A somber crowd gathered at the Fort Missoula soccer fields Friday night for a candlelight vigil to honor the memory of Diren Dede, the 17-year-old German exchange student who was shot and killed in a neighbor's garage early last Sunday morning.
Markus Hendrik Kaarma, 29, was charged with deliberate homicide a day later, after prosecutors alleged that he set a trap for burglars in his Grant Creek home and waited up nights, a gun at the door.
Dede was killed by shotgun blasts to his head and arm in Kaarma’s garage. It remains unclear what Dede was doing in the garage, but a second male who was with Dede has talked with police about the incident.
Friday’s vigil drew a large crowd of students, teachers, friends and neighbors of Dede. Many signed a large notebook with personal messages, and others simply stood with candles as the sun set behind Blue Mountain to the west. Several balloons were released, and students whispered softly and hugged each other.
Mari Koster, a freshman at Big Sky High School where Dede was a junior, lives just a few doors from Kaarma’s house and Dede’s host family’s house. Earlier this week, she and fellow students Natty DeGraw, Madison Bell, Mya Sobczak and Emma Scheuch waited at the bottom of the road leading up to the subdivision with ribbons the color of the German flag and handed them out to homeowners.
“It wasn’t my idea, it was a friend’s idea,” she said. “We just kind of thought it would be nice to do something in remembrance for him, because he was a really great guy and he didn’t deserve to die the way that he did.”
By Friday, the ribbons hung on fence posts and mailboxes in front of almost every home in the neighborhood. A memorial set up in the lawn of Dede’s host family featured empty Sprite cans, letters and a large German flag.
“I feel like, in a way, it brought everyone together,” Koster said. “It’s a really sad way to bring everyone together, but it’s really nice seeing all the ribbons hanging everywhere.”
Leslie Wozniak lives right across the street from where Dede died. She helped organize the vigil because she felt something needed to happen.
“We’re so helpless, and you need to feel like you’ve done something,” she explained. “Plus I just want to send a message to the family that this is not something that happens here. And that this is Missoula, Montana, right here. All this love is what we’re about, not that one isolated incident of craziness.”
Wozniak said she has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and the worst thing that’s ever happened to her house is an egging. She said she hasn’t gotten to know Kaarma or his common-law wife, Janelle Pflager, even though they moved in last September.
“He never comes out of his house, but they’ve only been there since September, and winter was moving in,” she said. “And I think they went to Mexico for a month and they have an 8-month-old baby. But I guess if you move into a neighborhood with kids you want to come out and meet people, and I know everyone is different and people are private, but I guess you move into a neighborhood like ours, that’s kind of what I expect is because you want to be a part of the neighborhood. There are plenty of girls who could babysit for them. It’s just absolutely senseless.”
Wozniak said the neighborhood will be forever tainted by what happened.
“How does anyone cope with this?” she asked. “You don’t ever get over something like this. Every time I look across the street and see that house, it’s going to remind me of that. You can’t make any sense out of it at all.”
Kaarma is expected to enter a not guilty plea in court at a hearing set for May 12. His attorney has pledged to aggressively fight the charge, saying prosecutors have misconstrued what actually happened in the garage.
At Friday night’s vigil, Dana Kowachek, a junior at Big Sky, held a sign that said “Castle Doctrine my (expletive),” referring to the Montana law that allows homeowners to use deadly force without calling police if they feel an intruder in their home is a threat to their life.
“(Diren) was one of my good friends,” Kowachek said. “It was tragic obviously. You can imagine if one of your best friends died, that’s how I felt. But you know, time heals, we’re getting through it. We have a lot of support (at Big Sky).”
Koster said the death of Dede was a shock to all the students.
“All the soccer guys are really good friends with him and they are just devastated, it’s so sad,” she said. “He was a really nice guy. He’s just friends with everyone. Everyone knew him. Everyone is just really crushed, obviously.”
Koster said that having to go to school was both painful and a healing experience.
“I’ve never seen so many people sad at one time,” she said. “When we came in on Tuesday morning, it was just like the saddest thing. I didn’t even want to walk through the hallways. I was already sad myself, but when you see people around you. Everyone is mourning together. I guess it’s good that we have each other. It brought people together in the weirdest way. You see people supporting each other, even though it’s just a terrible loss. I feel like it really showed how much of a family we are at Big Sky. Everyone just cares so much about each other I guess. Even people I didn’t know ask me if I’m OK and how I’m coping with it.”
Koster sat next to Dede’s table in culinary class.
“It was really hard just to go in there,” she said. “I didn’t even want to go in there. He sat at the table right next to me and I would see him every single day and he cooked in the group right next to mine. It’s just really weird. I still can’t really wrap my head around the idea that he’s gone. It doesn’t seem real to me. That was my initial reaction too, like it was a sick joke.”
Although counseling has been available, Koster said the students have been supporting each other.
“I think the thing that helps the most in this situation is having each other,” she said. “Even though he wasn’t in my grade, it just goes to show how one person’s life affects everybody’s, because I didn’t even hardly know him that well. I could say we’re friends, but I can’t imagine what the people that are actually best friends are feeling right now. It’s just awful.”