Don’t Breathe broke out in a major way, as a wildly original story that shocked audiences all over the world. The premise of the film was fantastic from start to finish and fans enjoyed the intense ride that Don’t Breathe took them on. If you’re one of many who caught the movie in theaters, you’ll be surprised to learn of a true crime case that’s scarily similar to the plot of the film. Now, I am not accusing Don’t Breathe of being unoriginal or ripping off the case, but fact is always stranger than fiction.
For those who may have missed it, Don’t Breathe concerns three, twenty-something petty thieves who decide to steal an old man’s settlement money, which he received after the daughter of a wealthy family ran over his own child. The thieves scope out the place and see a large dog, but a blind veteran who they think they can outsmart. After breaking into the veteran’s house, the would-be robbers find more than they bargained for and the predators quickly become prey.
The true crime case that is similar to the plot of the film Don’t Breathe (review) took place in 2012, in Little Falls, Minnesota. Byron David Smith was convicted of killing two teenagers, 17-year-old Nicholas Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, who broke into his home on Thanksgiving Day, Smith was retired from the U.S. State department and was 64 at the time of the robbery. In the preceding months, Smith had been robbed several times and precious war medals from his time in the Vietnam War and his father’s awards from being a POW in World War II were stolen.
At the time of the murders, meanwhile, cousins Kifer and Brady were being investigated for at least a couple of the burglaries at Smith’s residence. Under any normal set of circumstances, two burglars breaking into a veteran’s house and being murdered as a result would fall under the castle doctrine, where a homeowner is justified in killing the criminals. However, while initially, this appeared to be such a situation, as law enforcement uncovered the details, the case took a bizarre turn.
The day of the murder, Smith appeared to have deliberately parked his truck away from his home, a couple of streets over, which gave the illusion that Smith was not home. Although he had already installed a security system to catch would-be thieves on camera, Smith decided to turn off all the lights in his house and sit in his basement with his .22 caliber revolver across his lap. Then, while waiting, he turned on a tape recorder and recorded the entire incident, which we now know as the Byron David Smith killings.
The recording prevalent to the situations is available on YouTube, as a smaller cut of the six-hour tape he made, but be warned it is pretty disturbing. Throughout the tape, we hear Smith quietly whispering and waiting for the robbers to come in and invade his home. We hear a window break and, eventually, Brady makes his way to the basement steps, where Smith is waiting. You hear two shots and Brady falls down the stairs as one of the shots enters his face, killing him.
Smith murmurs erratically, but continues waiting for Kiefer and, when she enters looking for her cousin, she pleads with him for a couple seconds until she too is shot and killed. The rest of the recording catches Smith practicing his speech for when he calls the police, him moving the bodies across the floor, and even when he discovers Kiefer is not dead so he kills her by fatally shooting her under the chin. After the murders his ramblings are manic and strange: “I feel a little bit safer. Not totally safe. I`m still shaking a bit, but a little bit safer. I left my house at 11:30. They were both dead by 1:00. I refuse to live in fear. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess, worse than spilled food, worse than vomit, worse than shit, cleaning up a mess. You’re dead!”
Smith did not report the deaths until the day after Thanksgiving since he did not want to bother law enforcement on the holiday, but upon investigation, the police discovered the audio recording that Smith left in his basement, which cast the would-be victim in a harsher light. This recording, along with all the physical evidence gathered, painted a dark picture of the events. Smith was subsequently arrested and the jurors named their guilty conviction heavily influenced by the recording. Smith is currently still serving life with parole in the wake of his second-degree murder charge on April 29th, 2014.
This is a supremely tragic case where no one came out innocent or was the hero. Again, while you can make the argument that the teens should not have broken into the house (and that is true), the deliberate coldness executed by Smith was also unnecessary. While Don’t Breathe has a similar lesson, there are darker parallels into the old man’s motives for keeping a woman hostage to that of Smith’s actions. In each case, while robbery is still wrong, both the fictitious and real thieves faced something tragic and unexpected with horrendous results.
*Updated May 5, 2021