Saco tragedy shines light on ‘very, very private’ side of domestic violence

Bouquets and a stuffed dog lay in the mulch in front of the River View apartment complex in Saco Monday morning where a family of five was found shot to death inside on Sunday.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Bouquets and a stuffed dog lay in the mulch in front of the River View apartment complex in Saco Monday morning where a family of five was found shot to death inside on Sunday. Buy Photo
Posted July 29, 2014, at 1:20 p.m.
Last modified July 29, 2014, at 3:29 p.m.

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Sgt. Chris Harriman of the Maine State Police confirms the identities of the victims found slain in Saco on Sunday at a press conference Monday afternoon. He said 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.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sgt. Chris Harriman of the Maine State Police confirms the identities of the victims found slain in Saco on Sunday at a press conference Monday afternoon. He said 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.

SACO, Maine — On June 13, 2011, the day Steven Lake shot and killed his wife and two children in Dexter, a neighbor told a Bangor Daily News reporter, “Everyone knew something bad was going to happen.”

Amy Lake had filed a protection from abuse order against her husband nearly a year earlier, after he held the family at gunpoint in their Wellington home. Steven Lake had been charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening, among other red flags in the family’s recent history.

Fast-forward to Monday morning in Saco, less than two days after Joel Smith shot and killed his wife, Heather, and three children: Stepson Jason Montez, 12, and biological children Noah Montez, 7, and Lily Smith, 4.

Neighbors in the RiverView apartment complex in Saco where the incident took place said they never heard yelling and screaming coming from the second floor unit where the family lived, and described the Smiths as a “regular family,” and “social, friendly” people who would barbecue outside and share their food liberally with others.

“How can a father kill his family and then himself? How could he do it?” nearby resident Joyce Testa pondered incredulously on Monday. “He couldn’t have been in his right mind to do something like that — especially a baby 4 years old.”

For Mainers working to prevent domestic violence, the stark differences between the public faces put on by the two families illustrates just how far society still has to go in identifying warning signs.

“The danger here is for us to assume that every act of domestic violence is preceded by signals that anyone could have read,” said Arthur Jette, community outreach advocate for the Dover-Foxcroft-based Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance and head of the Maine Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.

“Clearly, [the Saco case] doesn’t have the same history that some of the other domestic homicides have had in the past. There wasn’t that evidence trail of abuse that was on a continuum,” he continued. “There were specific incidents that people could relay after the fact or situations that had been reported to police or other agencies in the case of Amy.”

Local and state police on Monday said they had never been called to respond to an incident involving the Smiths before the Saturday night tragedy, in which investigators believe Joel Smith shot and killed the two boys in their bedrooms with a 12-gauge shotgun before using it to murder Heather and Lily in the master bedroom and finally turning the weapon on himself.

“Sometimes the dynamics of domestic violence are very, very private, and maybe no one will ever see them outside the walls of the home,” said Margo Batsie of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. “It’s not shocking to me that there wasn’t screaming, because maybe that wasn’t what the power struggle in that family was. No two relationships are the same — for us to say, ‘this is what domestic violence looks like,’ that’s a really complex statement.”

Jim LaPierre — a licensed clinical social worker who writes about abuse and mental illness, among other topics, in a Bangor Daily News blog — said on Tuesday it’s a “myth that violent men are identifiable.”

“[A] lot of offenders are very charming men outside their homes,” he said. “It can be extraordinarily difficult to identify a man’s mental illness, addiction, or other instability. It depends largely on his ability to maintain composure and for many, their ability to carry on a dual life.”

“Some of the most violent men I have met were the deacons of their church, executives of charitable organizations, and pillars of their community,” LaPierre continued. “We tend to judge a man by his actions and assume that they are reflections of his character. In most cases this is a reasonable assumption. Men who perpetrate [domestic violence crimes] have far greater incentive to hide their true selves than the rest of us. In cases like the Smiths, it appears no one saw evidence of danger.”

As more details emerged about Joel Smith in the aftermath of the crime, it became apparent that he struggled with depression and, at one point in the days leading up to the Saturday incident, put a gun to his head and threatened suicide in front of his wife.

But that side of Joel Smith was not apparent to his neighbors in the apartment complex or others outside of his close family network.

Had Heather Smith not confided in a friend about his suicide threat during the hours before the murder-suicide, it’s possible nobody would have ever known of it, police said.

“In those families where one of the parties in the relationship expresses — as he allegedly did — a desire and willingness to kill himself, that’s a serious cry for help or a serious warning that something more dangerous can happen,” Jette said. “We’ve already determined that there’s nothing more dangerous than someone with nothing left to lose.”

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on Monday pointed to what her office called a “pattern connecting suicidal behaviors and the potential for homicide.”

Citing recent reports by the state’s Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, Mills’ office stated that in the 21 cases the panel most recently reviewed, 14 of the perpetrators — or 66 percent — “exhibited suicidal behavior” before committing or attempting to commit domestic abuse homicides.

Seven of those perpetrators followed through and killed themselves.

Batsie said that statements like, “I can’t live without you,” can be deceptively controlling statements in a relationship, and ones that should raise alarm.

“That’s a very classic domestic violence presentation,” she said. “I think there’s almost always some sign of that power and control, but how that looks can be really different from relationship to relationship.

“What’s hard about this is it is so complex. There’s no clear way that we could have reached every family, so we just have to keep doing what we know works,” Batsie continued. “It feels like we’ve come so far with domestic violence and then something like this happens and it’s apparent we still have a long way to go.”

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.

 

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