Man Accused of Killing Girlfriend, Family Pleads Not Guilty

Man Accused of Killing Girlfriend, Family Pleads Not Guilty
Dakota Theriot (L), is escorted to the Ascension Parish Courthouse East in Gonzales, La., on Feb. 1, 2019. (Matthew Hinton/AP Photo)

LIVINGSTON, La.—A man accused of killing his girlfriend, her family, and his parents in Louisiana pleaded not guilty on March 18. Prosecutors said they’re seeking the death penalty.

News outlets reported that 21-year-old Dakota Theriot entered the pleas Monday to three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his girlfriend, Summer Ernest; her father, Billy Ernest; and her brother, Tanner Ernest.

Authorities said Theriot shot the Ernests in Livingston Parish, then his parents, Elizabeth and Keith Theriot, in Ascension Parish. He was arrested in Virginia. The five slayings happened in January.

Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said he considered reports that Theriot is mentally ill, but ultimately nothing convinced prosecutors not to seek his execution. Perrilloux expects an insanity defense.

Theriot hasn’t been indicted yet in Ascension Parish. His lawyer declined to comment to The Advocate.

Suspect Wanted to Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Theriot drove to Virginia to try to hug and kiss two aunts and a grandmother goodbye, his court-appointed attorney in Virginia said on Feb. 1.

“He basically wanted to say ‘I love you, I’m sorry,’” Attorney Steve Barnette said. “He knows he’s probably never going to see the outside of a jail again.”

Authorities in Louisiana have said Theriot confessed to investigators who had traveled to Virginia, although they said his motives remain unclear.

dakota 3
Louisiana Capital Assistance Center Staff Attorney Elliott Brown (L) and court-appointed Attorney Steve Barnette, who are representing Dakota Theriot in his extradition hearing, speak outside court in Warsaw, Va., on Feb. 1, 2019. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

The hearing on Feb. 1 was Theriot’s first court appearance since being arrested outside his grandmother’s house in Warsaw, a small town in a rural area about an hour northeast of Richmond.

The brief hearing offered no new details about the killings.

Theriot showed little emotion and offered polite yes and no responses to the judge, who explained he had the right to fight extradition. Bound in handcuffs and chained in a blue jail jumpsuit, he awkwardly signed forms at a table. A deputy kept a hand on the chain throughout the hearing. He did not appear to acknowledge his relatives in the courtroom, and they declined to comment.

Dakota Theriot, a man suspected in two shootings that left five people dead in January 2019, in Louisiana has been arrested in Virginia. (Richmond County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

According to Barnette, Theriot told him he had recently tried to join the U.S. Army but had a falling out during the recruitment process.

“He knows he could face the death penalty,” Barnette said.

Elliott Brown, a staff attorney at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, had also traveled to Virginia to meet with Theriot. Brown did not speak during the hearing and declined to comment. The center represents low-income defendants charged with capital crimes.

Authorities in Louisiana have said Theriot provided a lot of information to investigators about how the killings unfolded but his motive remained elusive.

“We don’t really know what the motive is. We just know what he did,” Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said at a news conference on Jan. 29.

Authorities said Theriot was kicked out of his own house and his girlfriend’s family had taken him in a few weeks ago. Summer Ernest, 20, had been dating Theriot for only a couple of weeks.

The sheriff said Theriot told investigators he used a gun he stole from his father to kill Summer. The other victims were identified as father Billy Ernest, 43; brother Tanner Ernest, 17; and Theriot’s own parents, Keith and Elizabeth, both 50.

Louisiana Shooting
Investigators work at the scene of the shooting in Livingston Parish, La. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP)

Ard said Theriot had tagged along with Billy as he drove his wife to work. Shortly after, Summer and her father and brother were each shot once in the head. Two children in the Ernest home—a 7-year-old and a 1-year-old—went to a neighbor’s house and the neighbor called Livingston Parish law enforcement, he said.

Keith Theriot survived long enough to call 911 and tell arriving deputies that his son had shot him, authorities said.

Theriot’s grandmother in Virginia had checked into a hotel Saturday night, fearing he might show up there, authorities said. She asked police to check her house to ensure it was safe.

Authorities said deputies saw Theriot drive up in Billy Ernest’s pickup truck on Jan. 27, with a gun pointed out the window.

Richmond County Sheriff Stephan Smith said shortly after the hearing Theriot’s gun was actually not pointed at the deputies but they still took cover behind their vehicles and told Theriot to stop the truck and drop the gun, which he did.

“It’s a shame it happened,” Smith said. “I’m just glad it turned out the way it did here.”

Smith revealed Theriot has several relatives who live in the area of Warsaw, a small town in a county with a population of less than 10,000.

People who lived with Keith and Elizabeth said Theriot had struggled with drugs and experienced violent outbursts. His relationship with Summer also raised red flags with her family and friends.

Ben Finley contributed to this report.

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