SACO — About 200 people, many of them children, gathered around a memorial outside a Saco apartment building Tuesday evening to remember a family of five who died there last weekend.
People clutched candles during the vigil at the RiverView Apartments complex on Water Street and listened to words of comfort from Biddeford and Saco religious leaders.
Flowers, teddy bears and stuffed animals were displayed in a small memorial near the second-floor apartment where the family had lived.
“We come together as a community of faith and a community that loved these five people,” said Kevin Jacques, a deacon at the Good Shepherd Parish in Saco. “We don’t always know why certain things happen in life, but when something like this happens we realize how fragile life can be.”
Many people cried and children leaned on the shoulders of their parents as the community tried to come to terms with how a father could have used a 12-gauge shotgun to shoot his three young children and his wife in their bedrooms before turning the gun on himself.
State police said the deaths of the shooter, 33-year-old Joel Smith, his wife, 35-year-old Heather Smith, and their three children, Jason Montez, 12, Noah Montez, 7, and 4-year-old Lily Smith was one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Maine history.
Joel Smith did not leave a suicide note, and police said they also hadn’t found any protection-from-abuse orders or court paperwork since the family moved to Maine from Arizona a few years ago.
Tuesday night’s vigil was organized by Heather and Dellas Nason, who also live on Water Street. Although the Nasons knew the family well, Heather was very familiar with the children from having worked briefly as their baby sitter.
Nason, who broke into tears as she spoke, said the children “were a great set of kids.” She remembered them skateboarding through the neighborhood.
“I’m going to miss seeing their little faces playing outside,” she said.
Nason urged the crowd to seek help if they are having marital problems.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “Another tragedy like this doesn’t need to happen.”
Grief counselors and police officers mingled with the crowd, which blocked Water Street and the large parking lot in front of 35 Water St. where the Smiths and their children lived. They handed out brochures and pamphlets that contained 24-hour hot lines and agencies to call for families in crisis.
Emily Gormley, a domestic violence advocate for CaringUnlimited, York County’s domestic violence program with offices in Sanford and Biddeford, called the murders “disturbing.” She said domestic violence in a family can often be hard for outsiders to detect.
“A lot of times, domestic violence is hidden (from the community). The public often sees a different side than what is really happening,” Gormley said.
Saco Mayor Don Pilon urged residents who need help with domestic violence issues or help dealing with the family’s deaths to contact the city.
“This is a small community,” Pilon said of the three RiverView Apartments buildings. “But when this street suffers a tragic event like this, all of Saco suffers.”
Jacques said the tragedy reached beyond Saco and even Maine.
“People outside this state have been touched and affected by what happened here,” the church deacon said.
Jacques urged parents to reach out to their children, to assure them that they are loved and that this type violence will not happen to them.
He then turned to a group of children who were holding balloons. Jacques said the balloons carried messages inside for the children who had been murdered.
He told the children to release the balloons, and they floated skyward.