Whap! Whap! Whap!
The last two were overkill. Jim and Cathy Hively knew something was amiss after the first rap on their farmhouse door.
It's not as if people randomly came a-knocking in Balaton, a prairie town an hour east of the South Dakota border.
The retired couple recognized the unexpected visitors. Brothers Devin and Derek Hexum lived with their father, his girlfriend, and their oldest sibling, Drew, in a scraggly rental a mile across the field.
Their truck had run out of gas. Could the Hivelys spare some? asked 21-year-old Devin, whose Jesus mane could not have been a bigger contrast to the military cut sported by Derek, two years his junior.
The Hivelys wore their Christianity like a chestplate. But intuition sensed something unholy on this early summer day in 2014. Maybe it was the boys' eyes wide pupils that appeared unmoored to anything of this earth. Perhaps it was the stink of their perspiration that hadn't been achieved by a hard day's work.
No, sorry. We can't help you, Jim said.
The Hivelys would never see Devin again. The criminal justice system would tend to that.
Yet Derek would return. He'd be carrying a 12-gauge shotgun.
The brothers grim
Derek and Devin had only been reunited for about six months when they paid the Hivelys a visit. Derek returned to the prairie earlier that year after spending his high school years in Georgia with his mom.
Only weeks after the Hivelys turned the brothers away, Daniel Scheff made their acquaintance.
Scheff, age 30, had schlubbed his way into adulthood, racking up more than a dozen petty arrests. Underage consumption. Drug possession. Selling pot. DWI.
On July 18, 2014, the Hexums asked if he'd like to hop into Derek's truck for the short drive to Prairie's Edge Casino, where they'd try their luck.
En route, the pickup's engine conked. Devin and Scheff set off on foot for help down the road. Derek stayed behind.
The two plodded along, nary a light on the landscape. It was the perfect backdrop for a set-up.
Where's your wallet? Devin suddenly asked.
The demand floored Scheff. He thought they were boys. A half-moment later, he spotted headlights coming toward them. Derek was behind the wheel of his GMC truck.
What the —.
As Scheff fumbled to find his wallet, which had enough cash for maybe a half tank of gas, Devin reached into his pants and pulled out a handgun. He stood five feet away. Before Scheff had the chance to do or say anything, Devin squeezed off multiple rounds.
Devin hopped in the waiting truck and left Scheff to die.
Scheff struggled to reach a nearby intersection. A motorist driving by minutes later found his bloodied body splayed on the side of the road.
When medics arrived sometime after midnight, they initially thought that Scheff had been run over. Red caked the ground everywhere.
But Scheff would survive. He'd later tell police that he'd never forget the triggerman's face. Or that of the driver.
The brothers Hexum turned fugitive. Deputies from two counties found them four days later just outside their hometown of Balaton. Officers ordered them out of the truck.
Their surrender was brief.
Just as quickly, the Hexums jumped back into the cab. Derek punched the accelerator. The chase lasted 45 minutes, covered 55 miles, and spanned two counties. As the brothers approached the South Dakota line, they telephoned their dad, telling him they would drive until the gas ran out, then make a stand where they would "end it."
A state trooper intervened, nudging their truck with the nose of his cruiser, which sent the pickup spinning and flipping into a ditch.
As cops from a half-dozen jurisdictions closed in, Derek held a knife to his neck and scolded police: They shouldn't be pointing guns if they weren't prepared to use them.
But Devin crawled from the wreck and raised his arms. Derek was pissed; surrender wasn't supposed to be an option. He ambivalently raised his arms too.
Devin's court-appointed lawyer brokered a deal eight months later. Devin pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder. First-degree assault charges were dismissed.
At the sentencing hearing, Devin said he didn't know why he shot Scheff, though he meant to kill him. His 10-year sentence began in March at the Rush City prison.
Derek would later tell Ashley Hankins, a former school acquaintance, that his brother was "a dumb ass." If he'd shot Scheff, Derek boasted, the guy "would've been dead."
Despite his complicity, Derek pleaded ignorance. He told Yellow Medicine County Judge Thomas Van Hon that he didn't know Devin had a gun that night.
But he, too, would plead guilty, getting just eight months in jail for felony aiding an offender. He also got four years of probation and pledged to stay away from guns and drugs.
Children of God
The road to nowhere leads to Balaton (pop. 637).
The town slouches toward tracks first laid by the railroad in 1879. But the trains don't stop here like they used to. Gone are three grocery stores, the grain elevators, the hardware store, and the flower shop.
Balaton's current fortunes are best encapsulated by its shiniest building. It belongs to Almlie-Horvath, a roller skating rink turned funeral home.
The countryside beyond feels more Dakota than flannel-shirt Minnesota with its ceaseless denim skies, the only sound coming from wind harassing the cornstalks.
It is a land that suited Jim and Cathy Hively just fine.
The two were childhood sweethearts. They wed at the Presbyterian church in nearby Russell. Jim started working the fields after returning from a stint in the army. They'd welcome a son, then a baby girl.
"They were pretty much open-book people," granddaughter-in-law Jessica Hively says. "The community knew them for that. They weren't afraid to say what they thought and what they stood for.... They would have told you that something you're never going to get back is being close to your family."
The Hivelys moved into a farmhouse along an irritable dirt road outside Balaton in 1970. Jim farmed and sometimes drove truck. Cathy was June Cleaver, but better. Besides being the family's emotional glue, she dabbled in the upholstery business and worked at Fabrics Plus.
Every Sunday, the Hivelys would make the 17-mile drive to Marshall to sit in the pews of Grace Life Church. Every Thanksgiving, they could be found serving up feasts at the armory.
The kids moved out. The couple retired. Cathy stayed up late sewing and making birthday cards on the computer. Jim's retirement meant plenty of TV. He could also be found at their son Brad's nearby farm, working as a pro bono consultant.
Aside from their annual summer pilgrimage to northern Minnesota for vacation, Jim and Cathy were contented homebodies.
Which is where Derek Hexum would find them.
Children of the corn
Like his neighbors, Ben Hexum found love as a young man. Sort of.
The 21-year-old wed Kelly Kay Fox in the summer of 1990, only weeks before the Marshall High student turned 17.
The new Mrs. Hexum birthed a son around Thanksgiving. Devin arrived two years later.
Kelly would file for child support at the same time she was pregnant with Derek, their third child. By 1996, the couple was divorced and Kelly had moved to Georgia.
The boys most likely lived with mom during those early years. But their dad's place outside Balaton would become home by the time the brothers reached the age when boys raced to be men.
The Hexums weren't the usual small town neighbors.
"It was really strange. That's for sure," says lifelong Balaton resident Curt Friese. "You knew all your neighbors. But them, we did not know. You might have seen them mowing the yard or out fixing a car. We didn't know who they were until this happened."
The boys would eventually make their way to the hallways of Russell-Tyler-Ruthton High School.
Erick Harper has spent the past 11 years teaching at his alma mater.
Devin "was the most socially functional. Smart," he says. But "there was what I sensed to be a strong element of bitterness inside. Devin was smart enough to the point — his edge, his coldness, his intelligence — you could tell even when he was younger was going to be a dangerous combination."
Another teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she's fearful of Devin, offered a harsher take:
"Devin had no soul, no compassion for others, and he didn't have an ounce of love in his heart for anyone except maybe his dad and brothers."
The high school's graduating classes routinely numbered around 40. Such intimacy meant wild stories spread like fire across lunchroom tables. The Hexums experimenting with Styrofoam and gasoline to make napalm, went one tale. They fixed arrows with bullets to produce explosions, went another.
School officials went on alert when Devin was an underclassman, according to Harper.
Devin and a friend had traded verbal jabs. One cut too raw. Devin fired back loud enough for the whole class to hear:
"Watch yourself," he warned his classmate. "That's how Columbine happened." He got a 10-day suspension.
Mom Kelly Kay Hexum became Kelly Kay Amerson in 2011 when she remarried in Georgia. Educators would describe her as an absentee mom for most of her boys' schooling, save for the infrequent phone call.
That left Ben to play the single parent for emergency meetings over behavioral problems and parent-teacher conferences alike.
Sometime during his freshman year, Derek left Balaton for his mom's in Georgia. Before departing, he and another student got into an argument during gym class. Derek bolted to the home ec room, retrieved a knife, and came storming back. Teacher Jim Burns took him to the ground before reinforcements arrived.
"He was always a friendly kid, but you could always sense just beneath there was his temper and a dark side," says Kitsie Carr, a special ed teacher at the time.
"That made us as teachers question whether or not down the road something bad would happen," says another faculty member. "Only at that time we thought it would materialize in some sort of school shooting."
The prodigal son
Before departing south, Derek made friends with Kyle Wesselink, who was two years older. Both were enrolled in special ed classes.
"You had to feel for the kid," one of Wesselink's teachers says. "He was physically scrawny. His clothes were always dirty. He'd come to school smelling like pee. I think if you asked any of his former classmates, they would say Kyle wasn't mentally all there. He was the least scary kid you could imagine."
Wesselink struggled with schoolwork. He was often without a permanent address, a nomad who eventually found a modicum of stability at his grandparent's place.
His honeycombed confidence would find solidity in classmate Ashley Hankins.
"I lived in town and he would walk me home after school," says Hankins. "He didn't even try to kiss me until we had been dating for at least a couple of months."
Wesselink dropped out of school at the start of his senior year. His relationship with Hankins would eventually produce a son, Cadyn, who was born in 2013.
Derek and Wesselink's friendship would resume before Cadyn's first birthday, when Hexum returned from Georgia.
Both were jobless. Their friendship consisted of shared boredom and a lack of initiative for pretty much anything. They had burgeoning meth habits and a passion for Xbox. But at least Wesselink had a car, a silver Monte Carlo.Their life of leisure would be interrupted when Derek went to jail for the shooting of Scheff. But it would resume upon his release.
Derek often stayed at the couple's subsidized apartment in Marshall. He never slept, says Hankins, burning his nights surfing the Web. In the morning when she checked the computer history, it was always erased.
"I always had thought Derek was just a shit talker," says Hankins. "He said he was in the military before in Georgia and liked to joke about stuff, like how good he was at shooting. After he got out for the thing with his brother, looking back, yeah, I'd say there was something different about him. It was as if he now knew he could do it instead of just talking."
Around the same time, Derek befriended 18-year-old Ted Como.
Troy Wenzel knew Como well. He was a friend of Wenzel's son, Aaron, and had been a regular presence at their home.
"I'd say he was one of Aaron's best friends in high school and, over those years, he probably slept over at our house 40 to 50 nights," Wenzel says.
But the amicable youngster, who once volunteered for Wenzel's snow removal business, fell out of favor with the family before the boys finished high school.
"It's just the fantastic world of methamphetamine," says Wenzel, now owner of a Marshall pawnshop.
That same world crippled Wesselink.
"My head I gnna fckin explode," he posted on Facebook in March.
As Minnesota's winter ceded to spring, the days were perfectly predictable at the Hively farmhouse.
"Just anxious for more warm weather and some life out there again," Cathy wrote on Facebook last year. She wanted to get back to her garden.
Not long after sun-up on Wednesday, April 29, an elderly couple living outside the town of Ghent — about a half-hour drive from Balaton — reported that their truck and a 12-gauge shotgun had been stolen sometime during the night.
Lyon County deputies found two sets of shoe prints near Sandy and Gary Nuytten's house.
"One was clearly from a pair of Adidas and the other left a distinct octagon imprint," the police report noted.
Spring winds puffed on the prairie that morning. Back at the Hively home, Jim and Cathy were likely still asleep when Derek Hexum intruded on their lives for a second time.
Police believe Derek and Como broke into the Nuyttens' home the night before, with Wesselink serving as driver.
In the early hours of April 29, Derek and Como arrived at the Hivelys' in the stolen pickup. They were planning a second burglary.
The door creaked slightly as Como opened the door. He watched Derek step inside with a shotgun pitched against his shoulder. Como would later say they went to the Hivelys' only to steal. But, he also remained outside and covered his ears, as if he knew what was about to come.
Pop! Pop! Screams. Pop! Pop!
Then, only the wind.
Derek emerged from the house to summon Como.
The carnage was relegated to the bedroom where Derek had ambushed the Hivelys, Como would later say. The two looked for anything of liquid value. Three guns were the big prize. A digital camera was pawnable as well.
Como and Derek left, one driving the Nuyttens' stolen pickup, the other driving the Hivelys' Lincoln, to a vacant farm near the town of Florence. They torched the Nuyttens' truck, then drove together toward Balaton.
But the pair had unfinished business. They returned to the Hively farm and abandoned the Lincoln, then summoned Wesselink for another ride. The trio stopped to fill a container with gas. There was evidence to be torched.
Back at the Hivelys', Como spilled fuel on the garage. Derek splashed the house. Wesselink soon saw flames pawing the structures from behind the wheel of his Monte Carlo.
Before speeding off, Derek placed the stolen guns, wrapped in plastic, into Wesselink's trunk. Orange and yellow performed a sinister dance in the rearview mirrors as they drove away.
Brad Hively reported his parents' home in flames by mid-morning Thursday.
Firefighters discovered two bodies in the smoldering husk.
Jim, age 75, and his 71-year-old bride both died from gunshots, autopsies would show later. They'd been married 53 years.
An alert was issued for a silver car seen earlier near the farm.
At about the same time the Hivelys' bodies were being removed from the home, Marshall cop Eric Klenken pulled over a silver Monte Carlo that fit the alert. Two men were inside.
Como had a baggie with white powder and small crystals in his left front pocket. The other pocket housed more meth and a syringe. He was also wearing Adidas, officers noticed, the same shoe prints that were found at the Nuytten burglary.
In the trunk were five guns, wrapped in plastic. Brad Hively would later identify three that belonged to his parents. the owner of a rusting 12-gauge was Gary Nuytten.
Wesselink and Como swiftly caved under questioning. Both fingered Derek as the mastermind that same day.
Derek would be arrested within hours at his house. In his pocket was the Hivelys' camera.
A search warrant yielded a pair of tennis shoes with a tread "which appeared identical to prints" found at the Ghent burglary.
"Hexum's shoes had a strong smell of gasoline," a police report read.
Derek denied any knowledge of the crimes. He claimed to be at a friend's place in Marshall at the time.
Police charged him with firearm possession, burglary, arson, and two counts of second-degree murder.
Como, 19, was charged with burglary, arson, and two counts of aiding second-degree murder.
Wesselink was charged with burglary, arson, and accomplice to murder after the fact.
All pleaded not guilty.
Derek's mom Kelly would soon resurface to defend both herself and her son.
"First Devin, and now Derek. What the hell??" she wrote on Facebook.
Derek was "raised right," she continued. "They say children are a reflection of you... and I have to disagree... I am a God fearing, hard working, reliable... very much loved member of MY community here in Georgia."
Kelly would go on to remind friends that her son stood "ACCUSED, and not convicted."Meanwhile, teacher Erick Harper spent more time than he'd like to admit thinking about the Hexum brothers.
"I know many people around here were shocked, but they weren't surprised," he says. "I know that's a horrible thing to say. There's always been that sort of violent spark in these guys....
"It's made me wonder. Is this a case of the rest of the world catching up with us who live in a rural area where things like this aren't supposed to happen? I don't know. Human beings have been doing bad things to each other for a long time. This one just so happened to happen here and that's why it hurts."
When I lay my vengeance upon thee
For a guy in jail, Derek has been busy. He attends Bible study twice a day. He's written hundreds of pages of notes about his thoughts on the Good Book. He started a program to become a pastor.
One week after he was arrested "was the day God went from being in the backseat of my life to taking the wheel," he says.
Derek won't discuss the details of the crimes. "Test results will exonerate me," he says, but won't elaborate.
In the past six months, the Hexums' old neighbor, Curt Friese, has talked Jesus with Derek during his weekly evangelical visits to the jail in downtown Marshall.
The retired farmer and former school board member has led inmate Bible study groups for years. He witnessed Derek, "who when doing drugs did a lot of terrible things," transform into "into someone who knows his calling to become a preacher."
Still, a skepticism remains. Friese has watched Derek "getting on" fellow inmates when they haven't studied their scripture or come up empty when called upon to recite passages.
"You don't ever really know if it's authentic or not," Friese says. "At this point, I have no reason not to believe Derek. But I'll admit he's not preaching the God of love very well. He's gotten fairly knowledgeable about the scriptures in a short period of time. He can lay out quite a few verses by heart, as well. He can come across harsh and very judgmental."
Perhaps it's only fitting that Derek believes in a vengeful God.