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Is Montana slaying being exploited to attack self-defense, castle doctrine?

A Montana homeowner used a shotgun to shoot a suspected burglar who turned out to be an unarmed teen foreign exchange student, and now faces charges.
A Montana homeowner used a shotgun to shoot a suspected burglar who turned out to be an unarmed teen foreign exchange student, and now faces charges.
Dave Workman

The April 27 slaying in Montana of a German exchange student, whose funeral yesterday in Hamburg drew hundreds of people, has ignited a new battle over self-defense and the so-called “castle doctrine” in the Big Sky Country, and a Missoula man stands accused of deliberate homicide in the case.

The story has played out in the pages of the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic newspapers, and has become an international tragedy. The father of 17-year-old Diren Dede was in Missoula last week to take his son’s body home, and he was critical of America’s “gun culture.”

It is not clear what Dede was doing in the dark garage owned by Markus Hendrik Kaarma on the night he was shot. According to court documents, Kaarma and his partner, Janelle Pflager, were alerted by a sensor that someone was in the driveway and then in the garage just after midnight, so Kaarma grabbed his shotgun and went to investigate.

Kaarma claimed that he heard a noise that sounded like metal on metal. He fired four rounds into the darkened garage, fatally wounding the teen.

But there is more of a backstory to this event. The court documents published by the Ravalli newspaper also assert that a few days before the shooting, the suspect was at a hair salon when he allegedly remarked to a hair stylist that he was “just waiting to shoot some f---ing kid,” and that he had allegedly been waiting for the previous three nights with his shotgun for a possible confrontation.

In addition, according to the criminal complaint, Pflager told Missoula police that their home had been recently burglarized and that she had “placed a purse with personal belongings that she had cataloged in the garage ‘so that they would take it’.” She had also left the garage door open and had set up a baby monitor and installed the motion sensors.

Examiner spoke with Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew W. Paul, who confirmed that Kaarma was out on bail, and that a preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled next Monday, May 12. That’s when a formal arraignment will be scheduled, he said.

Missoula Mayor John Engen was quoted over the weekend acknowledging his membership in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun control group set up by billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mayor Engen said he was involved to promote “common-sense gun laws, and chief among those are programs for expanded background checks.”

Meanwhile, State Rep. Ellie Hill (D-Missoula) reportedly will try to get parts of the state’s 2009 Defense of an Occupied Structure law repealed. Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and author of “Gun Laws of Montana,” published a piece clarifying the statute in Saturday’s Great Falls Tribune. He did not comment specifically about the Kaarma case, either in the story or in an e-mail exchange with this column.

Dede was attending Big Sky High School and had been living in Missoula with a host family since last October. He played on the school’s soccer team and reportedly was very popular among his classmates.

This case came almost simultaneous to the conviction of a Minnesota man who fatally shot two teens who had broken into his home. It appeared that 65-year-old Byron Smith had been waiting for burglars in his basement on Thanksgiving Day 2012. A report of the verdict was published by the Ravalli newspaper.

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