Montana may have been perceived as the Wild West when the fatal shooting of German exchange student Diren Dede first reached European newsstands last spring, but that raucous gun-toting reputation may be fading.
That’s according to German Consul General Stefan Schlüter, who last week attended two days of testimony in the trial of Markus Kaarma, the Missoula man accused of murdering the German teenager in his Grant Creek garage in April.
Schlüter told the Missoulian that he was in the courtroom as a “show of support” for Dede’s parents, Celal and Gulcin Dede, who have attended the trial every day since it began two weeks ago.
The diplomat met with Governor Steve Bullock and Mayor John Engen Friday during lunch, and said he wanted to thank Bullock for the “outpouring of empathy and compassion for the parents” of Dede.
He said Missoulians and Montanans have been welcoming and profuse in their kindness for the grieving parents.
“This has already played back in the German press,” he said. “In the beginning, it was the German exchange student shot in the States – it was gun-toting Americans. This changed.
"It’s not Montana; it’s not the population; it’s this one who is accused of doing that, and why was he doing this? So, this is a positive development.”
Schlüter said he trusts the judicial system in the United States, but wouldn’t divulge details surrounding the ongoing German investigation into the shooting.
According to prosecutors in Dede's hometown of Hamburg, German law allows the state to prosecute foreign individuals who commit crimes against German citizens on foreign soil.
Schlüter said Hamburg prosecutors opened the investigation and sent a questionnaire to Missoula County prosecutors, but didn’t know the extent of the investigation.
Dede was a foreign exchange student at Big Sky High School when he and another exchange student took a late-night walk through the neighborhood of Dede's host family.
At the Kaarma home, Dede ventured inside the partially open garage, ostensibly in search of alcohol. A few moments later, he was shot and killed by Kaarma.
Defense attorneys say Kaarma was protecting his family from an intruder. Prosecutors say the shooting was deliberate homicide, and that Kaarma and his partner baited would-be burglars into their garage.
Dave Parker, communication director for the governor, said Consul General Schlüter and Bullock discussed a wide range of issues Friday, but primarily Bullock was proud of Missoula and the support its citizens have shown to the Dedes.
“What (Schlüter's) seeing (is) what Montana and what Montanans are really all about,” Parker said. “We come together and support and help friends and neighbors in times of need, and that’s the real Montana.”
In the first week of the Kaarma trial, German media swarmed the courthouse – far outnumbering the local media.
Veteran German reporter Hans Holzhaider, of the Süddeutsche Zeitungs, has continued to cover the trial and will remain in Missoula for the final few days of testimony and deliberation.
He said he’s noticed a change in German opinion, also, since he started covering the trial.
“The first impression was this is a typical case about gun-crazy Americans where everybody has a fire weapon in the house and if you just put your big toe across the line, you run the risk to lose your life,” he explained Friday afternoon.
Now, after hearing the testimony of Janelle Pflager, Kaarma's partner, and watching the stoic reaction of Kaarma during the trial, he said his opinion of Missoulians and Montanans has changed.
The way Pflager and Kaarma handled the initial burglary of their garage, and then later Dede’s presence there, wouldn’t be a typical response for most Missoulians, he believes.
Missoula, Holzhaider said, is an extremely nice and sympathetic town. He said when he walks around town, people greet him and say “hey” or “howdy.”
“It’s a perfectly agreeable place and if were to send my boy – I have a 19-year-old son – this is the place I would send him,” he said.
The trial of Markus Kaarma will resume Monday at 8:30 a.m. Jury deliberations are expected to begin Wednesday.