after the shooting and it's done, why didn't you call law enforcement to report what happened?"
"I was pretty much afraid to do anything. An hour later I had this screwball thought that it seems sort of irrational now, but, 'Just 'cause my Thanksgiving screwed up, I don't need to screw up yours.'"
Byron Smith admits to investigators that he shot two teens inside his house, but he says he was just protecting his home after a rash of recent burglaries in the area.
"Normally when I do something I justify it. Normally when I do something, I know exactly why I'm doing it and what I expect."
And even Sheriff Michel Wetzel, now retired, says Minnesota's so-called "Castle Law" permits residents to use deadly force if necessary to protect themselves and their property, like Byron says he did when Nick Brady and Haile Kifer broke into his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day.
"That is certainly one of the things we considered at the outset, and it's fair to say there's a bit of a presumption that he has a right to do what he did, at least at the outside," said Sheriff Michel Wetzel.
But Sheriff Wetzel and other investigators also have reason to believe Byron Smith may have crossed the line.
"And that's what was the difficult part here. He had the right to do some things. He did not have the right to do others," said Wetzel.
Like firing a total of nine bullets into the two unarmed teenagers in what appears to be a classic case of overkill.
"Why did you fire more shots than you needed to, do you figure?"
"I was very, very threatened. Unhappy."
And so angry about the string of burglaries at his home that investigators allege the 64-year-old retiree actually set a trap for the burglars, deliberately trying to lure them into his house. And they based that claim largely on surveillance video captured on Byron Smith's own home security system showing him apparently hiding his truck on the morning of the killings to give the impression he wasn't home.
"Byron had moved his vehicle several blocks away, left it, and then walked back on a different route and went into the back of the house," said Sheriff Wetzel.
"Have you ever parked your vehicle over there before?"
"What made you want to park it over there on Thanksgiving?"
"Out of sight, out of the way. Because I'm not leaving anything out where anybody can get to it."
"But wouldn't you be afraid somebody would come and break into it while it's parked along the road there?"
"They're not being raided over there. I'm being raided."
Investigators allege he then lay in wait for the expected burglars in his basement, guns at the ready.
"He's got a full surveillance system around his house, cameras. He's watching the monitor while he's sitting in a chair waiting," said prosecutor Pete Orput.
"I was monitoring two cameras on the basement door, one camera on the front living room door, and one camera looking at the approach to the main door from the driveway."
"Nick convinces himself nobody's home," said Orput.
And the horror of what happens after Nick and Haile break in is chronicled on an astounding audio tape found stashed on a bookshelf in Byron's basement.
"He had been running an audio recorder that captured the actual break-in, the shooting and the aftermath of this entire incident," said former sheriff Wetzel. "It's very chilling, very difficult audio tape to listen to."
A moment-by-moment, shot-by-shot soundtrack for what investigators claim is plainly cold-blooded premeditated murder.
"You don't ever hear a shooting going on unless you're directly involved in it. Then you do. But otherwise you'd never hear such a thing," said Wetzel.
Nick Brady walks down the stairs to Byron's basement. Byron shoots Nick in the chest with his Mini-14 rifle.
"So he tumbles down the stairs. While he's tumbling, Smith shoots him again. This time in the back," said Orput. "He's probably dead. He's certainly not moving."
But Byron Smith says otherwise.
"He's looking face up at me."
"OK. Then what?"
"I shoot him in the face."
"Smith walks over, puts the rifle to his head and blows his head off while he's saying 'You're dead,'" said Orput.
Byron puts Nick's body on a tarp and hides it in an adjoining room.
"Covered the brain and blood matter all over the floor with a rug," said Orput.
Then he reloads his rifle and strikes again as Haile comes walking down those same basement stairs about 10 minutes later.
"He meant to hit her in the chest and kind of missed," said Orput.
Haile stumbles down the stairs, still alive, with just a bullet wound to the left arm.
Then Byron's rifle jams.
"And she laughed at me. I just pulled out the .22 and shot her. If you're trying to shoot somebody and they laugh at you, you go again."
Investigators say a terrified and wounded Haile did not laugh. In fact she can be heard pleading for her life. But Byron shows no mercy and just keeps shooting her. He shoots her in the left eye, then finishes the teenager off with a final shot he claims was a mercy killing.
"As much as I hate someone, I don't believe they deserve pain, so I gave her a shot under the chin, up into the cranium."
But inner thoughts he recorded after killing Haile say something else:
"Cute," Byron Smith is heard on the recording. "I'm sure she thought she was a real pro."
"Sits down and talks to himself and tries to rationalize what he just did," said Orput.
Byron wrapped Haile in a tarp too, just as he had Nick, and dumps her body next to his, apparently only sorry for the damage he'd done to his precious house.
"I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like it, not even like diarrhea. The worst mess possible, and I was stuck with it."
Byron sounds both proud and bitter on his bizarre inner-monologue audio recording.
"Because I try to be a decent person, they think I'm a patsy. I'm a sucker. They think I'm there for them to take advantage of."
And he appears to be rehearsing his defense of the killings, blaming them on the string of burglaries at his house.
"I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life."
With the bombshell evidence in hand, prosecutors up the charges against Byron from second-degree to first-degree murder.
"He's bragging about what he did. Very proud of the fact that he killed these kids," said Orput.
Prosecutors say Byron Smith committed first-degree murder. He says he was just protecting his property. And now it's up to a jury to decide.
The 12 men and women hear chilling audio recording of Byron Smith fatally shooting teenagers Nicholas Brady and Haile Kifer after they broke into his home in Little Falls, Minnesota.
"It's all fun, cool, exciting, highly profitable until somebody kills you."
The prosecution then plays them the recording of Byron sharing his inner thoughts with himself in an eerie whisper as the kids' bullet-riddled bodies lie on his basement floor.
"I was doing my civic duty. I had to do it."
"He's trying to convince himself he had a legal right to do it because after all, they entered his dwelling," said prosecutor Pete Orput.
But defense attorney Steve Meshbesher insists to the jury that Byron did indeed have that right.
"He was scared. He was just scared," said Meshbesher.
Prosecutor Pete Orput argues that Byron Smith had nothing to be scared of after already disabling the kids with his rifle, but then kept shooting anyway after allegedly luring them into his home to exact vengeance for previous burglaries at his house.
"My argument to the jury was, you know, because some people in Minnesota are big deer hunters. And I said, 'Isn't this just like deer hunting?'" said Orput.
And the prosecution portrays Nick, 17, and Haile, 18, as about as threatening as deer.
"I think they were on the radar for some couple other minor possible break-ins and that. And just a little mischievous stuff. But nothing that was serious," said Deputy Jamie Luberts.
Byron is said to have even known Nick, who had done some summer work for him on his house.
"He had hired Nick and a couple of other of Nick's friends to come over to his house and rake his lawn, mow his grass, clean out his garage," said Meshbesher.
But defense attorney Meshbesher claims Nick and his buddies had taken that opportunity to case the joint.
"Nick Brady, unbeknownst to Byron, was sizing up his home, and he was checking it out for a future burglary with a number of other friends of his, along with Ms. Kifer," said Meshbesher.
But the prosecution says Byron should have recognized Nick after as he and Haile tried to break into his house. But the defense argues there's no way Byron could have identified the intruders, known how old they were or determined they were unarmed.
"They came in with hoods covering their face. And you can't determine the age of a person when they have hoods on, you don't know if they're armed or not. When they have a coat on protecting them, they can have a firearm inside that coat and hidden from view," said Steve Meshbesher.
Byron's attorney claims Nick was actually suspected in some of the earlier break-ins.
"Mr. Byron did not go up the stairs looking for him. He hid in the basement to protect his own safety," said Meshbesher. "He was frightened. He didn't know who it was, he couldn't see his face and he shot the person who had broken into his home, to protect himself and his home."
The prosecution tells the jury the truth lies in the tape, claiming Byron had plenty of time to find out before unloading a total of nine rifle and pistol shots into Nick and Haile.
"And the jury didn't have a question because it was all recorded. They knew what happened. They could hear him, like when he's shooting Haile," said Orput. "And he's saying that while he's shooting her. I mean, it's hard to hear."
But defense attorney Meshbesher says Byron continued to shoot after already stopping Nick and Haile in their tracks because of a phenomenon known as the "fog of battle."
"I have represented police officers in the past, and a lot of times when they were in a stressful situation, they cannot tell how many times they shoot," said Meshbesher. "They pull the trigger out of fear, and it's instinctive in all human beings. Thye shoot and pull the trigger several times and they can't remember the number of times they pulled the trigger."
Meshbesher says the "fog of battle" phenomenon also explains why Byron didn't dial 911 the moment he spotted the teens at his house on his surveillance monitors, or even right after he'd killed them.
Why did Byron decide to wait 24 hours, until the next day to call police?
"Very simple," said Meshbesher. "He was scared that there was other people involved. He was scared that they would be coming in from the outside. He was afraid that if he went outside and immediately called the police, he'd be shot, maybe even with his own guns that had been stolen by a third or fourth party."
But the jury doesn't buy it, taking just several hours to find Byron Smith guilty of the first- and second-degree murder of Nick Brady and Haile Kifer. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
"I think jurors had the idea that this little old man is getting rung up by the big state government, but within a day or two of hearing the evidence, I think that changed their minds," said prosecutor Pete Orput. "I think it was an execution of two kids that did not pose a threat to him at any time."
Heartbroken and angry family members of Nick and Haile couldn't agree more.
"He played judge, jury, prosecutor, executioner. And took their lives, and he did it on purpose and he planned it," said Nick's grandmother Bonnie Schaeffel.
Nick's mother is disgusted that Byron Smith continued to feel justified in killing the teens.
"I don't believe he felt remorse. That alone would have been something, but I don't believe he felt that," said Nick's mother Kimberly Brady.
But there are those in Little Falls, Minnesota who still believe Byron Smith did nothing wrong, including his next-door neighbor Bill Anderson.
You're saying that he had the right to do what he did?
"Yes," said Anderson.
And you're saying you would have done the same thing?
"I would have done the same thing," said Anderson.
Still, others who initially stood up for Byron Smith, including longtime friend John Lange, now concede the old man went too far.
"Byron Smith has made some mistakes. There's no doubt about it," said Lange. "He should have called the cops right away. He obviously snapped."
And Byron's biggest mistake, apart from heartlessly taking two young lives? Recording what he did and trying to explain it to himself.
"What it did was it brought the jury right there," said Pete Orput. "Usually you're asking a jury 'What was his state of mind?' I'll tell you what his state of mind is. Just listen to it."
So far all of Byron Smith's appeals have been denied.