Police: Intruder shoots, kills Sheridan man

2009-08-27T00:00:00Z Police: Intruder shoots, kills Sheridan manJOSHUA WOLFSON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
August 27, 2009 12:00 am  • 

SHERIDAN - A well-known businessman died here early Wednesday after being shot in his home by an intruder, police said.

Officers found Robert Ernst, 79, on his bedroom floor after his wife called police at 1 a.m. to report intruders in her house, Chief Mike Card said. Ernst was taken by ambulance to Sheridan Memorial Hospital, where he later died from his wounds.

Dennis Poitra Jr., 19, of Sheridan, a 16-year-old Sheridan boy and a 15-year-old Sheridan boy were in custody Wednesday evening in connection with Ernst's death. The names of the 15- and 16-year-old boys were withheld because they are juveniles.

Ernst and his wife were alone in the house when someone entered through a "semi-secure area," Card said. Police said it's possible multiple intruders broke into the home, which sits in an older, well-kept neighborhood of Sheridan.

"Mrs. Ernst recognized there was somebody in the house, an intruder, and yelled and screamed, which woke her husband," Card said. "He apparently went toward the intruders, and at that point, he was shot."

After the shooting, the suspect or suspects left the same way they entered. With the help of a police dog, responding officers were able to track them for a short distance before losing the trail.

In her call to police, Ernst's wife said her husband had been shot by intruders during an apparent burglary attempt. When asked whether the shooting might have been a burglary gone wrong, Card said that scenario didn't seem "too far from reality."

In a typical home invasion robbery, the suspects will kick in the door and then overtake the people inside the home, the chief said.

"In this case, there was more subterfuge involved," he continued. "The suspects entered quietly."

As of Tuesday afternoon, police hadn't recovered any weapons from the scene. There were no indications Ernst had any kind of weapon during the encounter.

The suspect or suspects remain at large.

"There is somebody out there, some family member, who recognizes that somebody they know in their family probably had something to do with this," Card said.

Agents with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation are assisting Sheridan police with their case.

"We are at that beginning stage," the chief said. "We have enough people to do the job efficiently, and we have a great team assembled. I have no doubt that if this is going anywhere, it will be solved."

DCI agents were performing forensic work inside the home Tuesday. Once they finished, police expected to have a better idea if anything was taken during the break-in.

Ernst was remembered as a highly respected, well-known member of the Sheridan community. He and his wife ran a Rent-A-Center, and his family once operated a prominent saddlery in town.

"He was very well thought of," said Jan Mates, a sales coordinator for the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce. "He was a deeply religious man, so he believed in being fair and kind and honest to everyone."

Mates said she met Ernst in 1969, and her husband did a lot of business with him.

"And I know sometimes when money was a little tight and tough and it was hard to maybe to get enough money together to complete a job, he would always say, 'You go ahead and get the material and the equipment that you need ... and you can come in and pay it when you have the money,' " she said.

Ernst was a family man and active in community affairs, Mates added.

"It's just a tragedy that something like this happened," she said.

Contact Joshua Wolfson at 307-266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com.

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