A longtime pastor in the small, west central Illinois community of Manchester says he’s trying to figure out what to tell parishioners on Sunday after five people were murdered yesterday morning just blocks away from the church. The young mother also lost her unborn child. The suspected gunman is also dead, following a chase and shootout with police.
A few weeks ago, Pastor Larry Balthis says the park across the street from the Manchester Baptist Church was full of kids, hunting for Easter eggs.
PASTOR BALTHIS: “We call it The Hunt … and these kids were there.”
When he says “these kids” Balthis is talking about three children – two now dead – all shot yesterday, before dawn.
Authorities say they believe 43-year-old Rick O. Smith, of rural Morgan County, broke into their home around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Though he was also armed with a rifle and hunting knife, Illinois State Police Lt. Col. Todd Kilby say he used a shotgun to shoot an infant, two other children and three adults at close range.
LT. COL. KILBY: “Two bodies were discovered in one bedroom, two other bodies in a second bedroom, and an adult male, was located in the hallway.”
The Scott County Sheriff confirms: the victims killed are JoAnn Sinclar, who was 66; her 23-year-old granddaughter, Brittany Lynn Luark; James Roy Ralston, who was 29; and two of Brittany and James’ children, one-year-old Brantley Ralston and his brother, 5-year-old Nolan Ralston. An autopsy confirms that Brittany was pregnant.
The final victim, however, made it out alive … after her shooter’s apparent change of heart.
Police say after shooting a six-year-old girl, Smith “put her in the hands of a neighbor.
The girl – believed to be Kassidy Ralston – is in a Springfield hospital. As of noon Thursday she is listed in fair condition.
After the slayings, Smith fled in a white, Chevy Lumina – Kilby couldn’t say where he went or what he did the next several hours.
Only that, just before 7:30, police spotted him about seven miles outside of Manchester. After a high speed chase, he shot at them.
They shot back. Smith was wounded.
Shortly after 10 a.m. the suspect was dead.
Nor would Kilby give any possible motive, or connection, other than to say:
KILBY: “We know there was an acquaintance between the victims and the shooters, we’re still exploring that relationship. That will be part of the ongoing investigation. ”
But in a place like Manchester, nearly everyone either knows Smith, or the people he shot: the great-grandmother; her twenty-something granddaughter and her boyfriend; their small children. Julie Hardwick lived next door to them, one apartment over in the Scott County public housing complex.
HARDWICK: “The little kids — oh – lovable, you couldn’t ask for better kids. I mean I enjoy having them around. Because I live by myself. I just don’t know what I’d do if it was my grandkids. I mean, I’m glad I didn’t hear the shooting or nothing.”
Hardwick works as a dishwasher at a café in a neighboring town – White Hall. Manchester itself has no restaurants. No shops to speak of. Just the park, with its playground … two churches alongside it … and the connected village hall and post office.
Less than 300 people live there.
Ron Drake is the Village President.
PRES. DRAKE: “I was appointed to the position in 2002 when our previous village president passed away, and I can’t get out of the job (laugh).”
He’s also Rick Smith’s uncle.
The two weren’t close:
DRAKE: “Not that close, like I said, it’s been two years since I talked to him, last time.” REPORTER: “And when was that, what was that for?” DRAKE: “He wanted to borrow a tool.” REPORTER: “Did you get it back?” DRAKE: “Yep.”
Still, Drake – who says Smith is his wife’s sister’s son – says he was “devastated” when he learned his unemployed nephew was the suspected shooter.
He says Smith’s family had no warning, no idea … they didn’t notice any signs.
Authorities say Smith’s previous criminal record includes a conviction for “reckless homicide” related to a DUI and a “sundry” of charges for drugs, and writing fake checks.
DRAKE: “It’s devastating. Strictly devastating. We’re just going to have to ask the lord to help us and press on.”
PRUITT: “In, uh, my opinion, Boston massacre is about the same as this.”
Glenna Pruitt‘s one of several Manchester residents I spoke with who says she’s praying not only for the victims and their relatives … but also for the shooters’.
PRUITT: “When you have a small community, where people live their entire life, versus in their entire life, everyone knows everyone. So it’s not just going to just affect person or one family, it’s going to affect this entire community.”
Something like this happening in small town America, says Rodney Havens, shows that nobody’s immune from these things. Havens has lived in Manchester since he was a kid – he’s now raising his own children there. The murders have left him asking the same questions people anywhere and everywhere ask after a tragedy:
HAVENS: “What do you say? You know? What do you offer up to the families that had to go through this? I think everybody’s still in shock. How did it happen? Why did it happen here?”
Questions that no matter what unfolds, police’s ongoing investigation won’t be able to definitively answer.