PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Residents of South Dakota’s small capital city struggled Thursday to comprehend how the lives of three families were torn apart when a 16-year-old boy was fatally shot by a classmate, the community’s first homicide in more than a year.
Braiden McCahren made his first court appearance Thursday after being charged as an adult with first-degree murder. Authorities allege he shot his friend, Dalton Williams, with a semi-automatic shotgun on Tuesday after an apparent argument that involved a third boy at McCahren’s home. All three boys were 16.
About two dozen people sat in the courtroom as McCahren, the son of a well-known local attorney, appeared through a video link from the county jail. Circuit Judge John Brown told the teen his rights and explained the charge against him. His attorney did not ask for bond.
The judge told him he could try to move the case to juvenile court. McCahren’s lawyer, Brad Schreiber, said it was too early to say whether he would make the request.
McCahren would face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder in adult court. If the case is moved to juvenile court, the state could only hold him until he turns 21.
He will enter a formal plea at a later hearing.
Williams’ funeral is scheduled for Saturday at Faith Lutheran Church, where the Rev. Brad Urbach said Williams’ family was devastated and not ready to talk publicly about the shooting.
“They’re leaning on each other, trying to derive strength from one another. When one of them is having a time of being really down, it seems like they’re able to pick each other up,” said Urbach, who will preside at the funeral.
Area residents have heavy hearts, he said, particularly since the shooting happened in the week before Christmas and so soon after the Connecticut elementary school shooting that killed 20 children and six educators.
The slain boy’s family said he had a big heart, the pastor said.
“Dalton, by everything I’m hearing from others and the family, was a very caring and loving son, very respectful, a good brother and a good grandson,” Urbach said.
Slayings are rare in South Dakota — just 21 murders and non-negligent homicides were reported in 2011 by the FBI — and rarer still in Pierre. The city of 13,860 last had a slaying in 2010, when a woman shot her husband and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
“Here in the small city of Pierre, I’m a little surprised it happened,” said longtime Pierre resident Rosanne Summerside, who lives near two of the boys’ families.
“I know the whole community and the kids are of mixed emotions, confused about what they should be feeling and doing,” said Summerside, who has a 17-year-old son. “Everybody I talk to is just stunned it happened.”
The third teen, described by police as a witness, told detectives that he and McCahren began to wrestle around jokingly after arguing about a paintball game. He said McCahren then got a semi-automatic shotgun, walked into the kitchen area and pointed it at him, according to the arrest affidavit filed by a detective.
The witness said he heard the gun click, then saw McCahren take a shotgun shell out of a drawer, load the gun and point it at him again. The teen said he then heard another click.
The witness told police he was trying to leave the house through a sliding glass door when Williams stepped between him and McCahren. He said the gun fired, and Williams was hit.
Pierre Police Chief Bob Grandpre confirmed the argument and the wrestling occurred between the witness and McCahren.
Grandpre said the department had an extra officer at Riggs High School on Wednesday and Thursday, more to answer students’ and teachers’ questions than to provide extra security.
Some officers know the teenagers involved because the boys were involved in anti-drug programs run by the department, Grandpre said.
“It’s a real close-knit community. It’s a smaller community, so we feel these things pretty deeply,” Grandpre said.
Pierre School Superintendent Kelly Glodt said school counselors and others were available to talk with students, but classes went surprisingly well Wednesday and Thursday. School officials appeared to succeed in keeping school activities as normal as possible, he said.
However, students who were close to the three boys involved in the shooting are having a tougher time dealing with the incident than other students, Glodt said.
“This is not something that’s going to go away immediately. We’re going to be dealing with it for quite some time,” the superintendent said.