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What We Learn from Jackley’s Latest Info on Westerhuis Murders and Fire

Attorney General Marty Jackley released four key pieces of information on his investigation of the apparent Westerhuis murders, arson, and suicide south of Platte on September 17, 2015. AG Jackley’s intent in releasing this new information is to “confirm that Scott Westerhuis was responsible for the death of his family, before setting fire to his home and taking his own life” and to beat back hypotheses that anyone other than Scott Westerhuis is responsible for the grim events of that fatal night. Such hypotheses have ground through the rumor mill, with perhaps even more vigor after AG Jackley’s first big public presentation of findings during his ill-fated press conference/town healing ceremony on November 3, which seems to have raised more questions than it answered.

For the most part, AG Jackley’s four big revelations (presented via press release this time, not live public speech and Q&A in Platte) tell us tell us that some of our graver suspicions have been nothing but the figments of imaginations looking for diabolical connections where there are simpler, more mundane explanations.

1. AG Jackley nails down the time of at least one of the crimes, the torching of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis’s house. The mysterious last call from the Westerhuis landline to Nicole Westerhuis’s cell phone was placed at 2:57:54 by her home security system. That home security system placed a similar call to Scott Westerhuis’s cell phone a minute earlier, at 2:56:35. AG Jackley says the security system had been programed to call Scott, then Nicole, if the home fire alarm went off. The fire was thus burning and smoking enough to set off the home fire alarm by 2:56:35. If AG Jackley’s conclusion that Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and children, then set the fire, then shot himself is correct, then Scott Westerhuis killed his family before 2:56 a.m. and, given the absence of smoke in the airways of his corpse and depending on the sensitivity of his fire alarm, would have shot himself near but not much if at all after that fateful moment.

As AG Jackley reported in November, the Westerhuises’ employer, Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, deactivated their cell phone contracts seven days after their deaths. That move still seems incredibly irresponsible on Mid-Central’s part, given its potential to destroy evidence in a criminal investigation. However, even if Mid-Central had behaved properly, the content of the voicemails left at 2:56 and 2:57 really is irrelevant; AG Jackley now tells us that all that matters is the metadata: what placed the call and what time it happened.

2. AG Jackley says the white pickup was a tame pheasant chase. KELO-TV’s Angela Kennecke considered it newsworthy that the Clark C-store surveillance video caught a white truck towing a flatbed trailer through Platte, once east, then an hour later west, just before the fatal events at the Westerhuis property on September 17. I considered it not quite newsworthy and disproved Kennecke’s claim that the truck on its first pass was traveling “in the direction of the Westerhuis property….” Kennecke inched that phrase back in her January 1 report, saying that the truck was traveling “in the general direction a vehicle would be going if headed toward the Westerhuis property at 1:28 a.m. that morning” [emphasis mine]. Kennecke explained that the driver of the white pickup had come forward and said he was hauling pheasants to a game preserve.

Kennecke did not mention the details AG Jackley released today, that the white pickup “delivered a load of pheasants from a farm in Gregory County to a pheasant hunting preserve north of Platte.” North of Platte, as in not south of Platte, where the Westerhuis house was.

One odd detail is that the pheasants were delivered to the pheasant facility (take your pick of which Platte hunting lodge might be associated with that), but the white pickup’s trailer was empty on the first pass but loaded on the second pass. But that doesn’t matter to this criminal investigation: AG Jackley says the truck driver, the pheasant raiser, and the invoice all agree, that the return trip showed the trailer loaded with empty pheasant crates stacked and secured, and that, most importantly, this truck wasn’t carrying a hit man or Scott Westerhuis’s missing safe. It was just some guy on the road late at night doing his job.

3. Scott Westerhuis’s safety deposit box held no evidence about the crimes of September 17. You remember the safety deposit box that Scott Westerhuis had maintained for Mid-Central, a safety deposit box that, amidst ongoing investigations into the Westerhuis murders and their own finances, the Mid-Central board thought they could just put their exec Dan Guericke in charge of opening and deciding whether there was anything DCI should see? Yeah, that AG Jackley talks about that box. Mid-Central’s lawyer wised them up, and DCI took a look. Says AG Jackley, “Although the Search Warrant Return has been filed, consistent with the Order to Seal it is not appropriate to disclose the specific contents at this time.  Generally, there was nothing of evidentiary value in relation to the death investigation.”

We shouldn’t have expected any information about the September 17 murders: if Education Secretary Melody Schopp’s decision on September 16 to cancel Mid-Central’s multi-million-dollar GEAR UP contract triggered Scott Westerhuis’s decision to kill his family and himself (and that’s the implicit connection every media report makes, right, the only dramatic trigger we can discern in public documents, right?), he wouldn’t have had time to stash any relevant evidence at the bank. Scott Westerhuis was in Takini when he learned of the Schopp decision. He was driving back to Platte through the evening of the 16th. He died before bank hours on the 17th.

4. Jackley still thinks Scott Westerhuis’s safe evaporated. This is part of AG Jackley’s story still smells fishy. AG Jackley’s statement today says multiple witnesses have told DCI about a safe in the Westerhuis house. DCI has found no trace of said safe.

AG Jackley says “the safe is believed to be similar in nature to the SentrySafe 1100 Fire-safe chest that provides only a ½ hour of fire protection.” The safe thus would have had to have faced a fire that was either hotter than normal fires or lasted longer than half an hour. That fire would have to have been strong enough to destroy that safe but not the shotgun that Jackley says Westerhuis used to kill himself.

I have the SentrySafe H2100, bought maybe at Pamida. It’s a step up from the SentrySafe 1100, since it is waterproof, and it costs $60. Why would a guy with two security systems and a panic room in his house buy the same crappy entry-level safe as some cheap blogger?

Come to think of it, if Scott Westerhuis really was running some big financial scam through GEAR UP and Mid-Central, would he really have let multiple people see the safe where he was keeping his most important papers? It seems just as plausible to conclude that this cheap, flimsy safe was a decoy. If Scott Westerhuis had evidence of vast corruption, he kept it somewhere else. (Marty, you guys have run the dogs and metal detector across the remaining Westerhuis office/gym complex and the rest of the property and subpoena’d the crap out Westerhuis’s Internet providers, right?)

*     *     *

Attorney General Marty Jackley’s statements today focus mostly on dispelling concerns that anyone other than Scott Westerhuis was involved in the death and destruction on the Westerhuises’ property on September 17. AG Jackley’s statements do nothing to help us understand why those crimes happened. But they emphasize that, three and a half months after the crimes, we have no evidence that supports any of the rumors that someone besides Scott Westerhuis pulled the trigger and lit the fire.

AG Jackley’s statements tell us nothing about the investigation of what may well be the bigger crime, the corruption in the GEAR UP program and any other finances that Scott Westerhuis managed for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative in Platte. AG Jackley remained mum on the investigation of that side of this case, other than to say the investigation continues. The results of that investigation may help us understand the motives behind the murder, arson, and suicide. More importantly, they may reveal crimes against all of us, abuses of taxpayer dollars and public trust that our Legislature and we the voters will have to do something about.

35 Comments

  1. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-05

    Jonathan Ellis of that Sioux Falls paper links to Kennecke’s original “tantalizing” reporting on the mystery pickup, then takes a pretty solid whack at it by noting the worry inflicted on the truck owner and utter wrongness of thinking someone needed a trailer to haul away the clearly portable safe that multiple witnesses apparently knew about:

    Jackley said Tuesday that as soon as the news segment aired, he was contacted by the driver of the white truck.

    “That poor guy reached out to us immediately and said, ‘Hey, that’s me, and this is what I was doing.’”

    He wasn’t transporting the giant Westerhuis safe, as was implied in the media report. In fact, the safe in question was only a document safe, Jackley said today, and not a behemoth that would need to be transported by trailer.

    Turns out the driver was hauling pheasants to a hunting preserve. Jackley said the driver was cooperative with authorities. He was also nervous after the media report because he travels through Platte all the time.

    “Usually, if you kill six people and start a fire, you don’t call the attorney general,” Jackley said [Jonathan Ellis, “Platte Murders and the White Pickup,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2016.01.05].

  2. Paul Seamans 2016-01-05

    Cory, I really do agree with your thoughts on the safe. I cannot imagine a person who had as many business dealings as Scott Westerhuis being able to fit all his important papers into a kiddy-toy safe that could be carted off by anyone. If I was him I would use a fire proof file cabinet. They look like any file cabinet and are less conspicuous that a safe.

    Checking Quill Office Supplies show a two drawer file cabinet with UL 1-hour fire and impact at $1149. Weight is 348 pounds. A similar four drawer costs $1947 and weighs 664 pounds. Either one would be most easily moved on a trailer. Were all file cabinets accounted for after the fire or has the effort been concentrated on the cheapo safe?

  3. Roger Elgersma 2016-01-05

    A safe that lasts an hour is one that keeps the insides safe for an hour, that does not mean that it turns to powder a minute later. It could still be found.
    When the calls were a less than a minute apart and her call if I remember correctly was longer than his according to this timing, why was one call longer than the other. Is it possible that the time difference is the difference between the time he dialed and the time she woke up and answered? Also, in the farm crisis when someone killed themselves from financial problems they did not kill either their wives or their kids, just themselves.
    Cory is right on with his noticing that the press release was about stopping the analysis of the public rather than the result of an investigation.

  4. leslie 2016-01-06

    Panic room? Panic room?? Preppers?

  5. Joe K 2016-01-06

    I personally know the fella who was transporting the pheasants that night, and I think that explanation is spot on. Usually, when you go to release the birds, you drop off the crates of birds earlier in the evening – then return late at night to release them. By doing it this way, they (the birds) have time to calm down from being transported, and when you release them – they usually stay put. It makes sense that the trailer was empty, as he was returning to release them – and stacked the crates once he had done so. The pickup in the video matches perfectly to what he drove then and now. I bet the video several hours earlier would have shown him driving by with a loaded trailer.

    Now, with the safe – I am not sold on that conclusion. Fire does funny things. I cannot believe that a safe would just disintegrate to the point of not being recognizable. I would guess there would be some trace of it, but as I said – fire does funny things.

    One thing I know as a fact – Platte Fire Dept are a bunch of fantastic guys, who go by the book, and I would rest easy knowing if they were in my community. I have absolute faith that if there was some kind of shenanigans going on with the investigation into the fire, they would throw a BS flag right away. If the safe was gone, and Platte FD agrees with that, well – I wont argue.As I said, fire does funny things.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Oh! Joe, thanks for that explanation. That makes total sense. I’ve never delivered pheasants; now I know! You help us see all the more are entirely unsuspicious that truck’s activity was.

    Odd—you’d think that, given all the pheasant-rearing activity around Platte, more folks would have been aware of that and would not have found a truck coming around in the middle of the night unusual.

  7. mike from iowa 2016-01-06

    “That poor guy reached out to us immediately and said, ‘Hey, that’s me, and this is what I was doing.’” as any civic minded citizen would do. Where did I hear that before? hmn.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Roger E, you make a good point about the nature of the fire protection. It could get hot enough to burn contents inside the safe without melting or vaporizing the material of the safe. If we can find the charred remnants of the shotgun next to the guy who started the fire, we can find the remains of the safe, unless the safe wasn’t there.

    Here’s a Modern Survival Blog article on fire safe ratings: http://modernsurvivalblog.com/security/fireproof-safe/

  9. Daniel Buresh 2016-01-06

    I still maintain the safe isn’t even worth the man power to chase. It’s not going to be full of cash. I doubt it will show any new relationships that aren’t already known. Seems more like a red herring to me. If anyone else is involved, follow the money.

  10. Daniel Buresh 2016-01-06

    I do get a kick out of all the comments being made to try to promote conspiracy theories. The armchair quarterbacks are really making fools of themselves on the online articles and social media. Pretty hilarious.

  11. crossgrain 2016-01-06

    Cory – I don’t think it’s at all odd that folks around Platte found the truck suspicious, even though it’s probably a common occurrence. Faced with the unthinkable, people tend to cling to any notion to help them cope. Which would you rather believe: that a loving father murdered his own children, or that some nefarious stranger killed the family? Once you’re past the, “He couldn’t possibly do that to his own family!”, you’ll start grasping at whatever straw just to make sense of it all.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Daniel, I’m inclined to agree. If the safe was a well-known fixture of the house and if it appears to be missing, it does warrant some attention, but yes, it seems we’re more likely to find more relevant leads in financial information elsewhere.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Crossgrain, that’s a fair interpretation… but note that you appear to be saying folks only found the traffic suspicious because it took place in the context of the unusual, terrible crime that happened. On August 17 or October 17, no one would have considered that truck’s two passes through town or the two other vehicles during that wee hour to be unusual, right?

    The “mystery white pickup” was straw-grasping, and straw-grasping is not to be trusted, since it makes us ignore obvious and mundane facts.

  14. crossgrain 2016-01-06

    Cory – well, that’s sort of the rub, innit? How much straw-grasping is there in the “mystery safe”, the “mystery safety deposit box”, the “mystery phone message”, the “mystery family finances”, etc.?

    I don’t mean to imply that these are suspicions that shouldn’t be followed up on, just that we shouldn’t dismiss out-of-hand AG Jackley’s assertions. The “mundane” murder-suicide was committed because a “mundane” white collar dude lost his “mundane” livelihood.

    The fact that suicide is so misunderstood is what’s causing all this straw-grasping. The guy was under massive stress (it doesn’t matter why), and this is how he chose to cope. It’s a damn horrible tragedy to be sure, but really I suspect it comes down to a very sick man committing a very sick act, and that’s about all the closure we’re going to get.

  15. Craig 2016-01-06

    DB: “I do get a kick out of all the comments being made to try to promote conspiracy theories. The armchair quarterbacks are really making fools of themselves on the online articles and social media.”

    I agree 100% – and I have stated so in prior posts about this story. I even offered explanations for the phone call explaining it was likely the alarm system and in order for this to be some type of coverup you would need to involve dozens of people. Not a likely scenario.

    People still seem to think Scott Westerhuis was some type of criminal mastermind with detailed records stored in a safe, but that doesn’t make sense whatsoever. Most likely Westerhuis had important papers like most of us do, and he stored his papers in a file cabinet like most of us do. Most people don’t think a fire will ever happen to them, and if someone did have crimes clearly documented on paper I’m guessing they would rather have them burn than be protected inside a safe – because documents aren’t something someone would steal, and a subpoena works as well on a safe as it does on a flimsy file cabinet.

    Try as they might, the conspiracy theorists haven’t been able to shoot enough holes in the official story. Yes it was a tragedy and yes it is one we have difficulty understanding, but it is impossible to get into the mind of someone who is struggling with whatever it was he was struggling with at the time. We will never know and we shouldn’t expect that some random piece of evidence will ever explain why someone could get to a point in his life that he would kill his entire family.

  16. Dana 2016-01-06

    The remaining questions I would like answered are about the phone calls Westerhuis made on the way home from Takini. Perhaps this has been addressed and I missed it. If I remember Jackley’s Platte conference, these were lengthy calls. To Whom? About what? The person on the other end of those calls needs to be grilled! These answers very likely hold revelations about the “Why” of this entire tragedy.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Craig, you and Jerry both were on top of that suggestion about the alarm triggering the calls. Good call!

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-06

    Dana, indeed, the content of those calls would be fascinating to hear. We haven’t addressed it, it seems the AG knows who was on the other end of those calls and surely has talked to that party/those parties. However, I would also assume those conversations had much more to do with the financial investigation and little if anything to do with the death investigation… as if they had given insight into the killings, Jackley would have included that information in his statements to this point.

    But even the person/people on the other end of those calls might have no insight into the killing. It’s entirely plausible that Westerhuis used those calls to get the facts, then deliberated and decided alone in the car the rest of the way home.

    Consider (it’s early afternoon; let’s really turn on the soap-opera directing!): unless Scott said something really stupid (“I’m going to go home and kill my family”—which obviously didn’t happen, or the person on the other end would have called the cops, and Sheriff Thaler would have been waiting in front of the driveway for him) how would a reasonable listener on the phone distinguish between anger about losing the contract and losing face as business manager and anger that would lead to murder, arson, and suicide?

  19. scott 2016-01-06

    Who builds a house of the size of the Westerhuis and does not include a built in safe room or have a larger quality safe? Everybody has some important documents or family treasures that they want to preserve. If you spend hundreds of thousands of your home, you are not going to buy a cheap $30 lock box like is being implied.

    Even if the Westerhuis had a hidden or secret safe storage site somewhere else than the family home, I have to believe they had a on site quality safe to store family memorabilia. The Westerhuis were financial people so they had to know the importance of properly preserving financial documents and backing up digital data.

  20. grudznick 2016-01-06

    Apparently, Mr. Scott, they were bad financial people. The cops are probably focusing on every tame pheasant hauler in east river right now. And the phone company is probably in on it too because the utility regulators were brow beat by Mr. Rounds into threatening the phone people into deleting calls and ripping up some of the bills they would have sent.

    or, this young couple were actually good financial people, and wanted the records of their misdeeds to go away so the burned them in a fancy $200 fire marshmallow roasting pit in their back yard.

  21. grudznick 2016-01-06

    Has anybody considered there could be bloggers right here among us who know things about this they are not telling? Could this conspiracy extend to the deepest bowels of several of the South Dakota blogespherites? I believe that is possible but not likely. Not impossible. If so, the media journalists will ferret it all out.

  22. mike from iowa 2016-01-07

    Too much MSG in gravy taters will make you think strange things,grudz.

  23. oldguy7850 2016-01-07

    I wonder what the AG s NOT telling us

  24. Rorschach 2016-01-07

    This incident seems pretty straight forward to me. Westerhuis killed his family. But we still don’t know why. Nobody has been held accountable for vanishing $48 million or so of federal money while managing to help few native americans become ready for college and actually attend college. The Daugaard administration has circled the wagons – again.

    Jackley’s theory that “safes are like butter” is the most interesting part of the findings he is spoon feeding us. I may melt a safe on my toast this morning to see how it tastes. All I know is that I have a heck of a lot bigger and better safe than the guy with the million dollar house and stand alone gym. Who’d have guessed it?

  25. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-07

    Ror, a safe-melting party could be a good excuse for a party! There must be some guys around who’d like to get together in someone’s back yard, spring for a few old safes, and throw them in a bonfire to see what happens. (Bonus: put documents and cookie dough in separate containers in each one!) Different safes, different accelerants, and naturally lots of beverages on hand to put out any fires that get out of hand.

  26. Daniel Buresh 2016-01-07

    Do we know they didn’t have other safes? Most everyone in SD has a gun safe, and a lot have smaller safes like that for documents like marriage licenses, birth certs, or anything else of personal value. I just wasn’t sure if there wasn’t another safe or if this one is getting attention just because they can’t account for it…

    Cory, depending on how long you burn it, you’ll end up with a pile of plastic and a mound of dirt that looks like grey ash. If it were in a filing cabinet that burnt out completely, the filing cabinet would probably be standing and the safe would probably melt through the bottom. You would still have a pile of the ceramic-asbestos-like material that is used in their core in the drawer though unless it was hosed away.

    Probably the weirdest thing I have seen in a fire is a completely burnt out room with a box of kleenex’s on the counter. You could pull out the top one that was covered in soot and by the looks of the next tissue, you wouldn’t have known it was in a fire. The reason I clearly remember this is because we were all talking about it and how crazy it was.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-01-07

    Survivor Kleenex—wow!

    So even if a cheap SentrySafe were destroyed in the fire, we should have some molten/charred residue that fire investigators could identify as a safe, right?

    There are have been no other published eyewitness accounts of other safes in the Westerhuis house. This safe is the only one I’ve heard circulating in local lore.

  28. Jenny 2016-01-07

    This story and EB5 needs to be told on 48 hours or 20 20. Just think of the press that would come in and expose these SD state govt corruption mysteries. Remember when the Gina Score detention death made one of these shows?
    If any South Dakotan is against primetime exposure then they are part of the problem.

  29. Jenny 2016-01-07

    It would be fair to say that the state of SD played a part in these murders. So many times it is human nature to look away and not speak up out of fear if you see things that are, at the least, unethical.
    Noticing large sums of money is a huge red sign, people. Speak up, don’t be afraid,you just might save a child’s life. A good movie to see about corruption and a brave woman standing up to it is Erin Brokovich.

  30. Porter Lansing 2016-01-07

    Well said, Jenny. It’s SoDak women that will lead the liberals from this desert.

  31. Jenny 2016-01-07

    Noticing large sums of money ‘missing’ is a huge red sign (forgot the most important word -missing).

  32. Daniel Buresh 2016-01-07

    Cory, I would hope they could, but without knowing all the details no one can really make that analysis without being on scene and knowing how it burnt and for how long. Who knows if the safe was still in the location it was believed to be? If it was important, maybe he had it out and was looking at it before it all went down so it was more vulnerable. Finding it then would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Then, you also have to rule out any other item that could possibly have similar composition. I think a person would drive themselves nuts trying to think of all the “what ifs”. To me it’s still a red herring in the big scheme of things.

    I don’t believe there is any money “missing”. There hasn’t been an audit to say anything is missing as far as the financials go. The most important issue is about the legality of how and where that money was allocated. That is what we call “mishandled” money, not “missing”. If people in positions of power or influence utilize that role to attain those funds unethically, we need to insure that can no longer happen and put the checks in place so that it doesn’t. Even then, unethical still doesn’t mean illegal, but it should be a guide to what should be made illegal.

  33. Spike 2016-01-07

    “Mishandled”

    Unethical?

    There is something thats called “Federal Program Fraud” it’s a criminal act. The Mud Central and consultant people feeding at the trough on Gear-Up could be awfully close to that . I want to believe the FBI and US Department of Education OIG are investigating. Problem is they have to work with US Attorney Seilers office. Who appears rather disinterested. When innocent people die, even it is at the hands of a person who is irrational or sick or snapped, the circumstances surrounding that person and act should be throughly investigated.

    Gear-up check book payments reveal much more than the Eide-Bailly “Audit” Mud Central waved around. Also those same Gear-Up payments to “vendors” and where that money subsequently ends up. Much more relevant than any missing safe.

    Another great irony and tragedy is that the good Gear Up employees actually doing the “work” (which includes Mr. Phelps) with the students in Gear-Up were the ones unceremoniously terminated, while everyone else (besides the Weisterhuis family) involved goes on their merry way.

    Unfortunately it’s true what Mr. Buresch says, no missing money. Just a bunch of greedy misguided opportunists.

  34. mike from iowa 2016-01-08

    If the money is siphoned off as overhead or other expenditures and does not reach its intended purpose,sure sounds like a “miss” to me.

    Daniel Buresh 2016-01-06 at 09:32
    I do get a kick out of all the comments being made to try to promote conspiracy theories. The armchair quarterbacks are really making fools of themselves on the online articles and social media. Pretty hilarious.

    Who knows if the safe was still in the location it was believed to be? If it was important, maybe he had it out and was looking at it before it all went down so it was more vulnerable. Finding it then would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Then, you also have to rule out any other item that could possibly have similar composition.

    Sure sounds like a conspiracy theory to moi.

  35. Dana 2016-01-08

    Spike says “Gear-up check book payments reveal much more than the Eide-Bailly “Audit” Mud Central waved around. Also those same Gear-Up payments to “vendors” and where that money subsequently ends up. Much more relevant than any missing safe.”

    I agree…

    When will information about the financial investigation come out?

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