Archived Story

14-year-old Dakotah Eliason enters plea

Published 8:59am Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dakotah Eliason, 14, was in court Tuesday for a preliminary examination during which testimony was heard by witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense. Eliason listened as the court heard from his grandmother, Jean Miles and his father, Steven Eliason. (Daily Star Photo/JESSICA SIEFF)
Dakotah Eliason, 14, was in court Tuesday for a preliminary examination during which testimony was heard by witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense. Eliason listened as the court heard from his grandmother, Jean Miles and his father, Steven Eliason. (Daily Star Photo/JESSICA SIEFF)

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

Fourteen-year-old Dakotah Eliason pleaded not guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder as an adult in Berrien County Court Tuesday afternoon.

Emotional and exhausted, family members, witness and counsel left the Berrien County Courthouse in Niles Tuesday afternoon following more than five hours of testimony and evidence during the preliminary examination held in the case against Eliason.

The purpose of Tuesday’s proceedings was for the prosecution, led by the county’s chief prosecutor Arthur Cotter, to present probable cause to the court that on March 7, Jesse Miles had been shot and killed at the home he lived in on Niles-Buchanan Road with his wife, Jean.

The murder was suspected to be at the hand of his grandson, Dakotah Eliason.
Cotter called four witnesses to the stand and entered into the record four key pieces of evidence: findings from the official autopsy report for Jesse Miles; photos from the Miles’ living room taken after the shooting; and two recordings – one made during the time Eliason was being held in a police cruiser outside his grandparents home and one during questioning with Det. Sgt. Fabian Suarez with the Michigan State Police.
During a portion of that recording, Eliason’s father Steven was present.

Judge Scott Schofield heard Miles say her grandson was often at her home during weekends and that he had a “good relationship with both” she and her husband.

Kiefer, the first to arrive on scene, told the court about an approximate 15-minute discussion she had with Eliason during which he told her “that he went downstairs and shot his grandfather.”

Kiefer, Casto and Suarez each said in so many words that Eliason seemed without remorse for his alleged actions.

However, review of the video interview between Eliason and Suarez revealed the 14-year-old said he wished he could “take it back.”

Defense attorney Lanny Fisher asked Suarez if based on that statement he still believed Eliason was lacking in remorse to which the detective seemed unchanged in his opinion.
Following a break in the courtroom for lunch, defense attorney Lanny Fisher called Eliason’s father as his only witness in the hearing.

Fisher questioned Steven about how he’d heard the news of the shooting and seemed to call into question the method of questioning by Suarez.

Steven explained he’d told Suarez, who came to his home to inform him of the incident and gave him a ride down to the Michigan State Police post in Niles, that he thought he should get a lawyer, at which time he told Fisher Suarez informed him he’d turn the car around and Eliason would be sent directly to the Berrien County Juvenile Center pending representation.

“I was stressed out,” Steven said, telling Fisher he told Suarez to take him to the post. “I wanted to see that my son was OK.”

Schofield found the prosecution had successfully shown probable cause and set a date for trial of July 20-23. Also ordered was a forensic examination of Eliason to take place prior to the trial.

Fisher said he hoped a forensic examination “would help provide some clarity to what happened” that night.

Often throughout the hearing, members of Eliason’s family were in tears, or with heads bowed. Eliason did not speak during the hearing but sat solemnly, often keeping his head down and at time, covering his face with his hands.

Emotional testimony
After taking her place on the stand, Jean Miles recalled her husband Jesse as “a very mild man.”

Discussing the hours prior to the shooting, Miles said she and her grandson had a seemingly uneventful day and watched television and stayed at the home.

Calling her grandson, Eliason, a “very intelligent young man,” Miles became visibly distraught trembling and speaking through tears as she remembered going to sleep around 10:30 p.m. only to hear a popping around 3 a.m., initially assuming it had come from a wood stove in the home. That’s when she said she heard Eliason say, “I just shot Papa.”
“He was on his side,” Miles said of her husband, who slept on the couch in the living room regularly.

“Blood was coming out of his mouth and nose,” she continued as Cotter questioned her about the status of her husband when she found him. “I don’t think he was conscious because he was bleeding so hard.”

Miles said she instructed Eliason to call 911, which he did and he followed his grandmother out into the yard as she watched for first responders.

The gun Eliason allegedly used to shoot his grandfather had been kept on a coat rack in the kitchen, something Miles said she hadn’t noticed until one day when her grandson went to take a hat from the rack and she saw it hanging on a peg.

She told the court she had told her husband he should probably move the firearm.

As his grandmother testified, Eliason sat with his hands clasped and his head bowed, at times covering his eyes with his hands.

Kiefer was called as the second witness for the prosecution.

“My impressions of Dakotah at the scene were that he was very articulate, he was intelligent, he was respectful to me but he didn’t show any emotion,” Kiefer said. “He was very matter-of-fact about what had happened.”

Kiefer asked the boy what had happened, “at which time he told me that around midnight he went downstairs and got the gun…”

According to her testimony, Kiefer said Eliason told her he’d been upstairs in his bedroom with his grandfather’s gun for approximately two to three hours during which time he told the state trooper he contemplated suicide.

Asked why, Kiefer said Eliason’s initial response was “sadness” and then “pent up anger.” During that discussion, which Kiefer estimated lasted 15 minutes, she said Eliason told her “that he had shot his grandfather.”

An episode of ‘Law and Order’
Berrien County Sheriff’s Deputy Eugene Casto was the third witness to take the stand and had been asked to sit with Eliason that night as officials worked over the scene.

A recording that was taken during the time Eliason spent in his car was played in its entirety in the courtroom.

Eliason’s voice can be heard over the radio playing in the background, as he discussed a paper his father had written for a criminology class on executions, asked Casto if he remembered his father from school, all the time his voice even and inexpressive.

“It really sucks having paranoia when it’s this dark out,” he’s heard saying.
“So what do you predict will happen to me,” he asked Casto, who responded he was not aware.

As Eliason waited in the car, periods of background noise and music were broken as he spoke.

“A murder charge, that’s big, but I’m still a minor,” the Niles High School student said, later adding, “my life just turned into an episode of ‘Law and Order,’ no commercials.
“I wish I could take it back,” he said. “But now I understand how it feels when people do that. Now I understand how it feels.”

That audio recording was followed by a video of Eliason just a short time after he allegedly shot Miles, his grandfather being attended to at Memorial Hospital.

“You know, at first I didn’t believe that I’d done that,” he says on the video.
Inside a small interview room, Suarez sits across from Eliason and attempts to get a clearer understanding of what was going through the boy’s mind.

“When I grabbed the gun, I – it was just this whole thing going on inside my head,” he said.

At the time, Steven Eliason sat next to his son, his face seemed twisted in disbelief as he tried to understand what had happened in parents’ home.

As his father sat beside him, Eliason seemed reserved, answering Suarez’s questions clearly but almost hesitant at times.

“Can you tell me any reason why you shot your grandpa?” Suarez asked.
“No,” Eliason said.
He said he had been contemplating suicide and had a lot of “built up” feelings.

“I want to know why,” his father pleaded. “And don’t tell me ‘I don’t know,’ because that’s bogus … Are you trying to be famous? Trying to get attention? Are you pissed off at me? Because if you’re pissed off at me, you should have shot me,” Steven said.
“You don’t feel no remorse?” the father asked.

“Of course I do,” Eliason said.

Still, it wasn’t until he was alone with Suarez that Eliason began to open up about just what had been going through his mind that night.

“Before tonight it never occurred to me ever,” he said. “I guess (it was) just pent up anger with certain things.”

Eliason described to Suarez some of the frustrations he had with his family before turning attention to the night in question.

“You ever hear people talk about voices in their head?” he said.  He tried to explain. “It’s not so much that but multiple personalities,” Eliason said, adding there are good and bad sides to a person.

“The good doesn’t always win,” he said.

He “tried to convince myself not to do anything” and said he blacked out for a couple of minutes.

He said he was considering both suicide and homicide that night, as he sat with the gun in his bedroom.

“Apparently I wasn’t ready to go,” he said.

Eliason also told police that he thought about what kind of method or weapon to use, considering knives, gagging and even using a pillow.

“I just started shaking, trembling … When you (do that to) somebody, whether you have an emotional attachment, you have about five seconds you think nothing can hurt you and then when you realize it, all the tension goes away.”

He admitted at one point he did consider hurting his grandmother.

Surprising questions
There were some rather surprising elements to Suarez’s questioning. He asked Eliason if he had been a friend with Alex Wentz, the 15-year-old Niles High School student who died suddenly last month. Eliason said he and Wentz had been good friends and spoke to each other every day.

Suarez also asked Eliason if he was familiar with Kelan McKnight, nephew to John and Carolyn Tarwacki, who were found dead in their home on Carberry Road also last month, even asking Eliason’s shoe size.

The boy said he was aware of who Kelan was but did not even know where the Tarwackis had lived.

When his father returned to the room, Miles had been pronounced dead. Left alone, father and son sat together, Steven expressing a wide range of emotions and Eliason sitting quiet.

“I love you, OK?” Steven said. “Nothing will ever change that.”

Eliason’s father told Fisher as he sat on the witness stand he was not aware of his son experiencing paranoia, as he’d mentioned during the audio recording in the police vehicle.

“But he’s been afraid of the dark since he was little,” he said.

At the end of the day, with the sorrow and the distress of those early morning hours blatantly played out in the courtroom, questions remain. It is an unsettling fact of a case yet to go to trial.

For Jean Miles testified there had not been, to her knowledge, any abuse on the part of her husband toward Eliason.

That notion was echoed by police who said they had not discovered in their discussions with Eliason any mention of abuse or ill will between grandfather and grandson.

Still there are alarming contrasts. The boy described as “unemotional” by police, who buried his head in his father’s shoulders as he embraced him after questioning and cried.
The boy who his father said “always seemed happy” but told police he had “never really been good at finding ways to vent my emotions.”

His answers to many questions, clear, concise and at times even repeated almost verbatim in two different recordings … yet one clear answer not given to the question of “Why?”
It’s a question that many will continue to ask as The People vs. Dakotah Eliason prepares for trial July 20-23.

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