Shot in Missoula The Tragic Death of a German Exchange Student

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By Karin Assmann, Marc Hujer, Fidelius Schmid and Andreas Ulrich

Diren D., a German high school student from Hamburg, wanted to get a taste of American freedom during an exchange year abroad. Instead, he ended up dead. Are American gun laws to blame?

Diren D. was always the first to choose his team when playing the Xbox video game FIFA, and he always picked the Galatasaray Istanbul football team. He often played late into the night, and would dance through the living room of his American host family when he won. A 17-year-old German from Hamburg, Diren was spending a school year in Montana as an exchange student, and he was proud of his Turkish heritage.

He also played a few games on that fateful evening in late April when Germany and the United States would discover just how great the gulf separating them can be — here in Missoula, a small city in the Rocky Mountains.

A friend who was supposed to pick Diren up on the way to a party in the next town never showed up. So he spent the evening with Robby, an exchange student from Ecuador who became Diren’s best friend during his nine months in Missoula. They played video games for hours, until about midnight when they stepped out for a bit. Maybe they wanted to get a bit of fresh air — or they were looking for a bit of adventure. Or perhaps they just wanted a beer. But half an hour later, Diren was dead.

Two-hundred meters away, Markus Kaarma, 29, had just climbed out of his whirlpool with his partner Janelle Pflager. They made themselves comfortable on the couch and put the movie “Lincoln” into their DVD player. Just two months before, the couple had moved from the state of Washington to Missoula and since then, their home had been broken into twice, according to the police report produced later. Their house, at 2607 Deer Canyon Court, is a large one, with four bedrooms, three baths and a two-car garage. Kaarma keeps his front lawn neatly mowed, in keeping with the upper-middle class neighborhood. He and Pflager have a 10-month old son — and the feeling that they can’t count on the police. That they have to take care of themselves.

Which is why they had prepared their garage in the event of an intruder. Pflager had set up a motion sensor and a baby monitor and placed her handbag on a refrigerator in the garage. Inside the bag were personal items that she had catalogued, including a pill bottle with her name on it so as to provide evidence in the event of theft. They left the garage door open.

‘I See You!’

Robby and Diren headed out for a walk. They left Prospect Drive and turned down Deer Canyon Court. They had almost passed house number 2607 when Diren turned around.

It was pitch black; there were no streetlights. And why should there be? The neighborhood is safe, a place where children can play on the streets. That, at least, is what Diren’s host mother had always told him. Robby wasn’t wearing his glasses and couldn’t see very clearly. When Diren said that the garage door was open and he wanted to go in and look around, Robby turned around, shook his head and kept going. He said later that he had hoped Diren would follow him. But when he turned around again, Diren was nowhere to be seen.

It was shortly after midnight when the motion detector beeped inside Markus Kaarma’s house. Kaarma grabbed his shotgun and headed out to the garage while his wife flipped on the outside lights. Robby heard somebody shout: “I see you!” It was the voice of Markus Kaarma, as Robby would subsequently learn. Kaarma then fired four shots in two seconds with his shotgun, as he later testified.

Robby heard the four shots and started running — back to the home of Diren’s host family. He hoped that Diren had maybe cut through the backyard and headed home, but he had a feeling that wasn’t the case.

Along with Diren, a dream died on that night in Missoula: the dream that many young Germans have of experiencing the great freedoms of America for a year.

Diren spent nine months as a foreign exchange student in the Rocky Mountain town of Missoula, population 70,000. He was in the 11th grade at Big Sky High School, played soccer for the Missoula Strikers, spent time in the mountains, had fun in the snow and enjoyed the friendliness of the people there — people who are proud to live in a place where a handshake still means something.

But Diren’s death laid bare the dark side of this idyll. And it raises the question as to who or what is to be blamed for the tragedy: America’s loose weapons laws that promote a culture of vigilantism? Or the strict rules that make it almost impossible for young men and women to safely test the boundaries, leading them to take stupid risks?

A Death Sentence

The tragedy sheds light on a side of America that will likely always remain foreign to many Europeans. It reveals a country where freedom is more important than anything else. And that includes the freedom to defend one’s own property — with violence if necessary. For Diren D., who grew up in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, this misunderstanding was a death sentence.

The news of Diren’s death reached his family at midday on the last Sunday in April. His father, Celal D., was on the road in his taxi at the time, a job that he had had for several years. He enjoys the work, but had always hoped that Diren would make more of himself. Something like “international business manager,” his father says. Diren was a good student and attended gymnasium, the top tier of Germany’s three-level high school system. In his free time, he played soccer for the club SC Teutonia v. 1910. He had done everything right in his life. Until that fateful night in Missoula.

Celal D. had been on the road since 5 a.m., but his early shift was just coming to an end. He was in the process of dropping off his last fare of the day when his wife called, telling him to hurry home. By the third or fourth call, all she could do was wail into the phone. At home, Celal D. found his wife and his youngest daughter. They told him that someone from the exchange organization had called, but that he had been difficult to understand because he only spoke English. They only understood one thing: that Diren was dead.

Diren’s father listened, but he didn’t want to believe what they were telling him. “When somebody is shot for real, then you don’t just call,” he said. “You send somebody.” He grabbed the telephone, first calling the exchange organization before dialing the police in Missoula and then the hospital. They all told him the same thing: Diren was dead. But his father still refused to believe it and sent his son a message via WhatsApp telling him to get in touch ASAP.

News of Diren’s death spread quickly and the family’s small apartment was soon full of people. Family members, friends and neighbors gathered, some forced to stand on the street outside. Diren’s mother sat in the bedroom wailing in grief.

Everybody liked Diren, his oldest sister Basak says. “We were already preparing for his return on June 12. We wanted to welcome him back at the airport with friends and signs.” She says her brother had so many plans: to get his driver’s license and learn how to ride a motorcycle — and he wanted to go to Spain for a year after finishing school to improve his Spanish.

Bringing Home His Son

She had talked to him on the phone just a few hours before his death and he had told her about the party he wanted to go to that evening and that there would be a big camp fire. “Life in America is so wonderful,” he told her.

Then Basak asks the question that nobody has an answer for: “How can you shoot someone just because he comes into your garage?”

Shortly afterwards, Celal D. traveled to America for the first time in his life to bring his dead son home. He wore black: trousers, sport coat, Nikes and mirrored Ray-Bans. If it had been up to him, he says, his son would never have gone to America. For him, America stands for violence and crime — but when he arrived in Missoula, Diren’s father was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape and of the sky. Missoula, he says, is like Blankenese, a wealthy section of Hamburg, with its nice homes surrounded by well-kept yards. But exactly that is the problem, he says. You get careless. “You feel totally secure and then something happens.”

In Missoula, he met with his son’s friends, with the local imam and with the undertaker. Diren’s host family invited him to their home. They had treated his son like their own, driving him to soccer practice and taking him shopping. “But they didn’t do the most important thing,” Diren’s father says. “They didn’t tell him that there is a law in this country that allows you to shoot someone when they are just messing around.”

Montana has some of the most liberal weapons laws in the country. Any US citizen who is over the age of 18 and has been living in Montana for at least six months can get a permit from the sheriff for the purchase of a weapon. There are even firearm safety courses for seventh graders held at Big Sky High School.

Since 2009, an additional far-reaching law has been in effect. It is modelled after the “Castle Doctrine,” which allows you to shoot intruders on your property should you feel threatened. “The doctrine says that a person’s home is their castle,” says Gary Marbut, President of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. But when is somebody threatened? That is often open to interpretation. A study from 2012 found that the number of killings has risen by 8 percent since the introduction of the Castle Doctrine. That is 600 additional deaths each year.

 

Searching for an Explanation

It is with some discomfort that Diren’s American friends have now been reading the outraged reports on the killing coming from Germany, many of which have pointed to US weapons laws as a factor. Is Missoula a violent place? It has been a common accusation in the German press in recent days.

One reason is the fact that Markus Kaarma can hope for leniency from the court, or even for acquittal. Just a year and a half ago, a similar case wasn’t even brought to court. Markus Kaarma’s lawyer, Paul Ryan, has confirmed that his client will invoke the Castle Doctrine in his defense. But does the doctrine really apply, or was Markus Kaarma overeager to attract and kill an intruder? In other words, would Diren D. have been killed even in absence of the law?

But Diren’s death also says something about Germany. His family hasn’t just received support from the public, they have also been confronted with hostility. The Hamburg football club FC Teutonia 05, which many have confused with Diren’s club due to the similarity of its name, had to turn off the comment function on its website after a multitude of xenophobic postings. Diren’s friends, who have been collecting donations, have been told by passersby that “the Turk” deserved to be shot to death. What, after all, was he doing in that garage?

People in Montana are also searching for an explanation. Jay Bostrom, Diren’s Spanish teacher and soccer coach on the Big Sky High School team says he isn’t just furious with gunman Kaarma. He is also frustrated with an American society which limits the freedoms of young people. Teenagers, he says, hardly have the opportunity to live a normal life, to meet up and hang out, to party together and maybe to have the occasional drink. And, he says, nobody talks about a trend that has been present in American towns and suburbs for years: garage hopping.

As a rule, it involves going into neighbors’ garages to steal beer out of refrigerators many Americans keep there for alcoholic beverages. And for underage adventure-seekers like Diren, it is often the only chance they have to access alcohol. Garage hopping is also something of a test of bravery. “Diren was a center back, on the playing field and in life,” Bostrom says. “Of course he would take on a challenge like that.”

‘He Still Looks Great’

Diren’s friends in Missoula said that even their parents had engaged in similar activities in their day. Diren didn’t drink much, they said, but he was up for a beer every now and then. Particularly because, coming from a Muslim family, he wasn’t allowed to drink at all back home in Hamburg.

Chance Maes was one of Diren’s closest friends. He says that the Turkish-German exchange student was well-liked, but that he didn’t totally understand America. And he didn’t recognize that dangers inherent in a place where almost everyone possesses a weapon. “It’s not something that he comprehended,” Maes says. “It is culturally just so different.”

When Diren’s father visited his son’s high school last Wednesday, he was received by his son’s friends and acquaintances and by the entire soccer team. They were wearing their jerseys and they led him through the halls to their classroom. Before entering, Celal D. suddenly turned around. “Now that I have you all in one place, I want to tell you something,” he said. “These games you play, they kill. The games are over now.”

For a moment, it was silent. Did he really just say that? Were they all really partly to blame for Diren’s death?

Soon after the shooting, bouquets of flowers began piling up in front of his host family’s home. The parents, Randy Smith and Kate Walker, made sure that they had enough water. On their front lawn, someone had formed Diren’s initials using empty Sprite bottles because he liked to drink Sprite so much. And they were eager to demonstrate that suspicions about Missoula being a violent place simply weren’t true. “This is not who we are as a country, as a state, as a neighborhood,” Smith says.

On Sunday, funeral services were held in Hamburg before Diren’s body was flown to the Turkish city of Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast for burial. His parents own a house there where Diren spent his summers. It was his favorite place. His best friends accompanied him to his final resting place.

It wasn’t easy for Diren’s father to look at his son in Missoula one final time before he was washed and shrouded according to Muslim custom. A shotgun blast is difficult to ignore. And Celal D. had to swallow hard when his wife called him shortly afterwards and asked: “Will I still recognize him?”

He was silent for a moment. Then he said: “He still looks great.”

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