PLATTE, S.D. (AP) — Financial issues appear to have contributed to an educational cooperative business manager's decision to kill his wife and four children with a shotgun before setting the family home ablaze and then shooting himself, South Dakota's attorney general said Tuesday.
Attorney General Marty Jackley released the results of his office's investigation of the September deaths at a news conference in Platte, a few miles north of the burned ruins of the home where the bodies of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their children Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael were found.
Their deaths occurred just hours after the state Department of Education informed Mid-Central Educational Cooperative that it was losing a $4.3 million federal contract for GEAR UP, a program that seeks to improve Native Americans' college readiness, because of financial problems and accounting failures.
Jackley said the financial concerns were likely a factor in what occurred, but that he could not go into detail about an ongoing state-federal financial investigation that he disclosed at the news conference. He declined to comment on a timeline for that inquiry.
Scott Westerhuis served as Mid-Central's business manager, and the co-op employed Nicole Westerhuis as assistant business manager.
The family tragedy has gripped the town of about 1,200 people, and about 150 residents packed a Main Street community center to listen to the findings of the investigation. Some questioned Jackley on how the fire engulfed the home so quickly and whether authorities found any sedatives in Nicole Westerhuis or the children.
"Those four kids were wonderful children, and we miss them very much," resident Kristi Pheifer said from the front row. "I just want people to know that they were wonderful kids that did not deserve to get shot and burned."
Jackley said the investigation found no evidence that Nicole Westerhuis or any other party was responsible for the deaths. No soot was found in the airways of any of the six bodies, meaning all died before the fire engulfed the house, he added.
Authorities didn't find sedatives in Nicole Westerhuis or the children, he said, and it doesn't appear Scott Westerhuis was under the influence of illegal drugs at the time.
Firefighters were called to the home near Platte early on Sept. 17 after a passer-by reported the blaze, but the home was fully engulfed by the time they arrived. Five days later, Jackley announced that the state Division of Criminal Investigation found evidence of a murder-suicide.
The wreckage of the burned-out home remains on the property. Four pumpkins bearing the names of the Westerhuis children sit beside a "no trespassing" sign with caution tape still wrapped around it.
Jackley said authorities interviewed 26 people, gathered physical evidence for forensic testing, examined phone and text message records and studied medical and autopsy reports. He said investigators found a .12-gauge pump shotgun at the scene with a fired round that had not been cycled through.
An ATF-registered dog found evidence of a fire accelerant, he said.
Jackley said investigators confirmed through telephone records and follow-up that Scott Westerhuis spoke to someone on the phone about the GEAR UP contract the evening before the fire. Scott Swier, an attorney for Mid-Central, said in an email that Westerhuis and Mid-Central Director Dan Guericke spoke about the contract that evening.
Telephone records also show that someone using the family's land line called Nicole Westerhuis' cellphone at about 3 a.m. on the morning of the fire, which was reported about 5:35 a.m. The content of that 43-second call remains unclear, Jackley said.
Authorities have been unable to locate a safe believed to have been in the house. Jackley said it's likely the safe was destroyed in the fire, but it could have been stolen or moved to another location.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard has asked Jackley to look beyond Westerhuis for evidence of wrongdoing in the administration of GEAR UP. Jackley declined to name the federal agency working with state authorities in the financial inquiry, which he said was related to GEAR UP.
A separate inquiry by state Auditor General Martin Guindon is looking deeper at Mid-Central and potentially other organizations that worked with the cooperative.
Lammers reported from Sioux Falls.