FRANKLIN, Pa. — A suicidal man made an improvised sniper's "perch" in an upstairs bedroom so he could fatally shoot a state trooper who volunteered to investigate a domestic-abuse report because he had previous contact with the gunman, the state police commissioner said Thursday.
Michael J. Smith, 44, arranged folded towels and blankets on a corner table to steady a scope-equipped .30-30 hunting rifle that police believe he used to shoot Trooper Paul Richey in the neck, above his bulletproof vest, late Wednesday morning, Col. Frank Pawlowski said.
"This was a premeditated event. This was an ambush," Pawlowski said. Smith positioned himself so he could fire his weapon from a vantage point some distance back from an open window that let him see the approaching troopers without them seeing him, Pawlowski said.
Police believe Smith used the same weapon to kill his 53-year-old wife, Nancy Frey-Smith, and himself. Her body was found in a bedroom chair and his, still clutching the gun, was near the foot of the bed, Pawlowski said.
Pawlowski said it's likely Smith shot his wife before shooting Richey, because there's no sign she tried to stop the shooting or warn the troopers.
Autopsy and ballistics results are needed to confirm the rifle was the weapon used in all three deaths.
The rifle is the same one Smith used to threaten his wife 13 years ago, Pawlowski said. Police want to determine how the weapon was returned to Smith because it had been seized under a protection-from-abuse order issued in 1997.
"That will be part of our investigation," Pawlowski said. "I'm at a loss right now, to be honest with you. But I'm not happy about it."
Pawlowski said Smith had mental health issues and was known to have neighborhood disputes, though none were violent or otherwise sent up "red flags." Pawlowski said Frey-Smith had done a "pretty good job of controlling her husband and calming him down" in the past, and that the family chose to deal with his unpredictable ways by themselves.
On Wednesday, Smith's 44th birthday, Frey-Smith's sister called police to express concern for her sister's safety. Richey, 40, of Franklin, volunteered to accompany another trooper on the call because he knew Smith - likely because Richey grew up nearby and had encountered Smith during other disturbance calls at the house.
Frey-Smith's sister said the woman told her in a phone call that she wasn't going to work because Smith was in "one of his moods," according to a police search warrant affidavit.
The sister then spoke to Frey-Smith's boss, who said she reported having been assaulted by her husband. The sister called back and spoke to the couple, saying she was coming over to see her sister.
Rodgers said Michael Smith told her "she shouldn't bother coming and that she had 'just signed Nancy's death warrant,'" the affidavit said. Rodgers then called police.
This week wasn't the first time Michael Smith threatened to kill his wife or the first time that her employer, A. Crivelli Chevrolet in nearby Sugarcreek Township, was made aware of her husband's violent ways, according to 13-year-old court records.
On March 28, 1997, Smith went to the dealership looking for his wife with the same rifle and threatened himself and several officers before being arrested.
Prosecutors later dropped all charges, except a stalking count to which Smith pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three years' probation and surrendered his weapons, but successfully petitioned to have them returned in 2000 once his probation was over.
A companion protection-from-abuse request filed by his wife in 1997 said Smith put a gun in his mouth and "attempted to get in the door where I was" at the dealership.
"Prior to the incident, he had told me on the phone that he intended to get drunk and do some coke," Frey-Smith wrote in the protection request, which was granted.
Frey-Smith was a customer delivery coordinator for the dealership and had worked there for 16 years. Michael Crivelli, whose father owns the business, said he wasn't aware of any problems between the couple beyond the 1997 encounter and Wednesday, when she told him that her husband had assaulted her.
"It may seem odd, but as far as her bringing any personal problems into the store, there wasn't any," Crivelli said Thursday.
The 1997 court records show that Smith entered a drug treatment center and that his wife later petitioned the court for permission to see him and to meet with a marriage counselor.
Trooper Richey is survived by his wife, Carrie, and two children, Connor, 9, and Catherine, 6. Funeral arrangements were still pending Thursday.
A colleague, Cpl. Richard Wadlow, remembered Richie as "dedicated and reliable" and said the inside door of his locker was covered with family pictures. Fellow troopers "unanimously agreed that Trooper Richey loved his family, his wife, children, his parents."
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
"The Franklin station lost a friend," Wadlow said, his voice breaking, "a brother, and a trooper."