Recent arrest amplifies system failure

The arrest last week of River William Smith, 20, of Savage demonstrates once again how all the laws in the world won’t provide public safety when our state court and correctional systems fail to respond properly to crimes of violence.

Thankfully, the suspicions of a retired police officer and the prompt work of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office appear to have helped prevent a tragedy, for now.    

In details reported by the Star Tribune, Smith came under investigation earlier in the fall after a retired police officer who worked at a gun range in Prior Lake alerted authorities to Smith’s suspicious behavior at the range — wearing tactical gear, a “punisher” face mask, body armor, and bringing in his own barricades to shoot hundreds of rounds from behind while practicing rapid reloads, etc.

The subsequent investigation revealed Smith’s situation closely resembled that of Anderson Aldrich, the man who recently killed five people in a Colorado LGBTQ nightclub. Both Smith and Aldrich lived with grandparents who had been threatened or harmed by the men, yet they continued to help facilitate their behaviors.

Smith told an FBI informant that Aldrich was a “hero” and said he was himself “pro mass shooting in general.” Smith also told the informant that he was preparing for a shootout with police and was dedicated to dying in that firefight, adding he’ll “die before ever being in handcuffs again.”

Smith was arrested by the FBI after he purchased three hand grenades and four auto sears (parts that turn a semi-automatic firearm into a fully automatic firearm). Fortunately, the “purchase” was an FBI sting and Smith was taken into custody. When agents moved to arrest Smith, he was clad in body armor and was armed with a handgun. 

What’s troubling is that Smith should never have been in the position to gather or possess these weapons or prepare for his showdown with police. Just a few years earlier, in 2019, Smith shot his grandmother in the hand with an AK-47 in the house he shared with his grandparents. Smith’s grandmother had taken two pistols from Smith and hid them in her closet because she was concerned that he was acting “possessed.” According to the grandmother, Smith’s mother, who didn’t live in the state, had purchased the AK-47 in her name and given it to Smith. Smith’s grandmother told police that she was concerned for her safety if Smith was not held in custody.

But Smith wasn’t held for long — despite the shooting, the weapons violations as a minor, the concern from the grandmother, and information from the police officers who conducted follow-up searches of Smith’s belongings (finding tactical gear, 15 loaded firearm magazines, canisters of ammunition, survival bags, and search material on killing gay people and building explosives), our state court system entered into an agreement for probation monitoring, and a prohibition against possessing firearms for less than two years. 

Tragically, the very grandmother Smith had injured took him back into the home, began driving him to the range to resume practicing his shooting, and even gave him $30,000 to purchase a 3-D printer to make firearm parts. Whether Smith’s grandparents were naïve or felt threatened, their actions represent the weakness in “Red Flag” laws that so many are pinning their hopes on, in the misguided belief they would provide public safety.

The failure in response to Smith’s 2019 crimes is just another example of the glaring weakness in our court and correctional systems to properly recognize a threat and neutralize that threat through incarceration, followed by significant oversight once out of custody. 

In 2022, given his history, Smith should have never been in the position to obtain and possess the weaponry and body armor he did.  That’s poor public safety — period.

Real public safety is staring us right in the face, case after case. It’s holding people accountable the first time they show a propensity toward violence. Sadly, our state courts and corrections are failing to do that. 

Let’s support our federal court in its effort to clean up the mess — starting with Smith.