PLATTE, S.D. – Platte residents, who were grieving the loss of a family in what was thought to be a fire last week, were in even more shock this week.
"I would say that last Thursday, our world was just rocked by the tragedy of the fire, and today with what came out, it's just devastating," said the Rev. Harry Koops. "It's truly turned upside down."
On Thursday, Scott and Nicole Westerhuis, along with their four children, third-grader Kailey, fifth-grader Jaeci, eighth-grader Connor, and sophomore Michael, were believed to have died in a fire at their home three miles south of Platte.
Then Monday the South Dakota Attorney General's Office released the family's preliminary autopsy reports, which indicate that Nicole, Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael Westerhuis were shot to death with a shotgun. The report also says the cause of death for Scott Westerhuis is also by shotgun wound, and suspected as suicide.
According to the attorney general's office, the Charles Mix County Sheriff's Office and the Division of Criminal Investigation are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the manner of death of Scott Westerhuis, "including interviews, evidence collection and forensic testing."
A passerby reported the blaze early Thursday, but the fire chief said the home was nearly destroyed when firefighters arrived.
"It's hard for us to determine exactly if (Scott Westerhuis) started the fire, but that's the only thing that makes sense," said Sara Rabern, Jackley's spokeswoman.
Koops, senior pastor of First Reformed Church in Platte, described Scott and Nicole as active participants in the church's worship and volunteer activities, like being servers and teaching Sundayschool. That, combined with the family's active work, school and social lives, has left nearly every person in the small town grieving.
"We can't get our minds around it as a community," Koops said. "We are deeply grieved and grieving."
Platte is a town of approximately 1,200 people in Charles Mix County, about 65 miles southwest of Mitchell in south-central South Dakota. Community leaders describe the town as tight-knit, compounding people's sense of loss. Last week, as the Platte-Geddes High School football team prepared for its Friday night game in Kadoka, a special No. 28 sticker was added to each player's helmet. The number earlier this season was worn by Michael Westerhuis.
This week, Michael's number and the Westerhuises names are also emblazoned on vehicle windows, businesses and hay bales in a sign of tribute.
Despite the deep level of grief people are feeling, Koops said faith will provide comfort and help them heal.
"In the darkest moments, God will be our strength. He is the one that gives us hope," Koop said. "What we have experienced is so unbelievable, but it doesn't change who God is. We cling to Him, and we turn to Him to be our strength to see us through."
'Everyone knows everyone'
Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, where Scott and Nicole worked, issued a statement Tuesday, saying its employees are "shocked and incredibly saddened" by the news.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the extended families of Scott and Nicole as they mourn the loss of children and grandchildren," said Mid-Central Superintendent Dan Guericke in the statement. "We join the community of Platte as we grieve the loss of lives that will impact this community for the foreseeable future."
Scott and Nicole worked for the cooperative, a Platte-based education organization that provides speech, language and hearing services to several area school districts. Scott Westerhuis served as the organization's business manager for at least 15 years, and Nicole Westerhuis served as assistant business manager for about eight years.
Ken Lieuwen, a hardware store owner and distant cousin of Scott Westerhuis, said the deaths have rocked Platte.
"I just feel sorry for the family and friends," Lieuwen said Tuesday. "There's anger at Scott, and disbelief that the family is gone."
Platte Mayor Steve Christensen said Tuesday that officials held a meeting Monday night with local clergy, school and law enforcement to announce the preliminary autopsy findings. He said family members were notified prior to that.
Christensen, who was chief of police from 2004 to 2010, said he worked with Nicole Westerhuis for six years. He also went to church with the family, and knew her husband and children.
"It's a small town; everyone knows everybody," he said. "That's the tough part."
The family was very active in the community, in church, school and athletic activities. Scott and Nicole were high school sweethearts, Christensen said, and their roots run deep in the Platte community.
"They have touched a lot of lives," he said. "Their families have been in the area for a long time."
Christensen emphasized the importance of supporting Scott and Nicole's family members, Scott's mom and Nicole's parents, in particular.
"It's devastating," he said. "We need to come together and pray for the families."
Remembering the children
When Platte-Geddes School District officials learned of the fire Thursday, they decided to let students out of classes early. Classes returned to normal Friday, but Frank Cutler, Platte-Geddes athletic director, said things were "a little more quiet than normal."
Superintendent Joel Bailey declined to comment on the situation, but the school issued a news release reiterating the support services available to students, and offering condolences to the Westerhuis and Fish families. School counselors, administration, ministerial association members and youth group leaders will all be available for students, according to the district, "and will remain in place for as long as needed."
"The Platte-Geddes School District is deeply saddened by the events that have transpired over the past few days," the release states.
District officials also said they want to focus on "how wonderful the Westerhuis kids were," offering thoughts and memories of each of the children who died. All of them were good students and active in extracurricular activities, particularly athletics, according to officials.
"All of the Westerhuis children were extremely bright and excelled in the classroom," the release states. "They were a great asset to the Platte-Geddes School District and will truly be missed."
District officials describe Kailey, a third-grader, as a "joyful child" who "lit up a room with her smile and personality." She enjoyed drawing pictures, loved competitive swimming and Girls on the Run with her older sister. She also enjoyed spending time with a classmate who has disabilities, and "always wanted to play with her during recess."
"Kailey made sure to give the elementary principal a hug each day," the tribute says.
Kailey's older sister, Jaeci, was in fifth grade. According to district officials, Jaeci was quieter and more reserved, but still still friendly with everyone and was kind-hearted. She was active in basketball, volleyball, swim team and Girls on the Run.
"Jaeci was respected by all and her classmates really looked up to her," the release states. "Her laughter was infectious."
Eighth-grader Connor was quarterback for the junior high football team, and played basketball and baseball. Officials also described him as a polite and considerate young man, with a mischievous side.
"He was a little bit of a prankster and had a wonderful sense of humor," the press release states.
Michael Westerhuis, the oldest sibling, was in 10th grade and, like his little sister, Jaeci, quiet and reserved. Despite that, "he had many great friends throughout the area" and was active in athletics and music. School officials said Michael was selected to sing in the Junior Honors Choir and played the trumpet.
In athletics, Michael was Platte-Geddes' full-time kicker and punter and played receiver for the football team. He was going to start on both offense and defense this year. School officials said his dream was to kick for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
"We will share their stories and focus on the beautiful smiles, youthful energy and character each child portrayed on a daily basis," the release states. "The world needs to know how special each individual child was."
The Westerhuis property resembles a mini-sports complex, complete with a half-size football field with two goalposts and a two-story metal building that houses an indoor gym and weight room.
"We couldn't ask for better neighbors," said the family's nearest neighbor, Marc King.
Tami Smit, who works at a coffee shop on Platte's Main Street, said she has 10- and 13-year-old daughters who went to school with the Westerhuis children. Her daughters were already mourning the loss of their classmates when she had to tell them about the apparent murder-suicide, Smit said.
"It's a whole another set of emotions for the kids to process," she said. "This is something that all of our kids are going to need help with for who knows how long."
Koop said members of Platte and the surrounding communities have rallied to provide that help, including outside schools and clergy members offering their services and support.
"There has been an outpouring of support from other communities in the surrounding areas," Koop said. "We are overwhelmed with love, support and encouragement."