Shot in Missoula: The Tragic Death of a German Exchange Student
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.
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."
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.
- Part 1: The Tragic Death of a German Exchange Student
- Part 2: Searching for an Explanation
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