It’s come to my attention that a true-crime book about the murder of Shari Smith has just been published. Several years ago, I wrote this little essay. I’ve never been able to find a place for it, but I realized, hey, I can post it on my blog!
Movie of the Week
In the made for television movie, William Devane stars as the sheriff. The other actors – the ones who play Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Shari, her sister, the townspeople – are not so well known. Watching the movie on video, I think that the young actress who has taken the part of Shari Smith is not as pretty as the original.
The movie is called “Nightmare in Columbia County” – an unfortunate title. For one thing, there is no Columbia County in South Carolina. The events took place in Lexington, County, just outside the capital of Columbia. For another, the title makes it sound like a horror flick. Then again, I guess it is.
I did not know Shari Smith. Not personally. Not well. To me, she was one of those big-haired girls who flitted through the halls of my new high school. Beautiful, popular, and outgoing, she was bursting with confidence. I was an outsider – a Northerner – with the wrong clothes, the wrong hair (short and spiky, not big) and the wrong ancestors. At lunch in the cafeteria, people still talked about how the Yankees had made off with their great-great grandmothers’ silverware.
I had a crush on Shari’s boyfriend,a blue-eyed, All-American guy in my homeroom, and I was jealous of her. On top of everything else, she could sing the angels out of the sky. I learned this one day when she soloed during lunch in the cafeteria. It had something to do with graduation. I was a senior, so I guess she was singing for me.
She was a junior then. I had already spent a year at a small Midwestern college when she was kidnapped on the verge of her own graduation. When I heard the news, I regretted every bad thought I’d ever had about her.
I hated that summer. The air was hot and still and shrill with cicadas. I had fallen in love for the first time and had my heart broken, and now I was working the salad bar at Shoney’s. I spent twelve hours a day on my feet doing drudge work – chopping lettuce and tomatoes, wiping the breath marks from the protective glass. I tried to rest my feet in stolen moments by standing flamingo-style while leaning against the stainless steel counter. My hair always smelled like grease. I had no previous work experience other than babysitting and blueberry picking, no qualifications for waiting tables. My co-workers were convicts on a work-release program.
It was a summer of fear. Neighbors tied yellow ribbons around their mail boxes. I read the newspaper every day, desperate for news. Was she still alive? Had they found her yet? And then they did.
Shari Smith was dead.
Cora, the tall African-American woman who was doing time for bad checks, had a scoop. She and I worked the salad bar together. While we refilled the dressing, she said, “I know someone on the police force. He said they found her in the woods wrapped in plastic.”
None of this made it into the newspapers. Twelve years alter, I watch the made-for-TV movie and find that it was true. Shari, who’d been a diabetic, had died that very first day for lack of medicine. Her abductor had dumped her in the forest. From the movie I learn that he had been calling the Smith family for weeks and telling them that their daughter was okay. He called on the phone and said that he was in love with Dawn, Shari’s sister, a local pageant winner who’d one day be runner up to Miss America.
I was nineteen years old. I went out at night, went dancing, and hung out with my friends at the Capitol Café, eating brains and grits. I went home at three a.m. People told me stories about escaped convicts creeping into the houses of innocents. The night janitor at Shoney’s was a murderer.
I’d spent most of my life in Grand Haven, a tourist town on the shores of Lake Michigan. The entire time I’d lived there, only one local murder made the headlines. It was a domestic squabble, or a crime of passion – nothing that affected my sense of safety.
A boy I’d known in elementary school died in a freak snowmobile accident. Another died of cancer. But I’d never known a murder victim, not even remotely. Shari’s death was a shock I couldn’t absorb.
I went for walks – long walks to clear my mind, along the tree-lined country road. It’s all tract housing now, but then the pines were thick all the way to Scrub Oak Farm, where the cows grazed on an embankment. There was corn across the road. The only jarring part of the walk was a house mid-way with a yard full of dogs. Whenever I walked past, the dogs started barking, lurching, straining at their chains. I crossed to the other side of the road when I went by and tried not to wince.
I heard a lot of rumors that summer. I heard that the man who lived in the house with the dogs was a suspect in the murder of Shari Smith. I heard that the murderer had chosen his next victim, and that she was blonde and blue-eyed. Well, so was I. I stopped taking walks.
The second victim was a little girl who lived in a trailer park. She was found a few days later, and then Larry Gene Bell, an electrician, was arrested.
The man was clearly insane. During his trial, a year later, I was working at the local newspaper. Accounts of Bell’s courtroom antics filled pages of print. When asked a question, he’d say, “Silence is golden.” Once, he stood up and proposed marriage to Dawn Smith, who sat horrified in the courtroom. Someone on staff at the newspaper said that the murders had been good for business. I couldn’t tell if he was being cynical or not.
By the time I watch the made-for-television movie, Larry Gene Bell is about to be executed. I am living in Japan, which boasts one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. I am past the age of victims favored by serial killers.
At the end of the movie, a photo of Shari Smith flashes on screen. It’s the photo that appears in my high school yearbook. How out of date that Farrah hairstyle looks, I think. And no one would wear blue eye shadow like that anymore. It happened all so long ago. It is dark outside and I am alone in the house.