SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — State investigators looking into an apparent murder-suicide involving a family of six are focusing in part on financial issues surrounding the husband, South Dakota's attorney general said Wednesday.
Authorities have said they believe Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and four children last week and then set the family home near Platte ablaze before shooting himself.
Attorney General Marty Jackley said Wednesday at a news conference that investigators will look into financial issues surrounding a $4.3 million contract that the state Department of Education told Westerhuis and his company it would not renew the day before the fire.
Jackley said investigators will review an audit of and financial information surrounding the contract. He said typically when state auditors see something of criminal concern, they turn it over to law enforcement. He said there was no criminal investigation of Westerhuis before the fire.
"We are trusting their work, but as part of this process we are verifying," he said.
The bodies of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their children Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael were found in the burned ruins of their home the morning of Sept. 17. A passer-by reported the blaze early in the morning, but the fire chief said the home was all but destroyed by the time firefighters arrived.
The deaths have shaken Platte, a community of around 1,200 residents about 110 miles west of Sioux Falls. Kailey was a third-grader, Jaeci a fifth-grader, Connor an eighth-grader and Michael a high school sophomore.
Scott and Nicole Westerhuis worked for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, a Platte-based education organization that provides speech, language and hearing services to several area school districts. Scott was business manager for 15 or 16 years, and Nicole assistant business manager for about eight years.
The state Education Department decided not to renew the $4.3 million contract in the wake of a state audit last year that took issue with Mid-Central's documenting of some expenses. The audit found the company owed $214,000 to the state, which it paid. Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said preliminary results of this year's audit showed similar issues.
The $4.3 million in federal funding was for GEAR UP, a college readiness program for Native American students in South Dakota.
Scott Westerhuis is the registered agent of a handful of companies and nonprofits in South Dakota, according to state records. Internal Revenue Service documents show two of those nonprofits, the American Indian Institute for Innovation and the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, have received at least $2 million between them in GEAR UP funding since 2012.
Mid-Central paid out GEAR UP funds to both organizations, according to cooperative governing board records. Both nonprofits reported to the IRS that they provide services to underrepresented youth in impoverished areas.
The records list Scott Westerhuis as chief financial officer of the American Indian Institute for Innovation and Nicole Westerhuis as business manager of Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium.
Records for the American Indian Institute for Innovation back to 2012 list no compensation for Scott Westerhuis in his role as CFO. Nicole Westerhuis was paid about $38,500 in 2013 as business manager and an officer of Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium.
Dan Guernicke, superintendent of Mid-Central, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
State auditor Marty Guindon said last year's audit that discovered issues with Mid-Central's documenting of expenses only examined the state's administration of the grant and involvement with the cooperative, and would not have looked at any organizations that received funding from Mid-Central.
When asked if this year's audit would examine funds Mid-Central issued to other organizations, Guindon declined to comment.
Jackley said federal investigators are not involved in the probe of the Westerhuis family deaths. He said several pieces of evidence have been found in the ruins of the home, including a shotgun and some shells.
He couldn't say whether Scott Westerhuis was known to own a shotgun.
A police dog found a potential accelerant in the home's ruins, but investigators are waiting to receive confirmation from tests results, the attorney general said.
Nord reported from Pierre.