A South Dakota father shot his wife and four children with a shotgun before setting their Platte, South Dakota, home on fire and then fatally shooting himself, authorities say.
Scott Westerhuis, his wife, Nicole, and their four children, Michael, Connor, Jaeci and Kailey, were found dead on September 17, KDLT-TV reports. Attorney General Marty Jackley said Monday night that preliminary causes of death have been determined to be shotgun wounds for the six family members. The manner of death was ruled as homicide for Nicole Westerhuis and the four children, while investigators believe Scott Westerhuis committed suicide.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Fire Was Reported by a Passerby Early Thursday Morning
The fire at the family’s Platte, South Dakota, home was reported at about 5:30 a.m., the Argus Leader reported last week. The volunteer fire department said the house was mostly destroyed when firefighters arrived. The blaze was reported by a passerby.
The Charles Mix County Sheriff’s Office, South Dakota Fire Marshal, South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation, the Platte fire and police departments and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), investigated the fire throughout the weekend. The fire was believed to be suspicious on Thursday.
“We have experienced the tragic loss of an entire family including young children that has affected an entire community,” Attorney General Matry Jackley said Monday night. “Based on evidence of foul play continuing to be uncovered, law enforcement remains committed to a complete and thorough investigation.”
2. The Tight-Knit Community Is Mourning the Loss of the Family
Memorials for the Westerhuis family could be seen throughout the small, tight-knit town of Platte on Monday, according to Argus Leader reporter Megan Raposa.
About 1,200 people live in the town.
“As a small community, we all know each other, so when difficult things happen, there’s lots of support and encouragement from one another,” local Pastor Harry Koops told the Argus Leader. “And it’s a community where faith runs deep.”
The school district’s superintendent, Joel Bailey, posted on Facebook:
The Platte-Geddes School District is deeply saddened by the passing of the Scott and Nicole Westerhuis Family, due to an early morning fire. Scott, Nicole, and family were a big part of the district and they will truly be missed. School counselors, ministerial association members, youth group leaders and parents were on hand to provide support to our students during this tragic event. Supports will remain in place for as long as they’re needed. We are truly blessed to be a part of such great communities with a tremendous support system.
Neighbor Marcus King told KDLT, “It’s devastating. When you lose the whole family, all six of them. you can’t put your mind around it.”
3. Scott Westerhuis Was the Business Manager of a Company That Lost a $4.3 Million Contract the Day Before
Scott and Nicole Westerhuis worked together at the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, an organization that provides services for students with special needs at several Platte-area school districts. They provided speech, language and hearing services to the schools, according to the Capital Journal.
Scott Westerhuis was also the cooperative’s business manager, according to its website.
According to KELO-TV, the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative lost a $4.3 million contract the day before the fire. An investigation by the news station found that Mid-Central paid $214,000 back to the state because it couldn’t account for how grant money was spent.
The news station reported that an audit that is underway found similar financial issues, and that led to the denial of the contract. The news station said it is looking into possible ties between the accounting procedures and Westerhuis’ role with the company.
According to the Argus Leader, Mid-Central said in a statement:
Mid-Central Educational Cooperative is shocked and incredibly saddened to learn the tragic news about the Scott and Nicole Westerhuis family. Scott and Nicole were employed at Mid-Central Cooperative for over a decade. Our thoughts and prayers are with the extended families of Scott and Nicole as they mourn the loss of children and grandchildren. We join the community of Platte as we grieve the loss of lives that will impact this community for the foreseeable future.
4. The Children Were Part of Several School Activities, Including Sports & Choir
The four children were active in their schools, playing sports and in the choir, the Capital Journal reports. The family was often together, neighbors and friends said.
“They were involved with coaching their teams, worked with their youth groups at church,” Dan Guericke, the director of the education cooperative the Westerhuis parents worked for. “They were very involved with their children.”
5. The Family Was Part of the First Reformed Church in Platte
The family was an active part of the First Reformed Church in Platte, the Argus Leader reports. The four children took part in the church’s youth group.
“Their family was inseparable,” Kristina Sprik told the newspaper. “They did everything together.”