By now all of Maine knows what happened: Late Saturday night, Joel Smith grabbed his shotgun and, one by one, murdered his wife and three children before turning the weapon on himself.
But two far more vexing questions remain: Why did he do it? And could this nightmare, like so many that have preceded it, have been prevented?
“It is really heartbreaking stuff,” said Dr. Neil Websdale in a telephone interview on Monday from Northern Arizona University. “When you think about those children, it’s just tragic.”
Websdale, director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative, is an internationally recognized expert on “familicide” – homicides in which a spouse, almost always the male, kills his female partner, their children and often then takes his own life.
In his 2010 book “Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers,” Websdale identifies two types of perpetrators behind this most shocking of crimes. Both, in just the past few years, have struck here in Maine.
The first is the “livid coercive heart.” He’s that wild-eyed brute who ignores any and all warnings to stay away from his spouse and children until one day his rage overtakes him and, just as everyone feared, an entire family lies dead.
Steven Lake, who killed his estranged wife and two children in Dexter three years ago despite numerous attempts to keep him away, clearly falls into that category. Ignoring a protection from abuse order, he broke into his wife’s home and started shooting – even as a police officer, checking up on Amy Lake and her two children, pulled into the driveway.
The second type of perpetrator is what Websdale calls the “civil reputable heart.” Typically a model citizen on the outside, he provides no red flags whatsoever until one day, out of the blue, he erupts in a frenzy of violence.
The investigation into last weekend’s massacre is still going on – and on Tuesday a relative in Arizona told the Press Herald of serious problems between Smith and his wife, Heather.
But viewed through the prism of his day-to-day life here in Maine, Smith’s demise has “civil reputable” written all over it.
To a person, neighbors of the Smiths at RiverView Apartments told the media this week that Smith appeared to be a stand-up husband and father.
“I heard his kids banging around, but never any arguments,” said one neighbor. “They were good people.”
Noted another, “They were the people that were always out here barbecuing,”
Websdale, who was alerted to the Saco killings via email early Monday morning, said what he’s heard of the case thus far suggests a man who placed a high premium on how others perceived him and his family – even as forces beyond his control eroded his ability to “fit into the social order.”
Smith, according to his mother, suffered from depression and was distraught that his wife, Heather, had recently developed an addiction to heroin and Oxycontin.
Again according to his mother, Joel Smith worked three jobs as he struggled to stay afloat financially – a far cry from his life as a carpenter in his home state of Arizona before the Great Recession dried up that work in 2008.
Smith also fit the “civil reputable” perpetrator’s tendency to conceal his emotional turmoil – at least from the public – while his tightly wound world unravels all around him.
“We typically don’t see a history of violence in these cases – at least that we know about,” said Websdale. That said, “sometimes the violence is very subtle, very discreet” and goes undetected by friends and neighbors.
Underlying it all, Websdale said, is a deep sense of shame. Unable to fulfill his own rigid model of the “real man” who has everything under control, the familicide perpetrator ultimately collapses under the weight of his own perceived failure. And since he sees his family as nothing more than an extension of himself, he’s compelled to take them with him.
“For the offender, it’s a misguided sense of altruism,” said Websdale. “They (his children) won’t feel a thing. He’s rescuing them from a plight worse than death.”
One key to detecting such a breakdown while there’s still time to intervene, said Websdale, is to take any and all talk of suicide seriously.
Just as Steven Lake spoke of suicide long before he opened fire, so did Joel Smith: Police said Heather Smith confided to a friend, only hours before last weekend’s carnage, that her husband threatened to take his own life a few days earlier while holding the shotgun to his head.
“That’s something you should not take lightly, especially in the presence of firearms,” said Websdale. “Suicidal ideations are usually fleeting. They don’t last long. But with a weapon available, the threat gets magnified many, many times over.”
Maine Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese chairs the state’s 17-year-old Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, a group of 27 volunteers who meet privately each month to examine all domestic-violence deaths in Maine involving an intimate partner. From the beginning of 2012 through the end of 2013, they reviewed 21 such fatalities.
“When the (police) investigation is concluded, we will set a time and we will absolutely look at this case in depth,” Marchese said on Tuesday.
In particular, she said, the panel will look for “intersection points” in the Smiths’ timeline where someone – a friend, neighbor, a teacher, an extended family member – might have raised an alert that not all in this family was as it appeared.
“I hate to think that there was absolutely nothing we could have identified,” said Marchese.
Still, from where researcher Websdale sits, it’s that dearth of clear warning signs in cases like this that rattle an entire community, if not an entire state.
It’s also a possible sign of the times: In the four months immediately following the economic collapse of 2008, familicide deaths nationally doubled from the first four months of that year.
Websdale likens the horror now gripping Maine to “a mirror getting held up to the general public.”
“For every one of these that occurs – and fortunately, they’re rare – there are probably many more attempts that have come very close to completion,” Websdale said. “This is post-recession America – everybody’s sunny side up, even though they’re burning inside.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: