MANKATO — Local officials knew the grisly killings of two teenagers who broke into a man's home on Thanksgiving Day would stir up strong emotions in their small central Minnesota town.
Some believed the homeowner went too far by repeatedly shooting the unarmed teens, including one victim as she gasped for breath. But others said 64-year-old Byron Smith was within his rights to protect his remote Little Falls home.
Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel said Tuesday that his office has received several calls since Smith was charged with murder, some critical of the charges. But the sheriff said that even though he is a firm believer in property owners' rights, the charges in this case are appropriate.
"The fact of the matter is, if people have all of the facts, they would not be quite so divided in their opinions," he told The Associated Press, noting that many details have not been made public. "It's not as controversial or as unclear an issue as people might think at first blush."
Smith, a retired U.S. State Department employee, was charged Monday with two counts of murder in the deaths of 18-year-old Haile Kifer and her cousin, 17-year-old Nicholas Brady. According to the criminal complaint, Smith shot the teens multiple times as they tried to burglarize his house, which he said had been broken into before.
Minnesota law gives homeowners the right to protect themselves and their property, but Wetzel said they don't have the right to execute an intruder once the threat is neutralized.
According to the complaint, Smith told authorities he was fearful after several break-ins at his home in the town of about 8,000 people. The complaint said he told authorities that he was in his basement on Thanksgiving Day when he heard a window break upstairs. When he saw Brady on the basement stairwell, he fired — then shot him again in the face after he fell down.
The complaint said Smith told an investigator: "I want him dead."
Smith said he dragged Brady's body into his workshop. When Kifer came down the stairs, he shot her multiple times as well, and dragged her into the room with Brady. She was still gasping for air, so he fired what he called a "good clean finishing shot" under her chin "up into the cranium," the complaint said.
And then police weren't called until the next day.
John Lange defended Smith, whom he called his best friend, saying that even after reading the details of the complaint, he didn't feel Smith should be in jail.
"You have a right to defend your home," Lange said. "He's been through hell."
Little Falls resident Liberty Nunn, who said she knew Nicholas Brady's older sister, said Smith could have simply shouted at them to stop. She said she hopes Smith goes to prison "for a very, very long time."
"Those are two young lives that were taken," she said. "It's just not right."
Some went to social media to express opinions, including Facebook pages set up to support the victims' family that also attracted comments slandering the victims. The creators of the pages did not return messages seeking comment.
Family members of the victims also did not return messages.
Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf's office said he would have no comment Tuesday. On Monday, he acknowledged the case could create controversy.
"I would ask that people not rush to judgment," he said. "Let the investigation continue. Let all the facts come out in court."
State Rep. Tony Cornish, a former police officer who sponsored a bill last year that would have expanded circumstances in which people could use deadly force, said he believes Smith would have had a legitimate defense if he would've stopped firing after his first shot.
"After that first shot, when it turned into a grisly execution, he lost any hope he had of not being prosecuted," Cornish said. "He lost all my support."
Rich Collins, a Morrison County commissioner, said that as a National Rifle Association instructor for basic home protection, he is a firm believer that everyone has a right to protect their property — but that they must also make attempts to retreat and call law enforcement.
"These young kids should not have been in this guy's house. That's a given. Nobody can deny that," Collins said. "Did he have the right to shoot them? Yes he did. ... But in the manner in which he used that right, I think, was excessive."