MANCHESTER – The man suspected of storming a south-central Illinois home and killing five members of the same family with a shotgun had been in some kind of dispute with at least one of the victims, but authorities said Thursday they were still trying to determine if it had something to do with the custody of a child.
Illinois State Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said investigators were running down media reports about a possible custody battle involving Rick O. Smith, and were going to places he frequented.
"Investigators are going to locations where some of his last known addresses, locations he frequented, talking to family and friends, just kind of backtracking to see what can be pieced together," she said.
But whatever was going on between Smith and a person in the home had attracted the attention of the neighborhood in the tiny community of Manchester.
Drew Summers said a white car — which authorities say Smith was driving after the slayings — drove back and forth in front of the slain family's home late at night. It happened so often, Summers' live-in girlfriend finally called the police.
"He seemed like a stalker so we've called the cops on him," he said. "It seemed he had something against them."
The motive is just one of the questions about the slaying that authorities were trying to answer a day after Smith allegedly shot and killed a 1-year-old boy, his 5-year-old brother, their pregnant mother, their father and their great grandmother. The boys' 6-year-old sister was also shot, but survived. Smith, the nephew of the town's mayor, was killed after being shot while exchanging gunfire with police.
What remains baffling is why the 43-year-old Smith scooped up the 6-year-old girl, Kassidy Ralston, carried her outside and handed the bloodied child to a neighbor before driving off.
In fact, Bond said, the preliminary investigation suggests that Smith may not have meant to shoot the little girl, though like many parts of the story, detectives don't know why he apparently decided to spare her.
"What his relationship with her, what was his affection for her, we don't know," she said.
A hospital spokeswoman in Springfield said Thursday that Kassidy's condition had been upgraded from serious to fair.
The shootings happened before dawn Wednesday in the 300-resident town about 50 miles west of Springfield. Manchester has 14 streets, one store and no stoplights.
"(Scott) forced his way into the back door using some type of heavy pipe," Bond said. He then opened fire.
The body of 29-year-old James Roy Ralston was found in a hallway, with the bodies of 1-year-old Brantley Ralston, 5-year-old Nolan Ralston in one bedroom. In another room lay Ralston's girlfriend and the boys' mother, 23-year-old Brittney Luark, and her 67-year-old grandmother, Jo Ann Sinclair.
A neighbor who heard the gunshots called police and told them Smith fled in a white sedan. Smith led authorities on a chase to the nearby town of Winchester, where he exchanged gunfire with the officers. Bond said a state trooper used his motorcycle for cover as he fired back at Smith.
Police said they found a rifle, shotgun and large hunting knife in Smith's car.
Scott County State's Attorney Michael Hill said Smith, of rural Morgan County, had previous convictions for reckless homicide, drugs and bad checks. But people who knew Smith described him as a quiet guy who kept to himself, living in a rural area just outside town.
"He would drive by and wave at you," said Corey Lomelino, 21. "But he wasn't looking for any attention."
Manchester Mayor Ronald Drake said he hadn't spoken with his nephew in two years and believed Smith was unemployed. Drake said the last time Smith contacted him was to borrow tools.
The shooting rattled the neighborhood like never before. Summers, whose 1-year-old used to play with the victims, said he'll install a deadbolt lock and go to his parents' home to retrieve a hunting gun for protection.
The feeling is the same at area schools, where many children and teachers knew Nolan and Kassidy.
"I would say at least 40 kids knew him (Nolan) and they're 3, 4, 5 years old and that makes it even more difficult," Winchester Community School District Superintendent David Roberts said.
Roberts canceled the district's preschool Thursday so he could talk to teachers and parents about how best to broach the subject with children who just a couple of days ago were sitting in the same room as Nolan.
"I am trying to work with staff to get them prepared," he said. "They are very emotional at this point."
North Greene Unit District No. 3 Superintendent Les Stevens said Kassidy had attended kindergarten there last year, and that grief counselors were brought in to talk to children and teachers.
"When I heard it a shotgun was used, that hit me as hard as anything." said Stevens.
Stevens said some students were ready to hear about what happened Thursday, but others weren't. A middle school student asked to be excused when her principal said she was going to talk about the shootings, he said, telling the principal, "I don't want to hear anything."