But violence devastated the Ernest family this weekend, after the young man they barely knew allegedly went on a shooting rampage and killed the people who helped him. Theriot then drove to his parents' trailer in a neighboring parish and killed them, too, authorities said.
The 21-year-old drove away, setting off a day-long manhunt that spanned multiple states and ended with his arrest Sunday more than 1,000 miles northeast, in rural Virginia, where some of his family members live. On Tuesday, officials announced that Theriot had confessed to the crimes and that he killed the victims with a handgun he had stolen from his father.
But questions remain about why Theriot, a man with no history of violent crimes, would commit such an act.
“We got a better picture on how this happened. As far as why it happened, that motive is still unclear. We don’t know if we will have a motive,” Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre told reporters Tuesday.
The rampage shocked some of Theriot’s friends, who described him as someone who had troubles in school, but was otherwise a friendly person.
“I grew up with him. I knew he wasn’t like that,” said Cory Flannery, of Montross, Va., who said he and Theriot attended middle school together in Richmond County, where Theriot lived for some years as a child. “I just want people to know that Dakota was not that person. That wasn’t him. Something had to have happened.”
Authorities said Theriot’s parents kicked him out of their trailer a couple of weeks ago, but they do not know why or whether he had been estranged from his family. Flannery said Theriot had a tumultuous relationship with his father.
The rampage began shortly before 9 a.m. Saturday, when authorities in Livingston Parish, east of Baton Rouge, received a 911 call about three victims who had been shot, Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said. Killed were Summer Ernest, 20; her father, Billy Ernest, 43, and her younger brother, Tanner Ernest, 17, each shot once in the head, Ard said.
Ard said there were two children inside the home, ages 7 and 1. They were not harmed. He said the children ran to a neighbor’s home, where someone called 911.
Theriot then stole Billy Ernest’s 2004 Dodge pickup truck and drove to Ascension Parish, about 30 miles away, and shot his parents, Elizabeth and Keith Theriot, both 50, inside their trailer, authorities said.
Before he died, Keith Theriot managed to call 911 and tell officers that his son had shot him, Webre said.
After the shooting, Theriot drove for 16 hours overnight to Warsaw, Va., according to the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. Officials in Virginia had been warned of the slayings in Louisiana and that the suspect has family connections in the area.
Richmond County Sheriff Stephan Smith was not available for comment Sunday, but he told the Advocate that Theriot drove to his grandmother’s home in Warsaw. The grandmother and other family members had moved to a hotel in case Theriot tried to contact them.
When Theriot arrived early Sunday in Billy Ernest’s Dodge truck with a gun pointed out the window, deputies were at the house, the sheriff’s office said in a news release. Theriot later surrendered.
Smith told the Advocate that Theriot seemed tired and made statements about the slayings. He will face five counts of first-degree murder, among other charges.
Flannery said he and Theriot became best friends during middle school. He said Theriot was “always hyper,” cheerful and flirtatious with girls. As they got older, he said Theriot became more rebellious and disrespectful to teachers, but he said Theriot was never violent.
“He wouldn’t have just woken up and said, ‘Hey I need to kill these people,’” Flannery said.
Authorities had described Summer Ernest as Theriot’s girlfriend and said the two had just started dating. But Paul Hays, Jr., Summer’s cousin, said that wasn’t true and that Summer had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with someone else. He said that the two became friends only recently and that the family just met Theriot at a birthday party last weekend.
“To the whole family, he was a stranger,” Hays said.
Summer was simply trying to help a friend who had lost a home, he added.
“The whole family is very loving. We’re a close, Christian family. We’re always on the phone with each other, telling each other we love each other. We’re a tight family,” Hays said, adding later: “We’re praying for his family, too.”
“We’re really torn apart. Still can’t believe it’s real even though we got national news going into our driveways,” Hays said. “This is really happening. We’re never really going to see them again.”
A GoFundMe page has been created on behalf of Summer and Tanner Ernest’s mother, Rhonda Champagne.
“My babies died for nothing,” Champagne told reporters at a family member’s home Sunday, according to ABC affiliate WBRZ. “Their daddy died for nothing. For what?”
Flannery, Theriot’s childhood friend, said he’s sorry for the victims and their family.
“I’m very sorry that Dakota had a moment that he did ... I’m sorry that they had to meet Dakota at that time,” he said.
This post has been updated.