Attorney general lays out evidence in Platte tragedy

At the front gate to the Westerhuis family property in Platte, pumpkins with the names of the slain children — Michael, Connor, Jaeci and Kailey — sit alongside a "No trespassing" sign that warns, "Violators will be prosecuted."

PLATTE | A missing safe and a 43-second phone call remain mysteries shrouding the Westerhuis family slayings in this small South Dakota town, but the crime itself seems solved, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said on Tuesday.

Jackley went before a meeting hall filled with Platte community members and news reporters from across South Dakota and said Scott Westerhuis appeared to have acted alone in murdering his wife, Nicole, and their four children on Sept 17.

Scott Westerhuis then set fire to the family home and killed himself, Jackley said. The crimes took place the day after Scott Westerhuis learned the company he worked for had lost a lucrative state contract.

“Today is the conclusion of the death investigation to bring closure to the community,” he said.

Investigators recovered the remaining metal portions of a badly burned 12-gauge pump shotgun they think Scott Westerhuis used so savagely that night. It was about 3 feet from his body.

The gun held five rounds in its magazine and one in its chamber. Investigators found evidence of six Winchester shells that likely were fired at Nicole and the children.

They also found a spent round in the gun’s chamber that Scott Westerhuis evidently fired into his brain.

One round remained in the magazine.

Before shooting himself, Westerhuis set the house afire. A trained dog used at fire scenes found a sign of accelerant near his body.

The bodies of the two sons — 16-year-old Michael Arend, who was shot in the head, and 14-year-old Connor Egan, who was shot in the neck, right chest and left shoulder — were found in bedsprings below their rooms after they fell through the burning floors.

In the bedspring found beneath where the master bedroom had been were the remains of Nicole, who had been shot in the head, and the two daughters, 10-year-old Jaeci Clair, who was shot in the chest, and 9-year-old Kailey Grace, who was shot in the head.

Jackley said no sedatives were found in Nicole or the children and no medications were found in Scott Westerhuis.

Scott Westerhuis had a blood alcohol content of 0.024, which Jackley said wouldn’t seem to have played any role. That was less than one-third of the legal limit for drunk driving of 0.08.

No soot was found in any of their lungs, according to Jackley, indicating they were dead before the fire produced smoke.

The deaths occurred just hours after Scott Westerhuis had learned that evening the state Department of Education had terminated an annual management contract for $3.4 million that Mid Central Education Cooperative held.

Scott Westerhuis was the business manager for Mid Central, and Nicole Westerhuis was its grants manager.

Jackley confirmed there is a joint state and federal investigation underway regarding finances of Mid Central and others involved with programs funded through the state Department of Education.

The specific program that was terminated, known as GEAR UP, worked to help Native American students and their families understand what was needed for further education after high school graduation.

The federal Department of Education paid for GEAR UP through a grant to the state Department of Education, which in turn contracted with Mid Central.

Mid Central paid some people directly and routed some GEAR UP money through other organizations. A state audit of GEAR UP’s 2014 finances raised red flags, but state Education Secretary Melody Schopp stood with Mid Central’s executive director Dan Guericke and Scott Westerhuis in defending the program.

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A follow-up audit of GEAR UP’s 2015 finances led Schopp to make the phone call to Guericke on Sept. 17 to tell him the contract was ending.

Schopp has since placed the program under the management of the state Board of Regents, whose members run the state universities system.

Jackley said Tuesday there’s no way to know for certain that Scott Westerhuis acted because of the GEAR UP termination.

But, Jackley said, Scott Westerhuis spoke for a combined total of about one hour, spread across more than two hours and at least four calls, with someone regarding GEAR UP that evening, as Westerhuis drove back to Platte from business at Takini school near Howes.

Phone records show the first call began at 6:22 p.m. and was interrupted four times as service came and went, according to Jackley. The other calls from his phone came at 7:36, 8:00, 8:05 and 8:24 p.m.

Jackley wouldn’t divulge Tuesday the identity of the other person on the call.

He said the last outside communication with anyone from the Westerhuis family came through a text at 11:30 p.m. Jackley wouldn't say who was involved in the text.

The last known communication involving the family members occurred at 2:57 a.m. Jackley said records show the home’s landline was used to call Nicole’s cell phone and went to her voice mail.

It lasted 43 seconds. But what was said, if anything, isn’t known, according to Jackley.

He said the phone wasn’t recovered after the fire and someone terminated the cell phone contracts for the Westerhuises. That made the voice mail message impossible to retrieve, he said.

Mid Central paid for the Westerhuis cell phones, according to Jackley.

Jackley answered questions from citizens and reporters for much of the one-hour meeting. At one point, he was asked about a missing safe.

That was a detail he hadn’t volunteered.

Jackley confirmed the safe that Scott Westerhuis kept in the house wasn’t recovered after the fire.

Jackley said the fire could have consumed the safe, or it could have been moved beforehand by Scott Westerhuis, or someone could have taken it.

The missing voice mail might have shed further light, Jackley said. 

“Certainly I think it was important what was left on that voice mail,” he said. “It also could be 43 seconds of silence.”

A few miles south of Platte, at what was the Westerhuis home, the only sound Tuesday after the news conference was a loose piece of metal banging occasionally in the wind.

A half-mile west at Edgerton cemetery, where Scott Westerhuis is buried at the same plot as his father and several of his siblings, nothing was to be heard.

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