Why the Smyrna shooter was out of jail even though officials knew his history

Isabel Hughes Xerxes Wilson
Delaware News Journal

The man who police say killed his wife and her friend in Smyrna on Tuesday morning was out on bail for February charges that he threw his wife down a set of steps and strangled her until she was unconscious.

Llewellyn Gill, who went by "Lew," killed himself shortly after shooting his wife, Stephanie Gill, in the parking lot of Smyrna Middle School. Later in the evening, police found his second victim, Deanna "Dee" Dominick-Dalton, at the couple's home. She also was shot dead.

As part of his February release, Lew Gill was ordered to have no contact with Stephanie Gill and was not living at their apartment at the time of the slayings. Neighbors said the locks had been changed and do not know how he got in.

State leaders and domestic violence experts have already cited the bloodshed as a failure in Delaware's current bail rules. In a written statement, Attorney General Kathy Jennings said it is "clear" that the killings were a "preventable tragedy."

Stephanie Gill, left, and Deanna "Dee" Dominick-Dalton, were killed Tuesday morning by Gill's husband, Llewelyn Gill.

Sue Ryan, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said strangulation "is, to be perfectly frank, attempted murder."

"It can actually create permanent brain damage depending on the severity of the strangulation," Ryan said. "It is a horrific crime and although the court sees it as serious, it needs to be seen as severe."

QUESTIONS REMAIN:'She was afraid of him': Neighbors mourning loss of 3 killed in Smyrna homicide-suicide

State elected officials are now pushing for bail reforms aimed at preventing defendants accused of dangerous and violent offenses from being released before their scheduled trials.

On Wednesday, Sens. Spiros Mantzavinos, Stephanie Hansen and Majority Leader Bryan Townsend filed legislation that would do just this. Though the legislation has been in the works for months, Hansen said Tuesday's tragedy makes it even more urgent.

"There are so many ways that this tragic circumstance could have been avoided, yet it wasn't," she said. "That is what makes me so angry. We need Senate Bill 7; we need Senate Bill 11."

'He's gonna kill me'

People who lived near the couple said Stephanie Gill predicted Tuesday's outcome.

Lew Gill had made it known he was having “suicidal thoughts,” one woman said. His wife was fearful enough to have agreed to a safe word, so that if she ever texted her the word, she would know to send help, said another woman who lived nearby.

"She said, 'He's gonna kill me and he's probably gonna kill himself,'" a third neighbor said. "She was afraid of him. You could see it in her eyes."

Stephanie Gill never sent that text.

INITIAL STORY:'People are going to be shook for a while': Woman killed outside Smyrna Middle School

In February, Smyrna police were called to McLane Gardens Apartments to find Stephanie Gill bleeding from her mouth and a scratch on her cheek, according to court documents.

Llewellyn Gill

She told police she was arguing with Lew Gill when he poured water on her face. She tried to walk away, but he threw her down a set of steps, causing her to hit her head on a shelf, the responding officer wrote in his report.

Stephanie Gill told police Lew Gill then hit her multiple times and started choking her as she tried to get up. She said she blacked out with both of his hands around her neck. Lew Gill fled the home after the incident, taking Stephanie's iPhone and Apple Watch, according to the police affidavit.

Lew Gill was later arrested and charged with strangulation, two counts of theft and endangering the welfare of their 12-year-old child, who witnessed the abuse.

His bail was set at $2,200, secured through a bail bond service, and he was ordered to have no contact with Stephanie Gill, according to the order signed by a Justice of the Peace Magistrate. A Court of Common Pleas judge who later received the case did not recommend changing his bail. 

Despite the seriousness of the charges, in a section labeled bail notes that explained the reason for the bail, a court official wrote that the court found Lew Gill's record "mitigates the need for higher bail."

“Although the charges are serious, (defendant) only has three traffic convictions and has been in (Delaware) for 13 years,” the note reads.

According to Delaware bail guidelines, judges are required to release defendants on their own recognizance or on unsecured bail "unless factors to the contrary, 'aggravating factors,' exist." Judges must write down their reasons for secured or cash bail.

Hansen said she was surprised to hear about the judge's note. She doesn't understand why Lew Gill's time as a resident was relevant in the judge's decision and said that "clearly, the decision was wrong."

MORE DETAILS RELEASED:Man who killed woman outside Smyrna Middle School shot and killed himself and another woman, police say

It's not known how or when Lew Gill got the gun he used to kill Stephanie Gill and Dominick-Dalton, given that a threat assessment included in the bail decision said Lew didn't have “immediate access” to firearms. 

Still, he was not required to forfeit weapons despite a "lethality assessment screening" completed by the court in which Stephanie Gill answered "yes" to questions about Lew Gill's behavior, including whether:

  • He had ever used a weapon against her or threatened her with a weapon.
  • She thought he might kill her.
  • He had ever choked her.
  • He was "violently or constantly jealous" or controlled "most of (her) daily activities."
  • Stephanie Gill had left him or they were separated.
  • He was unemployed.
  • He had previously tried to kill himself.
  • The couple had a child that Lew Gill knew was not his.

The assessment determined Stephanie Gill was in "high danger based on (the) score," but said she did not speak with a hotline counselor after being told she was categorized as such.

Out on bail a week later, Lew Gill wrote a letter to his judge asking that he drop the no-contact order against his wife. He said the charges against him were “not accurate,” and that he was actually fighting with his wife’s brother and she got in the middle of them.

Delaware courts' lethality assessment screening from a 2021 domestic violence incident in which Stephanie Gill's husband strangled her.

“That’s when most of the injuries happened,” he said in the handwritten note.

He wrote that he was seeking anger management and was not a danger to his wife or children. He also blamed the attack on negative side effects from his opioid pain medication.

The next day, the judge rejected the request.

The charges were still pending when Tuesday's homicide-suicide occurred, court records show.

A history of abuse

February’s arrest was the second time in recent years Lew Gill was accused of putting his hands on his wife. In 2017, he was arrested on several counts of endangering the welfare of a child and offensive touching.

Court records say police were called to the couple's home for a report of a domestic incident. In the call, Stephanie Gill told police her husband had “put his hands on her” and that she was spitting on him to keep him away.

When officers arrived, Stephanie Gill told them he grabbed her by the jacket and threw her to the floor. Lew Gill said his wife had grabbed him, ripped his shirt and threw soda and coffee on him as they argued. He admitted to pushing her to get her away from him, the documents state.

Apt. 804 in McLane Apartments on Monrovia Avenue in Smyrna

During the fracas, one of their children got between the two and suffered a superficial cut on his forehead, court documents say. Ultimately, the charges were dropped on the condition that Lew Gill attend 12 months of family counseling and not re-offend, according to court records.

Hansen said she doesn't understand why the 2017 arrest was not considered when Lew Gill was given bail in February. Judges can look at any part of a person's criminal history when making bail decisions, even when charges are dropped or a victim does not cooperate.

"I believe domestic violence has to be taken much more seriously by our courts," Hansen said. "Just because the victim doesn't press charges should not be a deciding factor."

Many times, victims feel compelled to advocate for their abuser, Hansen said. If they don't, they worry that "their abuser is going to be even angrier at them when they get out and they're going to come back and hit them twice as hard."

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN DELAWARE:‘There will be horrific stories:’ Experts worry about domestic violence, child abuse during pandemic

Neighbors said after the most recent incident, Stephanie Gill bailed her husband out of jail and paid for his lawyers. From their perspective, the couple appeared mostly happy, they said — even as recently as a week before the slayings.

"Even with the (no-contact) order, they were sometimes together. He was sitting on the couch and she was leaned up against him," one woman said. "They kissed, and I was like, 'Aww.'"

Police congregate in front of Smyrna Middle School where a woman was shot and killed Tuesday morning.

Part of what makes domestic violence so difficult, experts say, is that it's emotionally driven. At some point, there was love in the relationship, which impacts what decision a person may or may not make.

"Victims of domestic violence live in a world that is heartbreaking," said Ryan, the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director.

"The connection that the victim has with the offender is one that from the outside looking in, sometimes we don't understand. But they understand the danger every day that they're facing, and they're trying to figure out the best way to deal with that danger."

Children further complicate the situation, and Stephanie and Lew Gill had three. Stephanie Gill had told neighbors she tolerated the situation because of the kids.

Also adding to the complexity of domestic violence is that abusers are often controlling and manipulative, Ryan said. That control "exists whether they're in the room or not."

"It is 24/7, and the victim is trying to manage all that and be safe, so it is extremely important that we never blame the victim for the decisions that they make," Ryan said.

"It is so difficult for them to figure out, 'Who do I turn to? How can I be safe when this person, when the offender, is so large and dominant in my life?'"

Ryan said it's important that victims know there are state resources to help them. Delaware offers 24-hour domestic violence hotlines in each county that allow victims to talk to advocates who can give them advice and resources.

"They don't have to make immediate decisions and they don't have to say, 'OK, I'm going to leave or I'm going to do this,'" Ryan said. "It's just talking with an advocate who can ... connect with them so that they're not alone."

Ryan said domestic violence is "so isolating," which can make victims feel that they have no options.

"The only dominant voice in your head is this person who's harmful when you're trying to make decisions," Ryan said. "Having somebody outside who can say, 'Here's some resources, here's some help, let's talk about safety' is so critically important."

Would legislation have helped?

For months, state lawmakers have been working on Senate Bills 7 and 11, filed Wednesday. 

SB 7 would establish secured cash bail as the baseline used by courts to determine the conditions of pretrial release for people accused of one or more of 38 serious offenses, including gun crimes, domestic violence, rape and child sexual abuse, a news release said.

SB 11 is "the first leg of a preventative detention amendment" that would allow bail to be withheld entirely for cases involving the same 38 offenses if there is "clear and convincing evidence that a defendant presents a danger to public safety or no other condition will assure their appearance in court."

Currently, state law permits bail to be withheld only in first-degree murder cases.

RELATED:Pa. couple arrested in connection with child remains found in Smyrna, police ID girl

Hansen said these bills are an important start in preventing incidents like Tuesday's. But she said she will also be filing an amendment to SB 7 as a direct result of the homicide-suicide.

A shooting occurred in the front parking lot of Smyrna Middle School at around 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday, April 27.

It will require a defendant to forfeit any firearms in their possession if the court sets bail for one of the 38 offenses listed in SB 7.

"Here we have a case where someone was out on secured bail for a strangulation offense yet he had access to a firearm, and we saw what happened with tragic consequences," Hansen said.

According to a 2019 study published in Injury Epidemiology, a scientific journal affiliated with Columbia University, most homicide-suicides involve "intimate partners and the vast majority of these cases are women murdered by intimate partners using a firearm."

Another study shows that access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill his female victim. Of the 10 domestic violence homicide victims in Delaware in 2018, eight were killed by firearm, while two were stabbed to death. 

Seven of those victims were wives, girlfriends or ex-girlfriends, while three were juvenile children, according to a 2019 report issued by the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council's Fatal Incident Review Team. Five of the abusers killed themselves after killing their partner or child.

Jennings, Delaware's attorney general, said Lew Gill should have been required to forfeit any weapons he had when he was granted bail. She said "regardless of a defendant's bail status, cases involving acts of violence should mandate that the accused will forfeit any firearms if the court lets them out on bail."

She also criticized the court's bail decision.

Investigators walk toward Smyrna Middle School Tuesday afternoon. A woman died after being shot in the school's front parking lot earlier in the day.

"The sad fact is we have two innocent women who would be alive right now had their killer not been granted low secured bail on a violent offense," Jennings said.

Hansen said she believes the likelihood of both Senate bills passing is "very high." She acknowledged, however, that there will likely be "a lot" of discussion.

"Anytime — particularly with my amendment — where we're taking away someone's firearms, that's going to cause a lot of discussion," she said. "But I am ready to go to the mat on this."

Delaware Domestic Violence Hotlines 

New Castle County: (302) 762-6110

Kent and Sussex Counties: (302) 422-8058   

Spanish/Español: (302) 745-9874

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_