KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Saturday marks the five-year anniversary of one of West Michigan’s most violent days.
A Feb. 20, 2016, shooting rampage in Kalamazoo claimed the lives of six people, seriously injured two more and left many others to continue forward with deep heartache.
“When I come here, I knew that this was the last place that they were. So when I’m in that frame of mind, it’s comforting,” Laurie Smith said about revisiting the spot where she lost her husband and son.
Her husband Richard Smith and teen son Tyler were truck shopping at a KIA dealership on Stadium Drive when they were ambushed.
“I would just come here (to the spot where they were gunned down) and be kneeled down on the pavement and be playing a song that reminded me of them and I would just cry,” Smith said.
Rich and Tyler were the first killed that night but the shooting spree started 8 miles away at The Meadows Townhouse in Richland Township. There, Tiana Carruthers shielded her child and others who were outside playing when the shooter pulled up and opened fire. Carruthers was shot several times but survived.
After that, the shooter, who was driving for Uber, picked up and dropped off riders before heading to the KIA dealership.
Tyler’s girlfriend Alexis Cornish was also there that night, but she stayed in the back seat, a decision that saved her life. Her next decision may have saved many more. After the shooter left, she grabbed a phone from Tyler’s pocket and called for help.
But before police could stop the shooter, the most violent moments unfolded in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Texas township.
Four women were killed: Mary Lou Nye and her sister-in-law, Mary Jo Nye, Judy Brown and Barbara Hawthorne. Abbie Kopf, who 14 at the time, was shot in the head, but miraculously survived after her “Grandma Barb” pushed her down to protect her from the barrage of bullets.
The shooter was spotted by police a few hours later and taken into custody. He will remain behind bars for the rest of his life.
“In some ways, it feels like longer than five years when I think about when was the last time I heard Rich and Tyler’s voice or felt their hugs or whatever, their laughs, but in a lot of ways I will never forget that night,” Smith said.
Smith helped pass legislation that created a statewide Public Threat Alert System, which warns the public of an immediate threat to public safety through your cellphone. The system is similar to an Amber Alert.
“I still get goosebumps thinking maybe that would have notified Tyler on his phone,” Smith said. “It could have alerted them and then maybe they would have left.”
The Cracker Barrel is now shut down. The Meadows Townhomes changed its name.
Smith formed ForeverStrong. The charity is moving forward with plans to create memorial soccer fields to honor the victims of the shooting and provide a space for the community to gather. It is currently looking for land.
The survivors have a private Facebook group where they share good days and bad days.
“I see Tiana and the work that she’s been doing and she is just an inspiration, and the fact that Abbie has gone forward with schooling and just a brilliant recovery,” Smith said. “I know they both still struggle. I don’t know intimately what their struggles are, but just the fact that they have just so much strength and will to go forward is so inspiring and so heroic. And then Alexis, too, she is just a joy and has been from the beginning and just a light, just knowing that’s the way Tyler would want her to be.”
Carruthers started a program called Shero With a Message. She travels to speak about her survival story and recovery with the hope to encourage others to overcome obstacles.
Abbie, who was first believed to have died the night of the shooting, is now 19 years old. Her family has moved out of the area.
Cornish received her esthetician license and is working full time.
At the Smith house, a new family member has arrived. Tyler’s sister gave birth to a daughter, who is now 3.
“She is a joy, as you might imagine,” said Smith, who is a grandmother for the first time. “We see a lot of similarities with both Rich and Tyler.”
There was a period when Smith thought she might not go on.
“‘Is it my time, God, is it my time?'” she said she would wonder. “So I’ve stopped asking that.”
She now realizes she is still here for a purpose, which is to carry on the legacy of the lives lost.
“Be kind because that’s what every single person we lost that night (was). They were all kind, giving individuals, so if we can just carry that forward,” Smith said. “What can you do to be kind to someone else?”
Smith says that she will spend the anniversary with friends and family at a private gathering.
The ForeverStrong Memorial Foundation is holding a prayer session for anyone experiencing loss or pain. You can submit prayer request on its Facebook page.