Barricaded incidents show need ‘to get someone help’
The outburst seemingly came out of nowhere.
Within hours one cold Sunday night on Detroit’s east side, Lance Smith transformed from a 49-year-old man who hadn’t been arrested or shown a violent side to neighbors into an armed criminal — holed up inside his home, firing gunshots at his girlfriend’s mother, her aunt, even police officers who swarmed the scene.
The barrage ended with three women dead, three first responders wounded, and the gunman dead from suicide after a nearly 14-hour standoff.
It was the latest in a string of barricaded gunmen incidents in Detroit in recent months that investigators have connected to domestic disputes.
Experts say the shootings spotlight the need to address warning signs — everything from violence prevention to mental health treatment.
“The idea is to get someone help,” said Dr. Gerald Shiener, a Wayne State University forensic psychiatrist. “No one snaps suddenly. Everyone gives an indication they are having a tough time days or weeks before something like this happens.”
Police have released few details about the events leading up to last week’s deadly standoff on Lamont, where Smith and girlfriend Cynthia Williams lived. The couple had argued that night, but what sparked the incident is unclear.
Authorities said Smith, who owned seven guns, did not have a criminal history and appeared not to have any previous run-ins with police. Police Chief James Craig confirmed that his family told investigators they suspected the man had an undiagnosed mental-health condition.
Similar claims were made last month, when officers were called to a domestic violence case at a home in the 5500 block of McDougall. A 911 caller told police she believed Decharlos Brooks was armed and appeared to have had a mental breakdown. When officers arrived, the 43-year-old opened fire — striking Glenn Doss Jr., who died four days later — and barricaded himself for hours.
Dana Lasenby, Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority’s interim CEO, cautioned against linking such violent acts directly to a condition such as depression or schizophrenia. However, she said, those individuals dealing with those issues before choosing to act out likely had been struggling in other ways.
“In training, we do ask people to look for things such as more agitation or increased substance use or fascination with weapons, or financial stressors causing relationship issues — a buildup over time where things that they may normally be able to handle become unbearable,” she said.
Circumstances vary, but in some cases, a confrontation can be the breaking point in a long-simmering volatile relationship, said Sarah Prout Rennie, an attorney and executive director at the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence. “Normally, there’s a pattern of abuse that culminates in a barricaded situation.”
If trouble brewed at home between Smith and Williams, it wasn’t obvious to neighbors.
To her family, Cynthia Williams “was a loving and devoted mother, sister and grandmother,” they said in a statement. “Much like her mother and aunt, she would feed the community through her kindness and compassion for others. She worked in the auto field but her true joy in life was spending time (with) her children and grandchildren.”
Her brother, Jesse Williams, declined to describe the 51-year-old’s relationship with Smith. But he noted the cruel twist in how she and the other two women slain in the confrontation — her mother, Barbara Ann Williams, 71, and aunt Patricia Wilson, 62 — had long lived within walking distance to remain close.
“They do just about everything together,” he said.
Barbara Ann Williams, who recently retired from the medical field to continue her civic work, “was the matriarch of the entire family,” relatives said in a statement. Besides four children, 14 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren, she also considered her neighborhood, church and community extended kin.
“We were blessed to have an amazing woman who lived a life that extended loved, respect and genuine concern for everyone,” the release said.
Her sister, Patricia Wilson, was a mother of three, had six grandchildren and one great-grandchildren “was known for her high fashion, love for her family and church,” relatives said. “She was also widely known for her infectious smile, which warmed the hearts of anyone she came into contact with. … She showed compassion for her community and strived to be an example to kids who looked up to her.”
Williams apparently turned to the pair for help during her sparring with Smith. Police believe both were shot before reaching the door. “These were three victims who were murdered for something that was totally senseless,” Jesse Williams said.
Wilson’s husband, an off-duty officer with the Detroit Public Schools Community District police, also was struck later that night but survived. Gunfire hit two city police officers but they lived, as well.
The deadly encounter followed at least two other recent barricaded situations.
In January, a 25-year-old man refused to release two young children and three other adults, including the girlfriend he lived with. The couple had had a history of arguments, police reported at the time. He was arrested and the hostages were released.
Late last year, a gunman hid with an infant after investigators allege he shot someone walking alongside a female acquaintance.
Such episodes can represent the peak response of “people who see themselves as desperate and don’t see another solution, or see themselves as powerless and have to take desperate measures to make themselves heard,” Shiener said. But an uptick in those acts in a short time also can suggest a “copycat” scenario, he said.
“When people are ill and they see someone do something, it confirms to them they can do the same thing to solve a problem,” Shiener said.
As the incidents are pushed in the forefront of public consciousness, some officials say it draws attention to possible red flags in relationships that could potentially lead to violence.
According to Michigan Incident Crime Reporting data posted on the state website, there were nearly 93,000 domestic violence victims across the state in 2016. Wayne County alone had more than 27,500.
Since “domestic violence is a significant issue in Michigan and throughout the U.S.,” attorney Rennie said, boosting resources to combat it while tackling root causes such as poverty or mental health could help spark change.
Lasenby also sees opportunities in mental health initiatives. The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority offers Mental Health First Aid, which trains people to help others who may be in crisis. Since 2016, the group has trained nearly 20,000 residents, including law enforcement.