After Eight Years, Only Answers Can Heal Family

After Eight Years, Only Answers Can Heal Family

Left only with questions, murder still festers within victim’s family.

Edward Smith, known as Tony, was less than two blocks from the 295 onramp when a bullet came through the driver’s side window of his Cadillac and went into his head. It was 4:15 on a Sunday morning, Jan. 11, 1998, and Smith was driving home on Benning Road, in North East D.C., from a nightclub called the Ice Box. There had been an argument in the parking lot of the night club, according to Smith’s friends, and he walked away before it escalated.

After Tony Smith was shot, one of his two friends in the car shoved him against his door and drove several blocks before stopping. Then the passengers opened Smith’s door, pulled him from the vehicle and tried to push him into the back seat. In doing so, they dropped him on the road, according to his mother, Sharon Smith, who spoke to the two men. One told her that as he laid her son in the backseat, he saw Tony Smith die. He was 18.

The two men told police they drove for several more minutes after moving Smith, using that time to drop a gun that had been in the car into a manhole. According to emergency dispatch records provided to the Smith family, a 911 dispatcher received a call at 4:36. Tony Smith arrived at D.C. General Hospital at 5:05. His autopsy report lists him as dead on arrival.

The autopsy report is four pages long. It describes his condition, from head ("symmetrical and covered by brown, straight hair") to "lower extremities." It lists the weight in grams of all his organs. It traces the path of the bullet from the entrance wound ("irregular and gaping") through his skull and both hemispheres of his brain to its impact point on the occipital bone of the right side of his head.

The report ends with abrupt simplicity: "Cause of death: gunshot wound of head/ manner of death: homicide."

SHARON SMITH has driven hundreds of times down the nondescript stretch of Benning Road, only two-tenths of a mile, that her son did not travel that night.

"They knew if Tony got to the exit they could never catch him," Smith said in an interview on April 22 of this year, "Because Tony could fly like a …" She failed to finish the sentence.

D.C. police told Sharon Smith that someone in another car had driven up beside her son’s and shot him in the head. The killers’ vehicle was described by witnesses as a maroon Toyota Camry with D.C. tags and possibly a religious bumper sticker. Another car, with four more of Tony Smith' friends, was following Smith's Cadillac. There were six witnesses who knew Tony. Smith said each one had a different story. "According to D.C. police that’s why they can’t solve it," said his mother, "because no two stories are alike."

At the beginning of the interview, Sharon Smith said she has her own suspicions about who shot Tony.

Jim Trainum, a D.C. homicide detective, said the "simplest explanation" is the most likely. He said that Tony Smith's attempt to walk away from the argument in the parking lot of the Ice Box was a failure.

"These guys have very poor anger management techniques here … they just felt someone disrespected them and they were going to pop off a couple shots in the car. And unfortunately [Tony Smith] was hit. … That’s unfortunately where we stand with this."

Sharon Smith is suspicious that the shooting was not random in part because his house key was missing from his key ring when they recovered his possessions. She said that on the night of Tony Smith's wake, their garage was broken into. She believes the intruders were looking for what she estimated as half a pound of marijuana.

But shortly after Tony Smith’s death, a woman called their house shortly and asked for her marijuana.

"What the hell," Sharon Smith said, after initially hesitating to describe the contraband to a reporter. "It’s been eight years. I don’t need to lie to you or anyone else. But I found it before they did." She laughed, "And I didn’t smoke it either." She flushed it down the toilet.

BUT SHARON SMITH bristles at the suggestion that her son was a drug-dealer. She said her son smoked marijuana because he had a bi-polar disorder. The disease was the reason he had the nickname Caos. His other nickname was Whiteboy. Smith said she thinks the D.C. police have a stereotype of the young, black men that are murdered in the District. She thinks this stereotype is the reason many murder cases go unsolved, including her son’s.

"I think they try to portray Tony as a white boy with blacks in the wrong part of town," she said.

She describes her son simply. "He was a student at West Potomac. He worked for the family business. He had a girlfriend and a baby on the way. He was 18 when he passed." Before his murder, Tony Smith dropped out of West Potomac to work full-time for his father’s roofing business, Smith and Son Roofing.

Unbeknownst to his family, Tony actually had two babies on the way. Both were born after his death. Tony’s girlfriend at the time gave birth to one daughter, who she is raising. Tony’s other daughter, a girl named Tanesha, joined the family unexpectedly. Tanesha’s mother contacted the Smiths three weeks after Tanesha was born. The Smiths began raising her when she was six weeks old.

Tanesha is now eight. "She has a lot of her father’s personality traits," said Sharon Smith. "She looks a lot like her father. She does well in math like her father did. She likes MTV like her father did. She likes dancing like her father did."

Tanesha began asking about her father when she was about two years old. "Initially we just told her someone hurt her father and as a result of that God decided to take him to heaven," said Sharon Smith. "But [Tony’s daughters] now know someone shot their daddy and killed him."

THE POLICE came into the Smiths’ kitchen shortly before 8 a.m on Jan. 11, 1998. His mother was wondering where Tony was. "We were supposed to get Tony up to go to work," she said. "You know what I did, I paged him. I kept paging him but there was no answer." Tony had not planned to go out that night because he had to finish a weekend roofing job.

Stacey Gainey, Tony’s sister, recalled his last words to her. "If anybody calls, I’m going to bed," he told her on Saturday night. "I gotta work tomorrow."

Standing in the kitchen, the police told the Smiths that Tony had "been involved in a homicide." They thought the officer meant Tony was a suspect. The officer told them they were mistaken, their son was dead. Edward Smith excused himself and had what his cardiologist later confirmed was a heart attack, alone in the living room. Despite this he was able to travel with his wife to the hospital, where they confirmed their son’s identity by looking at a Polaroid photo.

Sharon Smith was dissuaded by the morgue staff from looking at her son in person. She regrets this.

Only days after the murder, the Smiths visited the scene with one of the passengers in their son's car. He had come to apologize to them at their son’s funeral, which Gainey said was attended by over 500 people. Sharon Smith described the trip as "traumatic. But at the time we were obsessed with finding out what happened. We needed to know … who would hate our son so much to do that."

The Smiths were dissatisfied with what they saw as indifference on the part of the D.C. police. "It was just another case," said Sharon Smith. The Smiths felt compelled to pressure the police to investigate. "We called them once a month … Just to remind them, you know. Because we wanted them to know that we hadn’t forgotten and we wanted the case solved."

Trainum did not comment specifically on the handling of Tony Smith’s case, but he did acknowledge that mistakes had been made by D.C. police in the past.

"Once you realize there’s a problem, it isn’t that you focus on ‘There was a problem.’ You try to correct it," he said. Since 2000, Trainum has been the director of the Violent Crime Case Review Project, an effort by the District police to catalogue the city’s backlog of 4,000 unsolved crimes more than three years old. With only 12 detectives available to follow up on these cases, the work is going slowly.

Lt. Guy Middleton from the D.C. Cold Case Department said Tony Smith’s case has been dormant for seven years. "There hasn’t been any follow-up at all since 1998," he said.

THE SMITHS said that after the murder, the Fairfax Police Department assigned a detective to work with them. But they say D.C. refused the help offered by the county. The Smiths interviewed some of Tony Smith's friends themselves, and hired two private detectives, who discovered nothing.

For the next three years, Sharon Smith and her husband traveled to Benning Road every Sunday to lay flowers where their son was shot. Edward Smith built a succession of crosses to place beside the road. The first cross was run over by a car. The second was stolen. The third was simply destroyed. "And the fourth," said Sharon Smith, "well, they left that alone because it looked like concrete."

After his heart attack, Edward’s Smith’s health deteriorated. He eventually lost the ability to work and had to close the 20 year-old roofing business he’d planned to pass to his children. On Jan. 7, 2001, he died of respiratory failure related to pneumonia. Sharon Smith continued visiting the site without him for several more years. "At the time they were removing all those memorials because they didn’t think it was important," she said. "About 2003 I stopped going. I mean, I could make it there in 11 minutes."

Tony Smith had almost reached the highway when he was shot in the head. He was only a few minutes from home. But Sharon Smith believes the District’s separation from Mount Vernon is a much starker matter than minutes and miles.