The retired police major paced around a crime scene he never imagined he’d see.
Inside his son and daughter-in-law’s rented colonial in Northern Virginia, shards of window glass were scattered by the front door in little heaps. Upstairs in the master bedroom, his son’s camouflage Army uniforms hung in the walk-in closet. In a nearby bathroom, a book titled “Reconciliation: How to Restore Broken Relationships” sat on the sink’s edge. And in the spare room, steps away from an unopened Nerf basketball set, a man in a white biohazard suit yanked up a piece of blood-soaked carpet and carefully wadded it into a garbage bag.
For Ronald W. Hamilton, who spent nearly three decades as police officer in South Carolina, the house reminded him of so many others he’d encountered on domestic violence calls. But this one had shaken him, his family, the community and the Prince William County police force to their core. The crime scene contained the belongings and shattered life of his 32-year-old son, Staff Sgt. Ronald “Ronnie” Hamilton, charged in the Feb. 27 shooting deaths of his wife, Crystal Hamilton, 29, a recovery care coordinator for wounded war veterans, and Ashley Guindon, 28, a Prince William police officer on her first day on the job.
The violence left two other police officers wounded. It left Ronnie and Crystal’s 11-year-old son, Tyriq, without his parents. And it left the elder Hamilton, a second-in-command in the Charleston police department before his 2001 retirement, struggling to care for his grandson and reconcile his professional and personal loyalties.
“It’s very difficult because I am dealing with family on all sides — the police, Crystal’s family, as well as my son,” said Ronald, 62, who attended the funerals of three Charleston police officers killed in the line of duty during his time on the force. “I brought him up and taught him that he needs to be responsible for his actions. All of these people killed had bright futures, and the police officer was only serving the public. I am still in shock. I don’t know what caused it. It’s just a question I’m trying to answer.”
In charging documents, police said the younger Hamilton admitted to the killings. Paul B. Ebert, Prince William’s chief prosecutor, said he will probably seek the death penalty in the case. But at a March 22 court hearing, Ronnie’s defense attorney, Ed Ungvarsky, said that “after serving two tours in Iraq, Sergeant Hamilton presents as a psychologically damaged and mentally impaired person.”
His father echoed that sentiment, saying that although he’s proud of Ronnie’s military service, he wasn’t the same after the deployments: “My son wouldn’t have been in this situation had he not volunteered to fight for his country. After he returned, he was depressed.”
But Wendy Howard, Crystal Hamilton’s older sister, disputed that portrayal of her brother-in-law, who worked as an information technology specialist at the Pentagon. She said Ronnie, who deployed to Iraq in 2003 and again in 2005, “was not in a combat role. He was never on the front lines.”
It wasn’t his mind that unraveled over the past few years, she argued. It was his marriage.
As a middle school student, Ronnie loved it when his father put him in the driver’s seat of his Charleston police cruiser, flipping on the lights or siren. He told his father it was one of his “proudest moments” when his dad sent police cars and motorcycles to his middle school for career day.
“All the kids looked up to him because he had a father who was a police officer,” Ronald said. “He’d point me out and say, ‘That’s my dad.’ ”
Ronnie lived with his mother, Diane Williams, a former clerk for various Charleston County magistrates who was not married to his father. As he grew older, he started talking back to his teachers and was sent to an alternative high school, his dad said. At the time, his father, who worked for a nationally prominent police chief, was traveling the country, delivering speeches on law enforcement tactics.
“His mother used to always tell me on the phone that he was being disruptive because that was his reaction to missing me, because I was not there for him,” Ronald said. “I really feel somewhat responsible for his early behavior. I have some regrets about that. If I could do it all over again, I would have done it differently.”
In high school, Ronnie was already dating Crystal, who grew up in a neighboring town and was three years younger.
He got his GED, then joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By 2002, he was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Crystal, unbeknownst to her sister and mother, got rides to Fort Campbell on the weekends with a girlfriend who was also dating someone at the base, according to Crystal’s sister. Her family had no clue about the seriousness of their relationship until 2004, when Crystal was a community college student in North Carolina.
Crystal’s older sister came home one day from her job at Walmart and found her mother, Cherry Howard, distraught.
“My mother says, ‘Did Crystal tell you? She’s pregnant,’ ” Wendy Howard remembered. “I was completely stunned. Crystal was 18. I was like, ‘Pregnant by who?’ I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.”
She gave birth to Tyriq in February 2005, and both families gathered to celebrate. Although Ronnie and Crystal were living in different states, they wed at a courthouse a few months later.
When Ronnie deployed to Iraq a second time in October 2005, he never talked about his IT and communications job in his phone calls home to his father.
“He always just said, ‘What’s going on back home, Pops?’ I would tell him to be safe,” Ronald recalled. “And I asked him if there was anything I could do in his absence, and he said that Crystal was fine and she had a lot of support.”
The war changed Ronnie, making him “more withdrawn,” his father said.
After his return in September 2006, he and another man got into a fight in a Tennessee parking lot. The man thought Ronnie had been tailing his girlfriend in the parking lot, according to charging documents. They began shouting at each other, and Ronnie fetched a weapon from his car trunk, boasting that it “ain’t no pellet gun.” He loaded a magazine but then sped off. The other man called police, and Ronnie was charged with aggravated assault. He was placed in an 11-month diversion program and was never convicted of the charge.
His father wouldn’t learn the details of the confrontation until after a far more serious one.
A Pentagon assignment beckoned. By 2011, Ronnie, Crystal and Tyriq, who had been living at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, moved to Northern Virginia.
Ronnie went to work for the Joint Staff Support Center. Then Crystal got hired in 2012 as a recovery care coordinator for wounded or ill Marines at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
She tracked the legal and medical paperwork of Marines coping with war injuries or health crises. Chris Molnar, 22, a medically retired lance corporal who suffered a stroke and needed a heart transplant, said Crystal helped lobby on his behalf to improve his disability payments. She even made sure he was doing his homework to restore his memory, he said.
“I had to relearn substitution and addition,” Molnar said. “She’d help me find the tutors and make sure I was going to tutors and she’d check on me and say, ‘Did you do your homework? Did you go to your tutor?’ ”
But Ronnie grew jealous of Crystal’s interactions at work and suspected she was having an affair, according to a family member who was close to the couple. At one point last year, Ronnie thought Crystal was cheating on him with a man who kept liking her photos on Instagram.
Yet it was Ronnie who had been straying, said the relative, who was sent a photo last year of the woman Ronnie said he’d been seeing.
Despite the tensions in her marriage, Crystal tried to project a stable relationship to their son. At Easter in 2015, Crystal wrote Tyriq a card with a cover that showed a chicken carrying a large egg on its back with the words, “Does it get heavy carrying around so much awesome?” Inside, Crystal wrote: “Remember that Jesus loves us. Always do what’s right no matter what. Live right and always tell the truth and live by HIS word!! We love you Riq and always will! Love Mom and Dad.”
But after Ronnie admitted on Christmas morning that he was having an affair, she made up her mind to leave him and seek full custody of Tyriq, she told the relative who was close to the couple. She figured the spring made sense: Ronnie had orders to move to Italy to work for NATO.
She and Tyriq would stay behind.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, Crystal and several pals were planning to have dinner out, said Shayna Quinn-Colunga, a close friend and hair stylist whose husband worked with Ronnie at the Pentagon. Tyriq had just returned home from a sleepover.
The 11-year-old hopped in the shower, and when he got out, his parents were fighting, according to Wendy Howard, who has discussed the incident with her nephew.
“Tyriq said that Ronnie told Crystal: ‘If you leave, you’re not coming back,’ and Crystal said, ‘Okay,’ ” said Howard, a safety administrator for a biotech company in North Carolina. “Ronnie told Tyriq to leave the room, but he didn’t. Tyriq stood outside the door and said that Ronnie picked Crystal up and threw her against the wall. The TV fell off the wall. Crystal already called 911 and was yelling Tyriq to run.”
Halfway down the stairs, Tyriq heard two loud gunshots.
“And then he didn’t hear Crystal anymore,” Howard said. “He didn’t stop running. He ran outside. Neighbors took him in.”
But the violence wasn’t over. Three Prince William County police officers arrived, including Ashley Guindon, who had just been sworn in the day before. When Guindon approached the front door, Ronnie allegedly took out a rifle and fatally shot her and wounded the two other officers.
After he was arrested, Ronnie admitted to the killings, court records show.
Thousands of people showed up at a Woodbridge chapel on March 1 to say farewell to Guindon, the first Prince William police officer to die in the line of duty since 1990.
Several days later, Crystal was buried at a cemetery in South Carolina near where she grew up. Mourners placed sympathy cards and teddy bears on her cream-colored casket. Tyriq, dressed in a dark suit, left a flower.
A second memorial service was held at the Marine Memorial Chapel in Quantico on March 15. One of the eulogies was delivered by the mother of a Marine who had relied on Crystal for help.
“Crystal was my go-to person,” Sharon Goetz told mourners. “She became my friend. She was always asking how my son was doing, and then she would look at me intently and say, ‘And how are you doing?’ ”
That same day, Ronald was packing his son’s and grandson’s belongings into a truck. Before he headed for South Carolina, he went to see Ronnie at the Prince William County detention center, where he’s awaiting trial. The former police major said he can’t ask about the shootings on the advice of his son’s attorney, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
But seeing and talking to Ronnie ease his pain.
“How are you doing?” Ronald said he asked his son during his visit. “And he said: ‘Pops, don’t worry about me. Just worry about the officers and worry about Crystal. And please take care of Tyriq.’ ”
Tyriq has been seeing a counselor, his grandfather said, but hasn’t talked much with him about what he saw and what he lost. The boy has opened up a bit more to his aunt Julia Hamilton, who is grieving for her sister-in-law.
“I told him, ‘I am hurt; I am angry,’ ” she recalled. “And he was like, ‘My dad was sick. You have to forgive him because I already have forgiven him.’ ”