Killed for Thrills?
updated 04/05/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/05/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Then, this January, a break—and the biggest surprise yet. Police arrested 18-year-old Gary Hirte, a mild-mannered Eagle Scout, football star and class salutatorian at Weyauwega Fremont High School, on charges that he killed Kopitske, 37. To the amazement of most everyone who knows Hirte, cops accused him of slipping into Kopitske's home on July 29, 2003, blasting him in the back of the head with a shotgun and stabbing him several times with a hunting knife (Kopitske's body was found four days later). His motive for the grisly murder, investigators claim, emerged on tape recordings made secretly by one of his friends. "By his own admission, he wanted to see if he could get away with it," says Verwiel. "He felt he was superior to other humans and could do as he wished."
That Hirte would commit a thrill killing seems unthinkable to many of his friends. He apparently even spoke of the murder to several classmates, say police, but, unable to fathom he was capable of such a thing, "they pretty much wrote it off as bravado," says Weyauwega police chief Curt Field. "We had a hard time believing it at first too." Far from being a stereotypical macho jock—his friends say he quit wrestling because he found it too violent—Hirte "is the type of guy who says 'Yes sir' and 'No sir,'" says Elizabeth Wetstone, 16, discussing the case with some of Hirte's classmates at the Dairy Bar, the local snack shop. "He always went out of his way to acknowledge you at school. He didn't have not one enemy at all."
But even his staunchest supporters must confront mounting evidence against him. In addition to admitting to the murder on tape, Hirte kept the keys to Kopitske's Chevy Lumina in his bedroom "as a trophy," says Verwiel. Police also found two 12-gauge shotguns when they searched Hirte's parents' home. In early March investigators matched blood found in the sheath of a knife taken from Hirte's bedroom to samples of Kopitske's DNA. Hirte's parents, Mike, who works at the local foundry, and Deanna, employed at the county human resources department, have not spoken to the press and are "grieving really badly," says Gerry Boyle, the criminal attorney who represented Jeffrey Dahmer and is defending Hirte. But beyond saying that he is still sifting through evidence and interviewing witnesses, Boyle declines to discuss the case. Hirte, too, isn't talking; he kept quiet at his Feb. 26 arraignment, forcing the judge to enter a plea of not guilty for him.
As mystifying as the identity of the alleged killer is the choice of victim. Kopitske was an unemployed loner, the town eccentric. A former substitute teacher with a historical studies degree from the University of Texas, Dallas, Kopitske appeared disheveled and acted bizarrely when not on medication for an undisclosed condition, according to police, but was otherwise normal and spent most of his time in his modest split-level home. Hirte sought him out, Verwiel contends, "because he'd be an easy target."
In January Hirte's friend Olivia Thoma, 18, came forward to inform police of something Hirte had told her last summer. "They were having a conversation about the worst thing they ever did," says Verwiel, "when Hirte confessed that he had killed Kopitske." Hirte repeated the claim several times and divulged information not known to the public during a phone call police had Thoma tape-record. "He was very specific about the manner of death," says Verwiel. Another friend, Eric Wenzelow, then told police that he and Hirte went out of their way to drive by Kopitske's secluded house a few days before the killing and that Hirte later confessed and showed him Kopitske's car keys. So far there is no evidence Hirte had any kind of relationship with Kopitske.
Hirte is now in the Winnebago county jail awaiting an October trial. His bail was raised to $400,000 after police taped a call in which he discussed a suicide pact with his 14-year-old girlfriend. None of it makes much sense to Weyauwega mayor Howard Quimby, a friend of the Hirte family who helped young Gary earn Eagle Scout badges in citizenship and community involvement. "He's very smart and he had everything going for him," says Quimby. "He could have accomplished anything." Instead, police believe, the best-liked kid in Weyauwega chose to take a dead-end road.
Alex Tresniowski. Kelly Williams in Weyauwega