Experts search for answers in Saco murder-suicide

AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Law enforcement and advocates for domestic violence victims are looking for answers in the domestic violence murder-suicide in Saco.

The Saco community and many others around the state are still reeling after a murder-suicide that left a family of five dead. Police say Joel Smith killed his wife Heather and their three children before taking his own life. We are beginning to learn more about the family and their troubled past.

Our media partners at the Portland Press Herald spoke with Heather Smith's sister-in-law, Jennifer Montez, who lives in Arizona where the family relocated from two years ago. Montez says Smith was controlling, limiting the amount of time his wife and children could spend with other people. She also says the couple struggled with alcoholism and unemployment. According to police, Joel Smith had threatened suicide in the past.

These are all factors that a panel of experts look at when they analyze domestic violence homicides, to try to understand why they happen, and how they can be prevented. It was just three months ago that the Domestic Violence Homicide Review Panel revealed the findings from its latest report. One of the points they stressed is the connection between suicide and domestic violence homicide. The tragedy in Saco only confirmed those findings.

The 2014 report found that threats of suicide are a precursor to homicide in 66% of the cases over the past two years. That's why law enforcement and advocates for domestic violence victims say it is extremely important to take threats of suicide seriously.

"He was willing to take all three of his children's lives," Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said. "That was a conscious decision by this man to murder his family, and it's important for us to understand why."

Experts also say it is not uncommon for a family to be experiencing abuse even when there are no outward signs.

"Just the statement of, 'I'm going to kill myself,' especially if somebody has a gun in the home and actually uses that gun while making the threats towards suicide, it's just a huge indicator of potential for violence towards everyone in the home" said Emily Gormley of Caring Unlimited, York County's domestic violence program.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there are free, confidential resources out there. You can reach the 24-hour state domestic violence help line by calling 1-866-834-HELP.

Caring Unlimited also has a 24-hour confidential hotline. That number is 1-800-239-7298.


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