In August 2004, hard working Walter Smith was managing a photoshop at a local department store in a town outside Salt Lake City, Utah. Walter met the future mother of his children Nicole Speirs on a social media site. Nicole was a tomboy, she was into skateboarding, adventure, and the two appeared to get along really well. They went out on a couple dates and spent the night together. But Walter was not sure how close he wanted to get because he had other things on his mind. He only recently returned home after a tour of duty in the Marine Corps. He joined the Marine Corps after high school and in early 2000, he was at boot camp in California. One of his Marine friends spoke highly of him and shared that one wanted to spend time with Walter because he was very interesting. Then September 11, 2001… Of course the Marines were deployed to Iraq and in February of 2003, Walter and and his team were some of the first on the ground during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was war and the possibility of dying was something they had to accept after witnessing many of their own die around them.
In the summer of 2003 after six months in Iraq, Walter returned to Utah for a visit and then was sent to a marksman training course in Virginia. While on a rifle range, the sounds of munitions were giving Walter flashbacks and he thought he was shooting at people in Iraq. According to a comrade, something was triggered inside him and he just lost it. The was the beginning of his medical discharge. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and medically discharged from the USMC. One of Walter’s Marine friends shared that most begin to experience the PTSD after they get out but they don’t push the subject with one another. But everyone recognized that Walter was depressed; he wasn’t the same person he was when they met him. Walter met Nicole Speirs shortly after his military discharge. Although after a few dates and intense nights spent together, Walter retreated. In the meantime, Nicole called Walter to let him know that she was pregnant. He went to the first doctor visit with her and they found out together they were having twins.
Walter wasn’t sure he was ready to have a family. He also learned that his parents were getting a divorce after 25 years of marriage. It rocked the foundations of all of the siblings. Walter retreated completely after the doctor visit with Nicole and requested a DNA test to prove they were his children. Nicole had to accept Walter’s decision; she didn’t know that he was struggling with PTSD. Walter became quiet and withdrawn. Once harmless, the civilian world now had several threats everywhere after his return. Walter’s family couldn’t understand what he had been through. Walter’s comrades shared that he engaged in one of the most violent fights during the deployment in Iraq. They were hit with an RPG and three guys were hurt. The enemy was packing families in cars and driving right at them. Walter had no choice but to use the gun to stop the existing threat. They had a hard time witnessing the innocent children die. The Marines in Walter’s company were never the same.
Now that Walter was back in Utah, his depression was getting worse. He was downward spiraling. By September 2004, Walter’s dad moved in with him. The family was concerned for them because they both were feeling extremely depressed. Walter’s dad shared that his own father committed suicide when he was young because he felt that he was a burden to the family. On June 30, 2004, Walter reached a breaking point. His thoughts were more distorted. Walter Sr. didn’t know it but Walter was experiencing violent tendencies. He feared for his own father’s life. He left their home before he harmed his father and made a decision to kill himself with a shotgun. He called some family to say goodbye but before he could pull the trigger, a friend contacted the local police to intervene. As a result, Walter was admitted into a psychiatric ward. He was diagnosed with PTSD, severe depression with psychosis, and alcohol dependency. Meanwhile, Nicole was on bedrest with a difficult labor and gave birth a month earlier then expected.
Nicole’s babies were both underdeveloped and needed to remain in the NICU for over a month but they finally got the green light to take them home. Nicole had a girl and a boy. Walter never went to visit Nicole at the hospital. By the time the children were five years old, Nicole filed for child support. Meanwhile, Walter looked at Nicole’s pictures on social media and could tell that the children were his right away and wanted to see them. This time, he told her the truth about the PTSD. Walter met the children and things seemed really good. Nicole was a phenomenal mom and this appeared to help Walter cope better too because she was calm and caring. Nicole was really excited that Walter came back. But Walter still doesn’t feel the same way as Nicole and wasn’t sure that he ever would; he had his own demons to contend with. But, they were both trying to strengthen their relationship for the sake of the children.
On March 9, 2006, Nicole was feeling dizzy so she left work and went home to rest. Two weeks later on March 24, 2006, Nicole and Walter were up late after a relaxing evening together at home. They made love and got in the bathtub to get cleaned up. Nicole asked Walter what she thought about their future; she wanted to get married. Walter said he needed more time and wasn’t ready to make that decision. He knew that he wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. She was upset about this but decided to play it out and see where things went. The next morning Walter and the children left at 5 am to visit his family. The rest of the grandchildren were going to be there for a group photo. Shortly after Walter arrived, he began arguing with a relative and acting erratically. The family eventually called the police on Walter because they were concerned about his behavior. Walter called Nicole and told her he was returning instead of spending the night with his family.
Walter entered through the garage around 1 a.m. like he usually did and put the children to bed. He went to the bathroom where he heard water running and found Nicole face down in the bathtub. She appeared to be dead. He called 911. He was rattled, couldn’t remember the address, he realized that she was dead and this appeared to deflate him. Walter was hesitant to do the CPR when asked by the 911 dispatcher but he did it and unfortunately it was too late. Nicole was gone. Police arrived to find Walter and Nicole’s dead body. The body had been in a cold tub which made the time of death difficult to determine. There was no clear sign of foul play. Walter was questioned and claimed that Nicole was taking an anti-depressant for depression. His demeanor striked investigators as guarded and numb. Walter was with his family so could corroborate his whereabouts. Walter made the dreadful phone calls to family members and loved ones but Nicole’s death didn’t make sense to any of them.
In the days after Nicole’s death, the police kept their eye on Walter Smith. They questioned neighbors who denied any knowledge of abuse or volatility in the relationship; as a matter of fact, neighbors observed that both appeared happy together. The Speirs family was concerned about when Nicole got sick and wondered if that had anything to do with it. And suicide was a theory that Walter planted until Nicole’s autopsy put an end to that. There were no drugs in her system but the manner of death was drowning; the cause of death was unknown. The big question was why and how did this happen? Walter and the Speirs family worked together to take care of the children over the next few months. But nothing could hold back the depression that Walter was fighting off. Sometimes he felt like the PTSD was going to break him.
On December 4, 2006, Walter drove himself to the Veterans Affairs hospital emergency room because he was feeling suicidal and homicidal. He called his Uncle Craig and told him he couldn’t live another day. After questioned by his uncle, Walter admitted that he had something to do with Nicole’s death. His Uncle Craig recommended he remain silent until he got there but Walter Smith already told the VA that he felt guilty about what happened to Nicole. The VA called the police department who showed up around the time that his uncle showed up. He was quiet initially but then told them he was responsible for Nicole’s death. It was not an accident; it was something more. He was arrested for suspicion of homicide and taken in custody. Walter Sr.’s heart was shattered and he was in absolute disbelief that his son could do something like this. Walter Sr. and Craig let Nicole Speir’s family know right away that Walter admitted to being responsible for Nicole’s death.
Two days later, detectives got a second crack at Walter. Walter explained that he was in the bathtub with Nicole. She was sitting towards the faucet with him behind her. She washed her hair and she had to bend forward to rinse it. He then pushed her head down in the water from the back until she drowned to death. He was emotionless, matter of fact, and flat when he talked about the crime. He admitted that they had not been arguing prior to the act. When asked, Walter said that Nicole did fight back to the best of her ability. The detectives did not believe PTSD was an excuse because he took advantage of her in the most vulnerable position. Investigators exclaimed that this was an intimate domestic violence encounter that could only be accomplished in that position of trust. Walter didn’t know why he did it; he couldn’t explain it to those who were questioning him. His reasoning for coming forward was because he wanted help; the crime had in fact eaten away at him. After his confession, Walter was charged with murder in the first degree. But the legal teams validated that PTSD is a legitimate mitigating factor to reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter.
The prosecution recognized and believed this murder probably would not have happened if not for PTSD. The Speirs family learned from the prosecution that there was a lack of physical evidence, that most likely a jury would be sympathetic to a war vet with PTSD, and that these factors could lead to a not guilty verdict. As a result, the family agreed to a plea deal and a sentence was negotiated; Walter Smith received 1 to 15 years in prison. The sentence automatically gave the Speir family custody of the two children. The family felt the sentence was weak but ultimately they wanted to protect the children. Detectives wanted the public to remember that this was still a homicide and the PTSD didn’t cause this. Walter began serving his sentence in the fall of 2007. Four years later, his family and the Speirs family attended his parole hearing; Walter wasn’t allowed to look at any of them. As he sat hunched and humbled, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say. He was silent at first but then he finally said that he didn’t disagree with what the family wanted including spending all 15 years in prison because he deserved it. He also said he was truly sorry for what he did. Walter Smith’s parole was turned down and he will spend the entire fifteen years in prison.
Did the status as a Marine with PTSD shape the way this crime was handled?
Learn more: Complex Post Traumatic Stress and Dissociation in Military and Veteran Populations
The PTSD Defense:
- Vet with PTSD dissociates, overreacts, self defense
- Vet with PTSD dissociates, blames suicidal thoughts & pain, unravels
- Vet who is violent criminal, doesn’t have PTSD, yet uses as defense
- Vet who is violent criminal & has PTSD, yet would have committed crime regardless because violent criminal first (who happens to have PTSD)
- How do we differentiate between dissociation & violent criminal activity?
- When do we apply PTSD as a mitigating factor in homicide cases?
- PTSD doesn’t cause crime, the propensity to harm is innate, can have both
- Although manslaughter is lesser offense, it is still a homicide
- Is it fair to use mitigating circumstances like PTSD, crime of passion, jealousy, etc. when the end result was murder? Impact on victim’s family.
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Nicole Speirs murder 3/25/2006 Tooele, UT *Boyfriend Walter Smith charged with her murder*
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Unraveled: Deadly Demons (Investigation Discovery)
Unraveled: Deadly Demons (ID GO)
“Walter Smith is a Marine Corps soldier just back from Iraq. Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Walter finds comfort in the arms of young artist Nicole Speirs. But in the darkest recesses of the mind, their cruel fate is already decided.” -Discovery ID