Saturday, May 26, 2007

Movie of the Week - from the Archives

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.



Blogger jean said...

How sad.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Gaijin Mama said...

It was very sad, but because it was so sensational, the murder has been the subject of numerous TV shows and a couple of books. In that weird way, her memory is kept alive.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

I've been a lurker on your blog for a long time, and this post just resonated with me so strongly I had to say something.I live in Michigan, and when I was younger one of our neighbors and her daughter were shot by the woman's ex-boyfriend. The SWAT team used our house as the base of their operations, and we had to stay the night at another neighbor. To this day, my sister and i still sleep with lights on, even though that happened about 15 years ago. It's funny how things like that stick with you forever, and you still feel afraid even after all that time.
I really have no words of encouragement or condolences for you, because really what do you say? I just wanted you to know that you aren't alone in this, and that I have you in my heart and prayers.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Gaijin Mama said...

Thank you, Shannon. Those kinds of events affect entire communities and the effects last for years.

Our next-door neighbor in South Carolina was also murdered, but not until she'd moved away from the neighborhood and I was already living in Japan.

1:15 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

Nice post! You have said it very well.

1:27 AM  
Blogger donna said...

shari and i were kids in the same neighborhood & rode bikes together. i graduated from irmo. my brother participated in the searches for her and it was, indeed, a terrifying time! shari, however, did not die from her diabetes, she was suffocated with duct tape. i will NEVER forget the town covered with yellow ribbons! it was not long after the abduction and murder of usc student, bobbi rossi from a mall parking lot. those were such scary times living there!
*i am a teacher now and can see that you have a beautiful writing style! you're a talented writer! take care!

5:53 PM  
Blogger Thomas Bolt said...

I read your blog and your subsequent comments and while I agree that the made for TV movie sounded like a horror movie it was in fact nothing compared to the real thing the Smith's were facing every moment.

Shari and Dawn were/are both incredible talents. I had the privileged to sing with both of them in High School. They were both incredibly "good girls" outside of the public eye. They have/had exceptional parents. (Hilda has since passed away.)

Many of the details were left out for public consumption; some too gruesome. All in all it was a terrible time for just about everybody that knew anyone in that tight little family.

Today I have a 16 year old daughter. She too is amazingly talented. She's not into pagentry but her presence on a stage can be overwhelming. As I attend each of her shows I scan the audience for anything suspicious. An unfamiliar parent's face. A glance at my daughter that's unnecessary. My suspicions are high. I'm an overprotective father and it's because of my own personal experience with the Smith's tragedy that I am so.

My having been so close to the Smith's tragedy has left an indelible mark on my duties as a father. I remind my daughter of it now that she's older. I confess I don't mind scaring her with some of the details I've been privledged to. I hope somehow that might shear off that teenage sense of invincibility and make her more careful. I think it's had an effect. I warn her of the dangers of allowing "fans" access to her and especially in this day and age.

Adjusting to the south can be daunting. I'm sorry you had a difficult time. Transition can be hard.

I hope you're okay following the recent tragedies that continue to unfold in Japan.

If you'd like to correspond I'd welcome it. Reach me at

Best wishes and please be safe.

12:53 PM  

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