KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The man who shot eight people in the Kalamazoo area, killing six of them, faced survivor Tiana Carruthers Tuesday, as well as the families his violent rampage forever changed.
Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Judge Alexander Lipsey sentenced Jason Dalton to six counts of mandatory life in prison nearly three years after the murders of Rich and Tyler Smith, Judy Brown, Barbara Hawthorne, Mary Jo Nye and Mary Lou Nye. Abbie Kopf and Carruthers were also seriously wounded in the shootings.
The Feb. 20, 2016 shooting rampage started when Dalton shot Carruthers near her Richland Township home. Later, he gunned down father and son Rich and Tyler Smith outside a Kalamazoo car dealership. The last and bloodiest scene of the night was the parking lot of the Texas Township Cracker Barrel, where Judy Brown, Barbara Hawthorne, Mary Jo Nye and Mary Lou Nye were killed and Abbie was shot in the head. She survived, though she has lingering health problems linked to the wound.
Eleven people addressed Dalton Tuesday. Some of the most emotional moments came when the family of Rich and Tyler Smith addressed their killer.
>>App users: Listen to the survivor’s statements here.
“When you were shooting my son and the nine bullets were riveting in and out of his body as he was dying on the ground, were you thinking of your son? Were you angry at your wife, and that’s why you killed my husband? Shooting him over and over, seven times as he lay dying on the ground?” Laurie Smith asked Dalton.
Emily Lenner revealed that she was planning to be at the dealership the night her brother and father were killed, but she fell asleep.
“I woke up at 3 a.m. to my mom screaming outside my apartment,” Lenner tearfully recounted.
She said the last time she saw her dad alive, she forgot to give him a hug. The next time she would get to hug him was in the funeral home.
“Hugging and holding my dad’s cold body was a nightmare that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Kissing my brother’s cold, pale forehead will never leave my mind. And even though I needed to see them in order to truly know they were gone, it still causes me pain,” she said between tears.
Lenner said every day is a living nightmare.
“I was a daddy’s girl to a ‘T.’ He always knew how to talk to me and always said the right things. He supported me and loved me even when I didn’t deserve it,” she said.
Lenner said at her wedding 10 months after the shootings, she walked down the aisle alone holding a box of their ashes. She said she had a piece of her dad’s shirt sewn into her dress and a rose rested where her brother should’ve been standing.
“I sat broken as the daddy-daughter dance played to the song that I planned to dance to with my dad, remembering back when I was 12 years old and I played my dad the song and he cried saying how much he loved it,” she said.
Lenner said Rich and Tyler also missed the birth of her daughter.
“Nothing could prepare me for the pain I feel when I look into my daughter’s eyes, knowing she will never get to know her grandpa or her uncle,” she told the court between sobs.
“My brother and I talked about, how he would spoil my kids and how he would be the cool uncle that would give him sugar before returning them home,” Lenner said.
Lenner said she was supposed to grow up Tyler, but now she can’t.
“He never got to graduate high school, he never got to turn 21, he never got to get married, but mostly, he never got the chance to live his whole life,” she said.
“Every day I wake up to the reality that two people I loved more than life itself are gone,” Laurie Smith said. “And I have to get up anyway and do what I have to do to be there for my daughter and other family members.”
Laurie Smith recounted how she slept with her husband and son’s dirty clothes for months so she wouldn’t forget their smell. She said she found herself texting them and calling their names out of habit, but her messages went unanswered.
“You have children and you have a spouse, so why did you have to take mine away from me? What gives you the right to not only destroy my family, but your own as well, and all the other innocent families? Laurie Smith asked Dalton.
Lenner also asked Dalton about what led him to murder half of her family, but he continued to look away.
“No matter what I say, my brother and dad won’t come back. But I pray you will take responsibility,” she added.
Carruthers, who was shot multiple times as she shielded children from Dalton’s bullets, also called for empathy.
“What if that was your child out there on the playground? You tried to kill us all. You failed,” Carruthers told Dalton.
Nonetheless, Carruthers tearfully told Dalton she didn’t hate him.
“I hate myself for not hating you. Is there something wrong with me? I ask myself… I want to hug you and tell you I don’t hate you,” she said.
Carruthers asked Dalton three times to look at her, but he never looked up. The judge said it was Dalton’s choice as to how to respond to victim impact statements, and it would be recorded either way.
Carruthers said her daughter lies to her about nightmares she now has so as not to hurt her mother further. Carruthers also read a statement from her daughter to Dalton.
Mary Lou Nye’s husband, who is also the brother of Mary Jo Nye, was the first to address Dalton. He said his wife took care of babies and his sister was a teacher who mentored troubled children.
“I lost the woman I married for 41 years and I lost my little sister. The world has lost two women whose only goal in life was to take care of children,” he said.
The son of Mary Lou Nye said the grandmother of two enjoyed reading to children and rocking babies to sleep.
“She never got to see her autistic grandson say her own name,” he said.
Three of the victim impact statements came from relatives of Barbara Hawthorne, who died after telling first responders to try to save Abbie first.
“Our lives were left shattered,” said Laura Hawthorne.
She said her peace-loving aunt marched for civil rights, fostered a love of reading, loved to play games but hated to lose, had a unique sense of humor and instilled a love of family and tradition.
“You took away from me an aunt that I could laugh and cry with, she was the best cookie maker… and she was the best listener in the world,” Laura Hawthorne said.
“She would’ve been the first to forgive you and try to explain your bizarre behavior that night,” she added.
>>App users: Photos from the sentencing hearing
Judy Brown’s two sons also addressed her killer.
“You are nothing but a pile of worthless evil,” Jeff Reynolds told Dalton.
Reynolds said he was haunted by media coverage of his mother’s death as he made his way across the country to Michigan after the shootings.
“You’ve created a hell for us. And I know that place has a special home for you. And may you forever rot there, beginning this moment,” Jeff Reynolds said.
“My brother and I had to disassemble her entire life. It was gut-wrenching,” Robert Reynolds said. “Now she only lives in our hearts, pictures and memories.”
Kopf, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, did not speak. Her family kept her away from the court proceedings. Later, her mother send 24 Hour News 8 a statement saying, “He got what he deserved. I hope he rots in prison.”
Dalton surprised many last month when he interrupted jury selection for his trial to plead guilty to all six counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and eight weapons charges with which he was charged. He told the judge he had wanted to enter the plea for some time.
The move spared the victims and their family a long and painful trial, but it also left them with questions that will remain unanswered, since Dalton didn’t speak at his sentencing.
After Dalton declined to speak, Judge Lipsey told Dalton the reason why he did what he did would likely stay between Dalton and his creator.
“I would note that early in my tenure as judge, I was given what I characterize as sage wisdom,” Lipsey said. “Our prisons are not designed for those folks we’re mad at, they’re designed for those folks we are afraid of. And you clearly fall into that category.”
“I don’t and never will understand how and why you could do what you did to them, but I hope that you think about it the rest of your life, every single day,” Laurie Smith said.