KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Five years have not eased the pain for Laurie Smith, who lost her husband and son in the Kalamazoo shootings. But she and her daughter Emily say they have found comfort and a focus through their grief.
Laurie says, "I miss him more than I could ever tell you and Tyler I don't even know how to explain how much I miss him."
Laurie Smith's husband Rich and teenage son Tyler were the first two people shot and killed by Jason Dalton. Time hasn't made the loss any easier for Laurie or her daughter Emily.
Emily Smith-Lemmer says, "To me, the longer it goes, the longer that it's been since February 20, 2016, it's like more painful."
Rich Smith and his son Tyler were best buddies, they loved anything with a throttle. That night Rich and Tyler Smith stopped at a car dealership lot to look at trucks in the parking lot.
Emily says she planned to go with them, but she fell asleep and when she woke up her life was changed. "That guilt is always going to be there but now it's like okay Emily even if you were there, there is absolutely nothing that they could do or what I could do."
Some things haven't changed in five years.
Laurie still wears her wedding ring. She still lives in their house surrounded by photos and memories, but now Emily and her three-year old daughter live with her. Laurie says "She's very aware. Very aware of who Grandpa and Uncle T.T. are."
Emily says her daughter is literally a spitting image of both of her brother and her father. Emily says, "I have a picture of her doing the same exact face as my brother and they look identical. And she's got a lot of my dad in her too so it's kinda cool to see she's really my saving grace.”
At Mattawan High School, five years later, a pine tree is growing. It’s a living memorial to Tyler, who was a student and a member of the soccer team.
The Cracker Barrel Restaurant where four others were killed in the parking lot five years ago has since closed.
Emily says the tragedy created a family among the family members and survivors. She says they are a family because they went through the trial together and share the same date. That same date, February 20. 2016, means the same thing to all of them.
Five years later Jason Dalton is serving his life sentence at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee.
Emily says her parents instilled in her that it’s not right to hate and you should love everyone. She says she tried very hard to hate Jason Dalton, but she can’t.
Laurie’s faith inspired her to start the "Forever Strong Foundation" a non-profit organization to give back to the community.
She says she has faith that she’s going to get through it and she’s not going to give up. She’ll continue giving through “Forever Strong.”
The families stay connected through a private Facebook page. That includes the two survivors, Tiana Carruthers and Abbie Kopf.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, they will commemorate the five-year anniversary with an online prayer event. The community is encouraged to participate. Visit the Forever Strong Foundation's Facebook for more details.
A new podcast was just released about the Kalamazoo Shootings. "The Daily Crime" is one of the top ten, true crime podcasts. The producers interviewed Juliet Dragos for the show. You'll find "The Daily Crime, Kalamazoo Shooting Spree" on Apple or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/show/5MCQgSSVQEPB6ME2jSy9u2
Laurie Smith released this statement concerning the anniversary:
As we approach the upcoming five year anniversary of the Kalamazoo mass shooting, we not only want to remember the lives lost and forever changed, on that tragic night... but also want to celebrate those beautiful souls and share love, grace, strength and hope with the community. Forever Strong Memorial Foundation would like to invite anyone who has experienced loss or tragedy of any kind in the past, or maybe you're going through it right now, to send us as email at email@example.com so that on the evening of the 20th and beyond, we can pray for you. Your email can be as vague or detailed as you like. We will not share it or your info with anyone other than God in prayer. God created all of us for community to love one another. And although we cannot physically get together with you all right now. We want to get together virtually and ask our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to bless you with comfort, health strength love and hope for a better tomorrow.
We love you all and are so humbled by the outpouring of kindness and love and support that you all have shown us over the past five years.
Forever Strong Memorial Foundation will provide opportunities to gather together in person as soon as it is safe to do so. But in the meantime, we wanted to reach out and offer this opportunity for prayer and hope through our faith. Because forever we are strong together.
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