In a hideous Omaha crime 25 years ago, a man used a razor-edge utility knife to slash at the throats of sisters ages 2 and 3.
An adult relative of the girls, Willie Smith, was badly knifed while stepping in to help the girls' mother stop the man — her ex-husband.
Fast forward to the present: Thursday evening at the VA hospital in Omaha, after suffering health problems in recent years, Smith died of a heart attack at 51.
And the older of the girls he saved, now a woman of 28 living in Texas, says she wants to help his widow plan a funeral.
“We are forever in his debt,” said Simone Swiney Coleman, married and the mother of two. “He was our saving grace.”
Simone lives in Houston, as does her sister, Roslyn Swiney, 27. Both bear physical scars — and other kinds.
Their mother, Robyn Swiney, has served a career in the Army and is stationed in Belgium. Mother and daughters plan to return to Omaha to honor the memory of the man they consider a hero.
Simone, who spent six years in the Air Force, including stops in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she had heard from him at times over the years. She called Willie six months ago because she planned to be in Omaha in June for a family reunion.
“I told him I wanted him to meet my kids for the first time,” she said, “and that I felt like he was the reason I was even able to have kids. My husband wanted to meet him, too.”
It was not to be. Sheila Smith, Willie's wife of 20 years, said he had suffered a stroke a year ago and had congestive heart failure.
“He had a great personality and lots of friends,” she said. “Everybody thought he was a comedian. He always liked to joke around.”
But the night of June 7, 1987, turned deadly serious — a bloody crime that shocked all of Omaha.
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Robyn Swiney had divorced Roy Lyman the previous January, but he wanted to get back together. She did not.
Tensions had gotten so out of hand when he'd come by her home that her cousin, Willie Smith, began staying with her for protection.
Lyman, out of work, was living at a homeless shelter, where the director later quoted him as saying, “All I want to do is die.”
Instead of taking his own life, he went to his ex-wife's home at 4209 Maple St. He may have slipped in while no one was home, according to police reports; around 10:30 p.m., with the girls asleep, he entered their room with the utility knife.
Robyn and Willie quickly responded, both suffering cuts as they tried to get him away from the girls. Lyman ran to a nearby house, and was arrested.
Simone, who was three months shy of her fourth birthday, recalls parts of that night.
“I remember a lot of screaming,” she said. “The ambulance ride, the lights and sirens. My memory goes a little blank, but the next thing is the nurse saying, ‘Hi there, sweetie, I'm glad to see you awake.' And I remember the time in therapy.”
She also recalls hospital visits from her mother — and from Willie Smith. “He held my hand and said, ‘See, little girl, everything is going to be OK.' "
Lyman initially was charged with two counts of attempted murder, but in a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to lesser assault charges. He served 15 years in prison.
In the early years, he unsuccessfully appealed.
A federal judge, quoting from Lyman's confession, wrote: “He wanted to kill the children while they were asleep, in a ‘painless and quick fashion,' in order to ‘send them off to heaven where they would be better off.' The only remorse that Lyman felt while confessing was that he had failed to kill the girls.”
He was released from prison in 2002 and then lived in Las Vegas. According to a public records search, which didn't give the cause of death, he died in 2005.
The Swiney girls, meanwhile, sometimes lived with their grandmother in Omaha while their mother was away in the Army.
Simone was 10 and Roslyn was 9 in the summer of 1994 when they sang gospel music with other children at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha at an anti-violence fundraiser.
Not mentioning the violence she and her sister had experienced, young Simone told a World-Herald reporter the reason for the event.
“It's helping people understand why we shouldn't have violence,” she said, “ because it hurts other people and it takes people away from their families.”
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Simone said her physical scars extend across her neck and on her face, under her nose and chin.
“My whole life, people have pointed at my neck and said, ‘What is that?' I even had a teacher who would stare at it,” she said. “Kids would joke. I learned early to just make fun of myself.”
She said her sister has scars, too, but isn't as comfortable talking about them.
When Simone graduated from sixth grade at Belvedere School in Omaha, she said, her mother came home from Korea for the ceremony. And the girl received roses for the first time — from Willie Smith.
Simone was living with her mother when she graduated from high school in the state of Washington, and soon joined the Air Force.
Before she was accepted, she had to go through a battery of psychological tests because of her childhood attack. She was declared fit to serve and believes she has adjusted well, but isn't saying she is unscathed.
“To be honest,” she said, “until I met my husband, I slept with a butcher knife under the pillow. To this day, I fall asleep with the lights or TV on.”
She was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio when she met Demetrius Coleman, a Navy man. They soon married, and have lived in Japan and Hawaii. He is now a Navy recruiter in Houston.
They have a daughter, Alissia, 3, and a son, Micah, 10 months. She couldn't wait to introduce them to Willie.
“I'm blessed,” Simone said. “I have to say, Willie gave me that. Willie was my sense of stability. Because of what happened, we created a bond.”
Sheila Smith said her husband, too, had scars — on his neck and his left forearm. Funeral plans weren't finalized, but his wish was to be cremated.
He is survived by son Darnell Christopher Smith and daughter Jasmine Kay Smith and by grandchildren; and by Sheila's children, whom he helped raise, Dominique Lovejoy and Cornelius Barnes.
Willie was on disability in recent years and couldn't work, Sheila said, but before that he managed fast-food restaurants. He was an Army veteran.
After a previous illness, Simone called Sheila and said, “Be sure he knows Simone and Roslyn love him.”
Simone said she isn't sure if she and family members can afford the trip to Omaha, but they all want to be there in his memory. It's the least they can do for a man who helped keep them alive.
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