Everyone has an opinion, but precious few facts

Tom West, West Words

Perhaps the wisest thing said at Monday’s county press conference came from Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf — the wisest, and also the most ignored.

Middendorf cautioned the citizenry not to jump to conclusions, to have patience because the investigation into the execution-style slayings of two alleged burglars would take some time.

In this incredible story, in which the only “facts” about what happened on Thanksgiving Day are the taped confession of Byron Smith, the alleged shooter, one should have more questions than answers.

However, when the drive-by media came to town, asking everybody for their opinion, it seemed as if everybody had one.

Make no mistake. There are no winners here. Not the two dead burglars. Not Smith, who is now charged with murder. Not even law enforcement.

I have so many questions, and many of them will never be answered, but here’s what I’d like to know about what happened:

Beginning with Smith, why didn’t he ask for a lawyer from the start? The criminal complaint against him is absolutely chilling. Regardless of the condition of the bodies, proving that he went beyond the necessary force needed to protect his property would have been difficult without it. With it, it appears that he wasn’t just trying to protect his home, but making sure that these burglars would never bother him again.

Next, why did he not call 911 when he heard the window being broken upstairs? Why did he stay in the basement? Did he know that they would be coming downstairs sooner or later?

And why did he wait so long to tell anyone what happened? His response that he didn’t want to ruin the sheriff’s holiday begs the question. Heck, why not wait until Monday to spare everybody the weekend? He comes across in the complaint like someone with total disregard for human life, even though he had never been in trouble before. A civilized society believes that even human remains deserve dignity and respect.

Rumor has it that he has been victimized by burglars up to eight times. Sheriff Michel Wetzel said Smith reported only one break-in, on Oct. 27. Why did he not report the others? Law enforcement can’t help you if they don’t know. They may not be able to help even if they do know, but eight break-ins would have gotten their attention.

As for the burglars, my first question is, do we actually know there were only two? The complaint says Smith heard footsteps outside his home, then heard the burglars walking around upstairs. Nicholas Brady came downstairs first where Smith, armed and waiting, then shot him at least twice.

If I had been walking around upstairs and heard gunshots, I would have been out of that house so fast, I’d have left my shadow behind. And yet, Smith had time to put Brady’s body on a tarp and drag it into his basement workshop. Then, the complaint says, it was several more minutes before Haile Kifer came down the stairs and suffered a similar fate. Was she outside when Brady was shot and didn’t hear the noise?

What will the toxicology reports say? The standard response from the Sheriff’s Office is that it takes weeks to get the results. Why?

Those reports are important because I’d like to know if any of the involved were in their right minds?

Who else knew that Brady and Kifer were engaged in this kind of behavior? Why did they target Smith’s home? Had they been there before? Did they know Smith?

If this case ever goes to trial, and we hope it does, maybe a better light will shine on how this tragedy came to pass. If it ends up being plea bargained in exchange for a guilty plea, it will be a disservice to the community.

Law enforcement has been put in an impossible position. The law says, in effect, that your right to defend your own home is not absolute. Apparently, you can only use the force necessary to stop the threat, and then you will be second-guessed as to whether the force used was excessive. The slope doesn’t get much slipperier than that.

Nothing can be undone. Two alleged burglars are dead, and Smith is charged with murder. Now what?

Most of the residents of this county are decent, law-abiding people. I don’t mean to dismiss this tragedy, but the vast majority of us are working hard at raising our families and doing our jobs. Many of us are going beyond that, and trying to build a better community. The existence of civilization requires that we continue to hold human life sacred and the rule of law critical. Almost all of us understand that.

However, 2012 will not go down as a good year for Morrison County. We have had two deaths from drug overdoses, one from meth and one from heroin. We have had a woman charged with trying to hire the murder of her ex-husband and a man charged with trying to kill his wife. That may seem like nothing in the metro area, but in a county of only 33,000 souls, that’s a lot.

Now we have the Thanksgiving Day shootings. Whether you side with the burglars or you side with Smith, you can’t be feeling very good about how things are going.

And that’s what we really need to address next. Instead of choosing sides in this terrible tragedy, let’s let the facts come dribbling out and, in the meantime, in our churches, our civic clubs and our coffee klatsches start talking about how we can reverse the trend and make this a better place to live.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.

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