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Xanax-bingeing teens charged in connection with 17-year-old's death. Was it a game gone wrong or murder?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The empty house was tucked on a cul-de-sac in Henderson, Nevada, a sprawling suburb 20 minutes by car from the all-hours neon hum of the Las Vegas Strip. Five bedrooms topped by a terra-cotta roof, palms trees waving in the small gravel yard, the Cool Lilac Avenue address looked as neat and tidy as the other identical properties crammed onto the block. Inside was different.

In the first week of June, the house was a rollicking mash-up of Neverland and a hip-hop video. For days, teens swung in and out, partying in rooms gashed with spray paint. They shot pool and lounged on abandoned furniture draped with plastic sheets. They guzzled vodka, gulped down Xanax, and belched out lungfuls of marijuana smoke. And they gawked for cellphone videos when two teenagers - Jaiden Caruso, 16, and Kody Harlan, 17 - allegedly arrived for the unsupervised bacchanal with two handguns, according to testimony given this week at a preliminary court hearing.

The party was over by the time police pushed through the door on the evening June 8 with a search warrant. The house was empty. The officers headed for a closed closet door in the first-floor hallway. Inside, twisted in a bedsheet and plastic furniture covering, was the dead body of 17-year-old Matthew Minkler. A single .357 bullet had blasted through the victim's chin. After sealing Minkler within, someone scrawled a message on the closet door: "F- k Matt."

On Monday, testimony was heard at a preliminary hearing for Caruso and Harlan viewed by The Washington Post on video. Police and witnesses sketched Minkler's final hours and relayed how police eventually came to arrest to the two teenagers. But major questions - fogged over by shifting stories and finger pointing - remain unanswered, mainly whether Minkler's death was the result of a Xanax-fueled mistake, a game of Russian roulette gone wrong, or murder.

Following the hearing, Henderson Justice of the Peace Sam Bateman determined both Caruso and Harlan will be charged as adults for Minkler's murder. Attorneys for both defendants did not respond to The Washington Post's request for comment. But the testimony this week highlighted the ugly tension likely to play out as the case marches on - the question of whether Minkler's death was an accident or murder.

The victim's mother, Jamie Shanklin, has vocally alleged her son's death was more than a mishap. Shanklin sat in the courtroom throughout the hearing on Monday, tearfully clutching a green heart-shaped box.

"Jaiden had a 'beef' with my son. Jaiden never told him. He pretended they were friends," Shanklin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month.

Police might not have learned about it so soon but for a speeding luxury car.

Henderson Police Officer Katherine Cochran spotted the silver 2006 Mercedes around 7:20 p.m. on June 8. The windows were down, and inside the officer saw teenagers, she testified this week. The car had no license plate on its front bumper - in violation of Nevada law. When the car failed to properly use its turn signal, she prepared to make a traffic stop. But when Cochran popped on her cruiser's lights, the Mercedes rushed off.

The officer pursued the fleeing vehicle, watching as the Mercedes wove into the bike lane and nearly caused a collision. After blowing through a red light, the Mercedes smashed into some landscaping and eventually nosed into a pole near a Chevron gas station. The doors of the Mercedes - which would turn out to be stolen, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported - flew open, and two teenagers tore off.

Cochran bolted for one of the suspects, a young man with shaggy black hair. She cornered him as he was jumping over a nearby fence, pulling his backpack and shoe off before the teenager scrambled over. Cochran quickly tracked him to a nearby business, where the employees told her the suspect was hiding in the back. There, holding his remaining shoe in his hands, the officer found Jaiden Caruso.

Police arrested Kody Harlan a few blocks from the crash scene. A police accident technician testified this week that when the Mercedes was searched, police discovered a black .357 revolver under a plastic bag on the passenger side floorboard. One .357 bullet and a magazine containing four .45 caliber rounds were also inside the car. In the back seat, police found a blue wallet. It was empty save for an identification card for Matthew Minkler.

As Detective Wayne Nichols related in court this week, after Harlan was taken into custody, he allegedly confessed that the pair had been involved in more than joyriding a stolen ride.

"He advised he was present earlier in the evening at a murder," Nichols testified. "Kody said that he was present for the shooting but that he did not shoot the victim."

Harlan told police Caruso had killed Minkler in the abandoned house's kitchen.

According to police documents obtained by the Review-Journal, Harlan led police to the body and told investigators Caruso and Harlan had brought Minkler to the house for the party. Caruso allegedly killed Minkler in Russian roulette - a game where a single bullet is placed in a revolver, the chamber is spun, and the trigger is pulled. Harlan told investigators Caruso was the only one allegedly handling the gun. Evidence from the body showed Minkler was shot from a distance of at least two feet.

On Monday, Detective Nichols testified Harlan "confirmed that he had not called 911 to report the incident" and that Harlan "did not attempt to render aid on the victim." Rather, everyone fled the house. Later, Harlan and Caruso allegedly returned to the house to clean up the scene, eventually moving Minkler into the closet. Court documents allege the pair also took $300 from Minkler's wallet, later spending the cash on shoes and drugs.

Nichols testified that in his first interview with police, Caruso claimed Harlan had been the one who shot the victim.

But then police reviewed the videos found on the suspect's cellphone.

"He'd been lying to me from the very beginning," Nichols told the court.

The video, played in the courtroom on Monday, showed Caruso talking to his camera moments after the shooting.

"Bro, I just caught a body," Caruso told the camera, before panning over to Minkler bleeding out on the kitchen floor.

Confronted with the video, Caruso told investigators the shooting was an accident and that he was on Xanax at the time, Nichols testified.

Further testimony at the hearing this week backed up the allegation that Caruso was the one who killed Winkler. One witness, who had been partying at the house for two days, told the court he was present when the gun went off.

"Jaiden stood up and he grabbed the gun and then he shot Matthew," the witness told the court. "I didn't realize what had happened until I heard my ears ringing."

According to this witness, Harlan was on the couch when Caruso allegedly pulled the trigger. The witness ran after the shot. "I got scared."

Caruso's attorney William Terry argued on Monday there was no evidence his client or Harlan had planned to kill Winkler. Harlan's attorney Keith Brower pressed the point that his client was allegedly on the couch when the bullet was fired.

Throughout the testimony this week, Minkler's mother continued to grip the small green box. Following the hearing, the first significant step in what could be a long legal drama, Jamie Shanklin told the Review-Journal the container held her son's ashes.

"We're going to bring them every time, so he can see his justice being done," she told the paper. "This is a good start. I feel like Matthew is going to get justice."

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This article was written by Kyle Swenson, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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