As 16-year-old Nolen Buchanan appeared Monday in a Placerville courtroom on suspicion of killing his own family members, residents tried to make sense of an unfathomable situation in his bayside Benicia hometown and the foothills community with the charred ruins of the Buchanan weekend cabin.
The remains of the teen’s father, Adam Buchanan, 38; his fiancée, Molly McAfee, 37; and their 8-year-old son, Gavin, were found Sept. 13 among the remnants of the El Dorado County property along Highway 193 in Greenwood. The three had been shot before the fire, El Dorado County sheriff’s officials said.
“They seemed to be a typical American family,” Benicia neighbor Stephen Dean said.
Prosecutors in the charging documents allege the Benicia youth killed his father, father’s fiancée and 8-year-old half-brother Sept. 13 at their Greenwood cabin with shots from a .22-caliber rifle. The charges do not include arson.
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Family and friends divided by the crime and its human toll declined to speak to reporters after the hearing, during which Nolen Buchanan’s formal arraignment was delayed until Nov. 2 by El Dorado Superior Court Judge Nelson Keith Brooks. Members of the victims’ family were escorted past reporters to their cars outside the Placerville courtroom on Fairlane Court by plainclothed sheriff’s deputies.
The teen’s supporters filed out alone, some clutching hands, as they walked to their cars.
The family moved into Dean’s neighborhood about eight years ago, the Benicia resident recalled. He said he didn’t have a lot of direct contact with the Buchanans, but because they spent a good amount of time in the front yard, he felt he had a read on them.
“The boys from what I could observe … looked like they were being treated very well and being given opportunity to do kids’ stuff,” Dean said. Nolen Buchanan and his father seemed to work hard and play well together.
Adam Buchanan was president and chief operating officer of Buchanan Construction in Benicia, and he ran his construction business out of the family home. Dean had the impression that business was good.
The family owned a pontoon party boat. A pair of vintage cars were parked in a garage. And Nolen Buchanan had several off-road vehicles at his disposal, a motorcycle and ATV among them.
But it wasn’t all play. Dean said the teen helped his dad work on the house and seemed to take the lead in maintaining the yard of an older single woman who used to live on the block.
On several occasions, Dean saw Nolen Buchanan and his father load into the family truck with a rifle. “I think he was teaching him to hunt or to shoot,” Dean said.
From Interstate 80 in Auburn, the serpentine stretch of Highway 193 climbs into the rugged Georgetown Divide above the American River and cuts through tiny Greenwood, a place thick with oak and pine where the elevation (1,608 feet) exceeds the population. A cabin off the highway in Greenwood at the end of a winding gravel and dirt road was the Buchanans’ weekend getaway for about a year, but few ever saw them, residents said – not unusual in a community of homes and parcels set deep in the trees and away from main roads.
Residents who lived near the cabin said the family often drove in late on a Friday, leaving again late Sunday or Monday. They didn’t pick up mail at the town post office and rarely stopped by the town’s hardware store, Georgetown Divide Supply Co.
The day of the fire and the family’s deaths, a woman believed to be McAfee stopped by the hardware store, said store owner Jerry Hoyt. He was not working that day, but said surveillance cameras showed a woman purchasing Sheetrock and other building supplies. He said El Dorado County sheriff’s investigators have since collected the footage.
About 11 a.m., fire crews rushed to a blaze that broke out a couple of miles into the trees. Only later would Greenwood residents learn of the Buchanans’ deaths. Few knew them, Hoyt said, but it doesn’t lessen the shock in this small foothill community.
“This is Small Town, U.S.A., things like this don’t happen here,” Hoyt said Friday from the store floor. “But guess what? It did.”