Owyhee County man accused of slaying young hitchhiker

Nicholas Vandenberg is accused of killing a teenage boy.

OWYHEE COUNTY -- An Owyhee County man is facing murder charges in the shooting death of a teenager whose body was found in the Owyhee County desert Saturday.

Although tests confirming the victim's identity are still pending, Owyhee County Prosecutor Douglas Emery said the victim is believed to be 18-year-old Hunter Smith of Junction City, Oregon.

Smith, who would have turned 19 this month, was murdered around June 22, Emery said.

Nicholas B. Vandenberg, 27, is facing charges of first-degree murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and destruction of evidence in connection to Smith's death.

Emery said Smith and Vandenberg did not know each other, and had met just before the murder happened. A motive in the case remains under investigation.

"As far as we can ascertain, there was no bad relationship between the two," he said. "This is something that arose, apparently, in a short amount of time."

According to a missing persons flyer that circulated after Smith's disappearance in June, the teen was trying to hitchhike from Junction City, Oregon to Nebraska when he went missing. Emery said it's not clear whether Vandenberg offered the victim a ride before the slaying, but added that police are following up on leads related to Smith's hitchhiking.

Smith died from at least one gunshot wound to his upper torso, Emery said.

Vandenberg is accused of stripping Smith's body of his clothes to make him harder to identify, and leaving the body in the desert off Hot Springs Road, about 15 miles north of the Nevada border. Emery said investigators think Smith was killed in that area, which is not far from Vandenberg's home.

Vandenberg himself remarked on how close the discovered remains were to his house on Facebook Monday, before his arrest.

The suspect shared a KTVB story about the body found in the desert, captioning the post "this is close to where i live... wtf!?"

When a Facebook friend responded - apparently jokingly - that Vandenberg should have hidden the body better, the suspect responded again in the comments.

"If it was me, i wouldnt have left him in the desert lol too much risk of ‘hunters stumbling on dead body’ lol," he wrote.

An hour later, Vandenberg weighed in again.

"Being the bruneau desert area (very open and vast) with 2 state highways running through it, the body could have come from anywhere at any time unfortunately," he posted.

Vandenberg was arrested Thursday.

Emery said that investigators were "absolutely" aware of Vandenberg's online posts.

"It's certainly evidence that could be very incriminating if it is found that it relates directly to this matter," the prosecutor said Friday. "Those are clues, or that is certainly a lead that is being pursued."

The killing remains under investigation by the Idaho State Police.

An Elmore County judge ordered Vandenberg to be held without bond Friday afternoon. He will be transported back to Owyhee County to face the charges. If convicted, Vandenberg could face up to life in prison or the death penalty.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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