KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Feb. 20, 2016 is a day many people in Kalamazoo will never forget.
“I just remember kind of hearing about it from like friends and stuff,” said Casey Smith, who moved to the area before the shootings began. “I wasn’t sure if it was real or like what exactly was happening. It was kind of crazy just thinking about it.”
That night, at 5:42 p.m., police were dispatched to an apartment complex off of G Avenue after a woman, Tiana Carruthers, had been shot while protecting children, including her own daughter, from gunfire.
Then, while the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Office was investigating that scene, Kalamazoo police were dispatched to the Seelye Ford dealership on Stadium Drive at 10 p.m. after two people there, a father and son, Rich and 17-year-old Tyler Smith, were shot and killed while looking at vehicles. Tyler’s girlfriend hid in their car, crouching down when it happened. She then quickly called the police.
“We were out that night,” recalled Terry Buiste, a lifelong Kalamazoo resident. “My daughter was trying to contact me and trying to figure out what was going on. She knew I was out and about. So, when we got home I got all these texts on my phone. ‘Oh my, what’s going on?' [I thought]. So, we turned on the news, and then we saw it.”
Ten minutes after the shooting at the dealership, calls came into the dispatch center about another shooting at the Cracker Barrel in Texas Township, near I-94. Four people had been shot and killed while in their cars: Mary Lou and Mary Jo Nye, Judy Brown and Barbara Hawthorne. Abbie Kopf, who was 14 years old at the time, was shot as well but survived. So did Carruthers.
Around 12:40 a.m. the next day, KDPS pulled over and arrested the gunman. Sadly, by the end of the shooting spree, six people died and two were injured.
“My son and Tyler were on a travel soccer team together. So, Rich and Tyler and the family were family friends of ours. So, probably my biggest memory after that shock of what had taken place was needing to reach out to my son and talked to him about what had happened,” said Pastor Paul Fazio. “Just something I never thought I’d have to do.”
Pastor Fazio leads the North Park Reformed Church. He was one of the many churches that held prayer services and vigils in the wake of the shootings.
“People from different backgrounds, people of different color, people from different economic [classes]--it had nothing to do with that,” Pastor Fazio remembered. “We came together, and we said, 'Let’s make this place a safer and better place.' And, I was so proud of Kalamazoo.”
That’s when the mantra Kalamazoo Strong was born. People continued to rally around the victims' families and survivors at several events around the city, including at a Kalamazoo Wings hockey game. Churches and community organizations held concerts and similar events, raising thousands of dollars for the survivors.
Even after tragedy struck again months later in June 2016, when five cyclists were killed in a bike crash, the community rallied together frequently and lived out their Kalamazoo Strong mantra.
However, since then, some of that energy has diminished, he said.
“I think the last few years, given our political world, given a lot of events, given COVID over the last year, that some of that has waned,” Pastor Fazio said. “I don’t know that I’ve heard that much about strength in Kalamazoo and that's sad. The shooting, I don’t think was forgotten. The people whose lives were touched and impacted, which were many, we'll never forget it. But, that energy of ‘let’s make Kalamazoo better,’ has maybe waned a little bit.”
Pastor Fazio said it’s time to get it back. He believes there’s causes right now, from the pursuit of racial equity to homelessness, that the entire city can rally around to help move it forward.
“Kalamazoo has got it in ‘em, but we’ve got to focus on the positive things that we’re doing and the positive places that we can go, instead of the darkness,” Pastor Fazio said. “We can’t let the darkness win. We got to focus on being the light. And, we can't forget that Kalamazoo is really strong.”
Residents shared the same sentiment. Buiste believes that love is what’s needed right now in order for the city to move forward.
“We should just work together to better our city, to help people, make people feel more comfortable, [and] to come together more as a community,” she said.
***The ForeverStrong Memorial Foundation will hold a private prayer event Saturday night. They're taking prayer requests and will pray for anyone in need. If you'd like them to pray for you email Foreverstrongfoundation@gmail.com***