1 year later, spree victims’ family still learning to cope

Rich and Tyler Smith were among six killed in Feb. 20, 2016 shooting spree

Undated courtesy photos of Rich Smith (left) and Tyler Smith (right).


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s a story behind every piece of jewelry that Laurie Smith wears.

A bracelet with a red bead and a blue bead came from a craft show. She bought it because they represent her son and husband’s favorite colors. Almost every one of her fingers has a ring on it, including a ring she got for her 10-year anniversary, another one her daughter gave her on Valentine’s Day and a ring her sister got her during her honeymoon in Hawaii.

Perhaps the piece she holds most dear is a heart pendant that hangs on a necklace with a dark cylinder in the middle. She cradled it in her hand, explaining it contains her son and husband’s ashes.

“I got it at the visitation after they were cremated and I wear it every day,” Smith said.

It’s now the closest they will ever get.

On Feb. 20, 2016, her husband Rich Smith and their son Tyler were looking at a truck at the Seelye Kia car dealership in Kalamazoo when police say Jason Dalton gunned them down.

Laurie Smith was out that night when a friend warned her about a man randomly shooting people in Kalamazoo and asked if they should check on Smith’s daughter, Emily.

“And I was like, ‘No, she’s in her apartment probably sleeping,'” she recalled.

Then came texts from her twin sister asking if Rich and Tyler were OK. Word of the shooter was spreading. Laurie Smith read about it on Facebook, but the victim descriptions initially didn’t match anyone in her family.

She went home just to make sure everything was all right. That’s when she knew instantly that it wasn’t.

“It wasn’t until I opened the door and didn’t see my husband in the bed and saw his phone charger on the nightstand and then I knew and flashed back to what I saw on Facebook,” Smith said.

Her son, 17-year-old Tyler, had been asking her and her husband earlier that day to look at a truck he was interested in at the Seelye on Stadium Drive.

“He thought we weren’t taking him seriously. And I said, ‘You can show daddy tomorrow when he gets off work,'” Smith said.

Tomorrow never came. In the blink of an eye, she lost half her family.

“I just couldn’t believe it. And I still can’t. I don’t want it to be true, I don’t want it to be them. I don’t want it to be anyone,” Smith said. “But you start thinking, ‘What did I do to deserve this?'”

Her daughter, Emily Lemmer, was supposed to be with her dad and brother that night but stayed behind at her apartment because she wasn’t feeling well.

“And I woke up to my mom screaming,” she recalled. “He was my baby brother and I was supposed to protect him.”

She still doesn’t like the night.

“I remember for months after it happened, I couldn’t go out at night. I couldn’t go to dealerships. I still don’t go to dealerships at night,” she said.

“For the first week after, every time it got dark I just fell apart even more so than during the day because the nighttime resembled everything that had happened,” she continued.

Feb. 20, 2017 marks one year since the shooting, and life goes on. The year was filled with so many milestones the family couldn’t celebrate together. Tyler would have turned 18. He would have graduated high school.

“He was getting good grades and I was so proud of him and looking forward to him graduating and becoming a man and having a family and children and all those things,” his mother said. “But then to go through that loss and not have Rich there, because Rich was always there and there to comfort me and tell me that everything was going to be OK.”

Emily Lemmer had to spend the day she’s dreamed of since she was 10 years old, her wedding day, without her dad and brother. Her father wasn’t there to give her away and her brother wasn’t there to step in.

“I tried to incorporate them in my wedding as much as possible. I did not walk down the aisle with anyone else,” she said.

When the music began, she walked down the aisle by herself, carrying her dad and her brother’s urns. She placed them in an empty chair next to her mother.

The first 365 days after losing half their family has been spent learning how to live after incredible loss, how to move forward, how to cope.

“Every moment of every day, they’re missing out. From the time I wake up and normally would have gotten my son up to go to school to texting my husband throughout the day,” said Smith, a tear streaking down her face.

“I try not to think about them, which hurts even worse because then I feel like I’m trying to forget them when I’m not, it’s just it hurts to think about them,” Lemmer said.

She had the words “Forever strong. Daddy & Tyler” and the date of their death tattooed on her arm.

kzoo-tat
Emily Lemmer shows a tattoo she got in remembrance of her father and brother.

Now, Smith and Lemmer look back at all they’ve lost, still uncertain about what lies ahead.

“I’m doing this thing every day and they’re going to come back. And for some reason I feel like after a year, I’m going to have to face this reality that they aren’t,” Smith said.

The suspected shooter, Jason Dalton, is still awaiting trial on 16 criminal charges, including six counts of murder. He is pleading insanity.

“He stole my life. He stole my child’s chance at having a grandpa on my side and he stole my brother’s chance to be an uncle,” said Lemmer, who is pregnant. “He stole my chance to be an aunt. But most of all, he stole my family and that wasn’t for him to take and I feel sorry for him.”

“I hope that he feels all of our pain, basically for the rest of his life,” Smith said. “I’m probably not supposed to say that as a Christian. I just wish all of our pain on him; victims, survivors, from the moment it happened until we all pass on. I wish all of that pain on him and that he realizes what he’s done.”

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