Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Bride-To-Be And A Burning Car

PRETTY 24-year-old Debra Smith, like hundreds of other young adults, had enrolled at Valencia College to take some special courses. There were several reasons that persuaded Debra to take these studies. In addition to her desire for more education, the schooling would relieve some of the tension of ther complicated personal problems which had become overwhelming. The college work notonly took her out of the realm of her problems, but also provided her with the enjoyment of the truly beautiful surroundings there.

Debra, who was living (with her 5-year old daughter) with her father temporarily in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, left her home at about 6 o'clock on the Wednesday evening of October 4th, 1978, to drive out to Valencia to attend the biology class in which she was enrolled.

It was a clear, comfortable night. Soft winds had carried away the afternoon and early evening heat. Eventually, however, as the time passed into the late hours, Debra's father casually looked at his watch and wondered why his daughter was late.

Frank Packard, the man who was going to marry Debra when her divorce came through, waited with her father for her return. Packard had come to Florida recently and had accepted her father's invitation to stay with them while he and Debra worked out plans for their future.

When the clock showed 10.30, Frank asked whether Debra had been this late before. Her biology class ended at 9.30 and she should have been home by now. But there had been one or two rare occasions when she returned to the Winter Park house about 10.30.

Her father was concerned, but not uneasy. He told Frank that she'd be along in a few minutes. Nonetheless, there was something portentous about her tardiness. Finally, at 10.45, Frnak announced that he was going to drive out to the school to find out why Debra was late. And, since the young woman had driven to school in Frank's black Chevrolet Camaro, he accepted the father's offer of his pickup truck.

As the younger man drove off, the father restlessly paced the living-room. Debra's younger sister (the girls' mother had died a short while ago) tried to reassure her father that there was nothing wrong and that they would soon hear her pull up to the house in Frank's car - or that Frank would be phoning in a few minutes to say that he had found her.

Meanwhile, Frank took the same route out to Valencia that Debra used. But, as he approached the campus, the quiet and stillness of the night and the scattered safety lights spelled out the fact of the late hour, that classes were over - and the school seemingly deserted.

There were four separte car parks and Frank began a tour of each to see if he might find his car. In one, he observed a group of scattered cars, undoubtedly those of teachers and college officials working late.

As he continued his search, he discovered, surprisingly, a parked car that was familiar to him. Struck by his discovery of this particular car - a 1971 brown Chevrolet Monte Carlo with black vinyl top - he paused to think over what he should do.

He considered rushing to a phone to call Debra's father or the police. But he changed his mind about that, since there was not much he could say, other than that he'd found this particular car. He decided that he would let the air out of the back tyres of the Monte Carlo, so that the owner could not remove it when he returned. After doing so, he set out to look for a public phone.

FRANK RACED the pickup to the main ighway, several hundred yards to the north of the school, where he spotted a phone booth at the corner filling station. He halted his vehicle, hopped out and called Debra's father.

Over the phone, he reported to the anxious parent his discovery of the Monte Carlo that he was certain belonged to Debra's estranged husband. There was no doubt, Frank explained over the phone, that the car belonged to Jerry Kenneth Smith. He recognised the car and, in addition, it carried a New Jersey tag - as well as a sticker on the bumper that designated the owner of the car a military personnel at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

Before Frank hung up, it was arranged that he would return to the Winter Park house to pick up the father and together they would continue the search that Frank had begun alone.

When Frank arrived, they lost no time in taking off again. As they drove along, Frank explained that he had let the air out of Jerry's tyres, so that he could not go anywhere.

They drove to the school, only to discover that the Monte Carlo with the New Jersey plates was gone. Either Frank hadn't let enought air out of the tyres to immobilise the car, or Jerry didn't give a damn about a couple of flats or near flats and drove the car regardless.

After some discussion, the two men decide to drive to Jerry's appartment to see if his car was parked there. Debra's father knew the address and guided Frank to it. But when they arrived at Jerry's apartment, his car was not there. They drove on to Jerry's parents' house and looked around for his car, but it was not there either.

The two men continued to drive around over the general area in a scattershot attempt to run into either or both cars they were hoping to find. As Frank and Debra's father drove along, the older man revealed that he had called the Orange County sheriff's office to report that his daughter had not returned from college.

He told Frank that there was probably a BOLO (Be on Lookout) out on two the cars and that deputies could conceivably come up with the discovery of one or both cars.

Driving down a secondary road leading into Orlando, Debra's father slowed at an intersection and spotted the brown Monte Carlo in the parking area of the convenience store there.

He twisted the steering-wheel with a hard left pull and drove into the parking area. Simultaneously, both men cracked open their opposite doors, shot out of the pickup and raced into the store.

Inside the store, Debra's father confronted the 29-year-old Jerry Smith, who seemed shaken at their arrival.

Immediately, there was a verbal explosion between the two men. Pushing the older man to one side, Frank demanded to know where Debra was - and what Jerry had done with her. As he spoke, the anger flamed out of his eyes. Smith nervously stepped back, cowering away from Frank Packard. As the argument crescendoed to an almost certain brawl, the store manager shouted for the men to stop their argument. "If you want to fight, get the hell out of here!"

With that, he phoned the sheriff's office and reported the violence that had descended upon his normally peaceful store. As he replaced the phone, the manager saw, to his surprise, two uniformed sheriff's deputies entering his store.

Deputy Riggs Gay asked: "What's going on here?"

He and Deputy Ray Toller had observed from the road outside that some kind of trouble had struck the convenience store. Now, as he heard the details, the officer descovered that there was a relationship between this incident and the report concerning a missing girl, which he had heard on a BOLO.

Debra's father told the deputy that he was the man who had reproted his daughter missing and that the man he was involved with here was his son-in-law. In the discussion that ensued, Deputy Toller made notes of all that transpired and also what he observed.

When asked about Debra, Smith insisted that he knew nothing about his estranged wife. As they talked, the older man insisted: "He's done something with my daughter." But Jerry Smith retorted: "I don't know what he's talking about."

While the argument continued, Deputy Gay noticed another man who seemed to be especially interested in the scene. The officer approached him and asked: "Who are you?"

"I'm his brother," the man answered, nodding towards Jerry Smith. The brother added that he knew nothing about the goings-on in the store. He said that Jerry and he had merely stopped for a cold drink and were suddenly confronted by Debra's father and Frank. He also accused Frank of reaching for a bottle of cola with which to hit Jerry. Frank admitted reaching for the soft drink, but said that he'd had no intention of hitting Jerry with it unless the estranged husband struck Debra's father or him first. Deputy Toller wrote all of this into his report.

As things calmed down a little, Jerry suggested that they look in the taverns of Orlando for Debra. But Gay and Toller wanted to know why Jerry's car had been in the college car park. He told them that he had parked his car there temporarily while he went off with a group of girls who were throwing a party.

When the deputies asked him to identify the girls, Jerry Smith nervously refused to give either their names or addresses. He also refused to reveal where the party was held.

But after they left, Gay asked the others if they had noticed the smell of gasoline on Jerry Smith. His clothes were grimy, as well as smelly with gasoline.

Toller remarked that the back of Smith's shirt was grease-stained or smudged. Between the two officers, it was noted that Smith wore a long-sleeved grey dress shirt, grey jeans and distinctive blue canvas track shoes, with white stripes.

The most bothersome aspect to them of the convenience store incident was Jerry Smith's nervousness. Debra Smith's father told the others that he was not satisfied with anything that Smith had said. And he insisted: "He's done something with my daughter."

The time was almost 1.30am as the officers drove off. Frank and Debra's father contemplated what they could do now. Both men were tortured by the mystery surrounding her disappearance. Too much time had passed by this hour to assume that there was nothing wrong.

Finally, the father suggested that they drive out to the school once more. There was some logic in the deduction that everything centred on the school. And neither could erase the fact that Jerry Smith's car had been parked there earlier.

It was 2am when Debra's father headed out to the campus once more. By then, the highway leading past the University of Central Florida was lonely and bare.

Driving beyond the college down to the Econlockhatchee Trail, opposite the campus, they noticed a strange flicker in the distance ahead.

Following the dim light in the sky, the father remarked to Frank that it was odd that something was lit up in the night sky. It seemed to be a fire glow out in the middle of the woods.

Cautiously, they drove ahead, down through the thicket of trees over a dirt road. As they came closer and closer to the glow, it became clear that there was a fire ahead. But it seemed strange that the fire was localised in one spot.

Reaching the fire, the men saw a car burning out its last embers. There had been a fierce fire earlier, for all that was left now of the car was a burnt crisp shell.

"My God!" Frank burst out. "That's my car!"

WITH A thrust against the door, he broke out of the pickup and rushed to the car to see whether Debra had been inside when the car caught fire. But there was no one inside the car. In stunned silence, Frank paused to study the scene before him. And then, as though his head turned slowly on a spindle without his volition, he caught a glimpse of a body lying on the dirt immediately ahead of his destroyed vehicle.

"Don't come up her!" Frank called to Debra's father. But his plea was for naught.

The distraught man had to see for himself. Slowly, stoically, he walked to the place where the body lay.

Frank lit his cigarette lighter to reveal that their worst fears had been realised. In the glow of the small flame, he could see Debra Smith lying on her back, her extremities spread, a deep chest puncture and massive blood on her almost entirely nude body. The search was over.

ONCE MORE, Frank Packard drove back to the phone boothe at the filling station. This time, he called the sheriff's office to report that Debra Smith had been found.

In a few minutes, the area was swarming with police officers. But in the dark night, in the confines of surrounding trees, it was not possible to do an effective job of unearthing all the crime scene evidence. The area was cordoned off, the body allowed to rest in the position in which it was found - and it was decided that technicians and crime scene experts would come to the site at daybreak.

Detectives Dale Martin and John Harrielson, assigned to investigate the murder, talked to Deputies Toller and Gay, who briefed them on what they had learned earlier. Then the two investigators interviewed the deceased's father. The latter reviewed the circumstances that had preceded this night of horror for him.

His daughter Debra and granddaughter, 5, had moved in with him about two months before, after she arrived from New Jersey. Debra, separated from her husband Jerry Smith, had begun divorce proceedings.

According to the father, the girl had been threatened many times by her husband who, according to testimony she had given to an Orlando lawyer, was trying to physically remove the child from the mother's custody. With these threats facing her, Debra had filed for divorce and petitioned the court for a restraining order against her husband.

For those two months, the father had feared the son-in-law, but there had been no overt acts against his daughter until this night, he said.

As day broke, the two detectives were at the scene, where they talked to Frank. He later pointed out the position in the college car park where he had observed Jerry's car the night before.

Then the detectives joined the crime scene technicians who had come to collect evidence. The morning was clear - ideal for the work ahead of them. The technical group almost immediately discovered a length of clear plastic-covered speaker wire, knotted at each end.

The dirt immediately north of the body and also the ground to the east of her feet showed signs of having been disturbed, attesting to a struggle. The deceased's glasses were found about three feet north of her body, which lay about 15 to 20 feet in front of the burnt-out vehicle.

Around what was once a car, the technicians found several matching footprints, some flaked with soot and powdery burnt matter. The specialists also recorded several tyre prints.

On examination of the body, it was observed that the victim had been stabbed in the upper left breast, as well as in the neck area. Her neck also bore markings of some type of garroting. There was a large would at the base of her neck.

While the on-scene investigation continued, Detectives Martin and Harrielson returned to headquarters, where they learned that Jerry Smith and his brother had agreed to come and talk to the detectives working the case.

At 9.20 on the morning of October 5th, the Smith brothers came to the sheriff's office. Jerry was read his rights and then asked if he would talk to the officers. He refused to discuss the death of his estranged wife without an attorney present.

His brother, however, did talk to the detectives. He told the officers that he had gone to work at 4.30pm on October 4th and worked until 12.30am on the 5th, when his brother picked him up. From his place of employment, he drove with his brother in the '71 Monte Carlo to the house of a friend of his. But the friend was not there, so they drove home.

En route, he added, they stopped at the convenience store for some beer. That was when they met Frank, Debra's father and the deputy sheriffs. Then, according to the younger Smith, the two brothers drove directly to their apartment.

The detectives inquired whether Jerry's brother had joint control over the apartment and learned that he had. After being advised of his rights, the brother agreed in writing to permit the investigators to search the portion of the apartment under his control.

Shortly after 10am, Detective Martin, with Captain Bruce Churchill, accompanied Jerry Smith's brother to the apartment. Inside, the investigators saw and inquired about a pair of blue track shoes with white stripes. The brother stated that they belonged to Jerry, who was wearing them when he picked him up at work at 12.30am.

About a quarter of an hour later, Jerry Smith, accompanied by Detective Harrielson, entered the apartment. Detective Martin explained that it was necessary to search the apartment and that he was about to obtain a search warrant.

Jerry Smith was told that, even if he refused permission to search the aprtment, the officers could still get a court order for the search and proceed with it. Smith then agreed to the search, whereupon the officers read him his rights again and asked him to sign a proper document granting them the search permission. He signed the paper, with the three officers and his brother as witnesses.

Technician Ron Gosselin then arrived to participate in the search. The officers soon found a grey, long-sleeved shirt soaking in the bathroom sink. They also found, hanging on the towel rack over the bath, a pair of denim pants, a pair of white jockey shorts and a pair of socks. All items were soaking wet. These items were taken as evidence by Gosselin.

The technician nex examined Smith's Monte Carlo and, from its undercarriage, he recovered strands of weeds and vegetation.

The following day, Martin and Harrielson, continuing their investigation, began tracing Jerry Smith's activities. They talked to his employer and his friends and checked his every movement.

As the investigators gathered more and more about the comings and goings of Jerry Smith, there were indications that Jerry's brother probably had the answers to many of the questions they needed answered. There were a lot of holes in the pattern they were putting together. And Smith's brother, who had been with him the night Debra disappeared, should be able to fill in many of them.

On the Saturday afternoon of October 7th, Martin and Harrielson contacted Jerry's brother at his parents' residence. The detectives told him that they would like him to come to headquarters on Monday, October 9th, for the purposes of making statements to them. He agreed to do so.

On Monday morning, Dr. Thomas Hegert's examination report revealed that the victim, Debra Smith, has been sexually violated, vaginally and anally - and that the cause of her death was massive haemorrhages, due to stab wounds of the chest and neck.

LATER THAT morning, about 9.45, Martin and Harrielson talked to the attorney Debra Smith had retained to handle her divorce. He told them that Jerry Smith had called him several times on October 4th, demanding to know what was transpiring and also when he could pick up their little girl. In their discussions, according to the attorney, Smith was hostile to him. Debra's attorney advised Smith to have his lawyer contact him - that he could not discuss anything with him. But he did admonish Smith to refrain from bothering Debra or the child.

At 10.30am that day, Technician Gosselin reported to the detectives that blood had been discovered on the soaking shirt recovered from Jerry Smith's bathroom. But there was a high concentration of detergent present - and it could not be determined whether the blood was human or animal.

As the morning wore away, it became obvious that Jerry Smith's brother was not going to keep his promise to appear at the sheriff's office, so an investigative subpoena was obtained from the state attorney's office for him.

At 6.20pm, the brother was picked up at his place of employment in Casselberry, about 12 miles north of Orlando, then brought in to the state attorney's office.

Assistant State Attorney Joe Urbaniak interviewed Jerry Smith's brother in the presence of Harrielson and Martin. The story this Smith told was allegedly filled with inconsistencies and conflicts. But the web had been woven around his brother well enough to bring in Jerry Smith on an arrest warrant.

At 10.45pm that Monday - five days after pretty Debra Smith failed to return home from class - Jerry Kenneth Smith was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The arrest was made at his parents' residence by Detectives Martin and Harrielson, as his brother watched.

"Did you tell them," Jerry asked his brother, "what we talked about?"

There was no answer.

TECHNICIAN GOSSELIN photographed scratches on Smith's arms and chest. He also photographed Smth's legs below the knees, where there were apparent insect bites.

Two days later, the younger Smith was again brought into the state attorney's office. He was accompanied by a lawyer. Assistant State Attorney Urbaniak conducted the intervies, with the two detectives present. The brother now admitted that Jerry had picked him up at work after midnight on the morning of October 5th... and had confessed to him that he had killed his estranged wife.

Jerry had then driven his brother out to the site, where they viewed the body. While the brother was observing the deceased, Jerry doused the car Debra had used that night with gasoline and set fire to it.

ON THE first morning of Jerry Kenneth Smith's trial for murder, Prosecutor Robert Eagan was approached with an offer that the defendant would plead guilty to murder in the first degree if the state would waive the requirement that the accused must serve a minimum of 25 years, which is required in Florida.

Eagan's reaction was: "We fought long and hard to get that 25-year minimum in first-degree murder cases. I don't believe that I could or should waive it - and we don't."

A jury was picked and the trial proceedings were put into motion. But then there was a further discussion. The outcome was an offer of Smith's to plead guilty to first-degree murder, with the understanding that there would be no death penalty. The defence also made a conditin that they would retain the right to appeal the constitutionality of the 25-year-minimum of time served before a petition or consideration for parole could be made.

This plea was accepted and was explained thus by Robert Eagan: "Having been previously appealed on two occasions and the constitutionality of it (25-year minimum) having been upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, I didn't feel that it was a concession of any consequence... and the death penalty was about a 50-50 proposition.

"With the circumstances offered, we would be going to trial only on the possibility that he might some day be put to death. For this reason, I thought that the practical thing to do was to accept the plea. And that's what we did."

Jerry Kenneth Smith is now serving his life term in the Florida state prison at Raiford.

Editor's Note:
Frank Packard is not the real name of the person so named in the following story.

Taken from a magazine entitled 'Master Detective (February 1980)'.

Reported by Sam Roen

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