When Sean M. Smith shot himself in the head last week in front of several Cape Girardeau police officers, it was nowhere near his first encounter with law enforcement.
In fact, Smith, who died Tuesday from his wound, had only been released from an Illinois prison nine months before, where he was serving a portion of his 25-year sentence for a 1997 residential burglary in his hometown of Decatur, Ill. He was also suspected of setting fire to the apartment building in that incident, which caused the death of a 73-year-old boarder.
"Unfortunately this is a story that is repeated all too often," said Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison. "You can find many instances of criminals who are released from prison that go out and commit new and sometimes even more violent offenses. It's one of those things we experience, and it leads to a high level of frustration, particularly for those of us who work in the field."
Kinnison's department received a level of vindication for its work on the case Wednesday, which culminated last week with every available officer pursuing Smith in a low-speed car chase before he ultimately shot himself in the head in the parking lot of a local business. Smith was suspected of assaulting a woman along a Cape Girardeau trail at gunpoint, although she ultimately fled without injury. Since then, three other women have come forward saying that a man matching Smith's physical description made lewd comments and one even said he grabbed her and tried to force himself on her.
On Wednesday, Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton ruled that neither a coroner's inquest nor an autopsy will be necessary. Such procedures are typically only done if there are doubts or questions about cause of death. Clifton, in a brief statement, concluded Smith died as a the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Clifton made his determination after reviewing medical records, police reports and witness statements.
The official cause of death will be listed as traumatic brain injury and the manner of death a suicide.
Prosecutors had previously said that police were convinced that Smith was the same man who committed those assaults, as several witnesses identified him from photographs, as well as the man who was driving the black Mazda pickup on the day of the chase.
Kinnison agreed that his officers acted professionally and appropriately. He told them so the afternoon after Smith shot himself following the chase that ended when Smith pulled the truck into the parking lot of Dan's Key and Lock Shop on Independence. Witnesses say that Smith nearly hit the officer who was putting down stop strips before his vehicle stopped and then waved a gun at an officer who was pulling onto the scene in his patrol cruiser. The officer hit Smith with the car, knocking him to the ground. That's when Smith allegedly turned the pistol on himself.
The whole situation could have ended much differently. Police had to weigh the safety of everyone -- themselves and the public, Kinnison said. That Smith was armed also complicated the issue, he said.
"Anytime someone has a gun and has threatened to use it in the past, you could see injury, very serious injury and death," Kinnison said. "We were concerned about innocent bystanders as well as for the officers in pursuit. There's no question it could have turned out very badly."
All things told, Kinnison said, he could live with the results.
"I hate to say it because he's dead now," Kinnison said. "It's sad that he ended up taking his own life. But when you look at everything that could have gone wrong, it turned out relatively well. ... The officers did just an outstanding job."
Kinnison said it's unfortunate that Smith wasn't kept off the streets for a longer period of time after such a lengthy criminal history. But, he said, police see it time and time again.
Smith's record was, in fact, lengthy. In 1996, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail in Illinois' Macon County for misdemeanor marijuana possession and another 30 days later that year for the same charge, not to mention two traffic violations for driving on a revoked license and without insurance. In the years leading up to that, he faced an identical drug possession charge in Shelby County, Ill., for which he was sentenced to 30 days. He was also placed on probation in 1996 for a felony charge of aggravated battery.
The next year, in 1997, Smith was arrested after police found him covered in soot about 5 1/2 hours after a house fire killed 73-year-old Merlin E. Savage. Smith's estranged wife was living at the apartment building with a new boyfriend and Smith ran from police when they found him in the ruins, according to published reports from that time. When Smith was sentenced to 25 years, it was one of the longest sentences ever imposed on a burglary conviction in Macon County.
Smith started serving his sentence with the Illinois Department of Corrections in December 1997, said department spokeswoman Stacey Solano. Illinois law dictates that inmates receive a day off their sentence for every day they serve without incident, Solano said. He was paroled in July 2009, she said, but he violated his parole in June 2010 for an aggravated battery in Macon County. He was taken back to prison, but he was officially discharged on June 2, 2011, and six months later or so he moved to Cape Girardeau. Three months after that, Smith was dead.
At the time of his death, there was an outstanding warrant for Smith's arrest in Illinois for a charge of driving while intoxicated.
Attempts to contact several members of Smith's family were unsuccessful Wednesday.
One of the three women who came forward after Smith allegedly assaulted a woman on the Cape La Croix Recreational Trail last week said she wasn't feeling relief at the news of Smith's death. This woman says Smith approached her in the parking lot of the Cape Girardeau Public Library on March 3 and made lewd sexual comments. She said she knew it was him "without question" Wednesday after seeing his photograph.
"He was still someone's child," she said. "Somebody out there loves him and doesn't understand why all of this has happened. None of this takes away that he was somebody's little boy. I feel for his family. I wish he could have gotten help rather than it ending up the way it did."