SACO, Maine — State police said Monday afternoon that 33-year-old Joel Smith shot and killed his wife and three children before killing himself on Saturday night in their apartment on Water Street.
Smith shot his wife, Heather Smith, 35; his stepson, Jason Montez, 12; and two biological children, Noah Montez, 7, and Lily Smith, 4, Maine State Police Sgt. Chris Harriman said at a press conference.
The older two children were shot in their separate bedrooms, and Heather Smith and the daughter were killed in the master bedroom.
Joel Smith’s body was found on the floor beside the bed with a 12-gauge shotgun at his side, according to police. No suicide note was found.
Harriman said it appeared all the victims were sleeping in bed at the time of the shootings. Some were shot multiple times.
“We know that they were having some domestic issues, maybe financial,” Harriman said of the couple. “We’re going to try to get to the bottom of that by interviewing friends, family, friends of the children.”
Heather Smith had told a family friend the night of the shooting that her husband had threatened suicide earlier in the week by pointing a gun at his head, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
McCausland said in a news release Monday afternoon that there is no indication any assistance was sought by family members after that incident, and although neighbors reported hearing loud noises coming from the apartment Saturday night, no one called police.
Harriman said police had not previously been called to the house. He said prescription medications were found in the house, but no illegal drugs nor any sign of any other illegal activity.
A background check done by the BDN through the Maine State Bureau of Identification shows no criminal record for either Joel or Heather Smith in Maine.
The family moved to Maine from Arizona about two years ago, Harriman said. Joel Smith was a maintenance worker at the apartment complex and Heather Smith worked as a medical assistant.
The bodies were found in the apartment after a friend reportedly became concerned about the family’s well-being and called a worker at the apartment complex. The worker found one of the bodies.
On Monday morning, mourners had placed three bouquets of carnations and a stuffed dog next to the RiverView Apartments sign at the complex.
Sitting outside a bottom floor apartment, Joyce Testa said she didn’t know the parents, but had seen the children playing in the neighborhood.
“It’s so sad when it’s kids,” she said.
Aaron Petrin, who said he lives five doors away from the apartment where the incident took place, said he heard the father call the kids inside to wash up for supper on Saturday night.
Petrin said the mother argued that the kids should be allowed to play outside later, but he didn’t think it was the sort of debate that would rise to violence. Petrin said he later heard what sounded like fireworks coming from inside the family’s apartment.
“They seemed like a regular … family [on the] outside, always barbecuing and offering their neighbors food,” Petrin said. “It’s crazy that the kids would be affected. They had no control over the situation.”
Ryan Lamb, who lives two doors down on the second floor from where the incident occurred, said his 10-year-old daughter played with the 12-year-old boy who was killed, and she had trouble sleeping after the shootings.
Lamb said he never heard any fighting in the family’s apartment and said the incident was a “shock.”
“Nobody expected this,” he said. “They were social, friendly.”
Harriman said Monday afternoon that family members are due to fly to Portland on Tuesday for additional police interviews.
Saco Police Chief Bradley Paul said the investigation took a toll on his officers.
“There were children involved. Many of our investigators have children,” Paul said. “This is a very difficult scene to investigate. It’s a very difficult scene to deal with.”
The case comes three years after the murders of 38-year-old Amy Lake and her two children, Coty, 13, and Monica, 12, by her estranged husband and their father, 37-year-old Steven Lake, in Dexter.
Steven Lake shot himself to death after shooting his wife and children.
Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the Maine attorney general’s office, said Monday that while the office does not formally track homicide statistics, “the recollection among certain people in the office is that there has not been a quadruple homicide with an apparent suicide in a single incident in Maine — at least in their memory.”
McCausland said the Saco murders mark the sixth time since 1941 that four people have been killed in a multiple homicide.
Most recently, in September 2006, 31-year-old Christian Neilsen killed and dismembered three women at a Newry bed and breakfast and killed and mutilated a man from Arkansas.
In 1992, Virgil Smith set fire to a Munjoy Hill apartment building in Portland, killing a baby and three adults. Smith was found guilty of arson and four counts of murder by depraved indifference and sentenced to 58 years in prison.
In March 1988, Earle J. Losier Jr. shot and killed his brother, his brother’s pregnant girlfriend and her two brothers in Bangor. He was convicted of four counts of murder the next year and sentenced to four concurrent life sentences with no chance of parole.
In 1980, a man shot and killed three other men and a woman, and then himself, in a drug-related incident in Ogunquit, according to McCausland.
In 1941, a man shot and killed his wife, mother, aunt and nephew in Lewiston.
Going back more than two centuries, however, it is believed that James Purrinton of Augusta killed his wife and seven of eight children with an ax in July 1806 before cutting his own throat with a razor and dying, according to a Maine State Library report.
Despite the horrific tragedy, Maine is still considered one of the safest states in the country. In 2011, a study by the Institute for Economics and Peace listed Maine as the most peaceful state in the country — it had been for more than a decade.
The study cited factors including the number of murders: 1.8 per 100,000 residents per year, tied for seventh-least in the country.
Maine was ranked first overall because it topped the list of states on three of the five indicators: number of violent crimes, number of police officers and incarceration rate.
Attorney General Janet T. Mills said in a statement Monday afternoon that the “devastating” incident should remind people to take threats of violence and suicide seriously.
“Telling your boyfriend or girlfriend, ‘I can’t live without you’ can quickly cross from the innocuous to the devastating,” Mills said. “In the context of an abusive relationship, these utterances are veiled threats of violence, with a strong undercurrent of manipulation and control. Recognizing the signs of abuse — and acting upon them — is key to preventing future tragedies like this.”
Gov. Paul LePage, who has made fighting domestic violence a priority during his administration, said Monday that he was deeply saddened, “but very frustrated at the same time.”
“We as a society need to be vigilant of this type of violence before it’s too late,” LePage said in a statement. “Too often, we overlook or ignore the signs of domestic abuse. We need to change that. Our judicial system fails our society when [district attorneys] and judges agree to reduce domestic violence to lesser charges or reduce sentences for those guilty of this crime. This is unacceptable because lives are on the line. Domestic violence is real and it can escalate in seconds, leading to severe beatings or even death, changing families forever. I am devastated by this most recent tragedy, but I will not turn my back on this very serious issue. We must address the flaws in our system.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.