During her seven-hour hostage ordeal in a Duluth, Ga., apartment Saturday morning, Ashley Smith said she talked to her captor about her slain husband, even showing him a copy of his autopsy report and giving him a taste of what he has put other families through.
Now the family of Daniel "Mack" Smith Jr. hopes the national spotlight on his widow - who led police to the man wanted in the killings of a judge, a court reporter, a deputy and a customs agent in Atlanta - will help shed some light on his unsolved 3-year-old homicide.
"Somebody knows what happened," said Joel Smith, 46, Mr. Smith's older brother, who lives in Appling. "We're going to use this to do whatever we can. We want closure on my brother."
Someone stabbed Mr. Smith in the heart during a brawl in the parking lot of a Martinez apartment complex in August 2001. Mrs. Smith was there, screaming for help and holding him in her arms in the bed of a pickup as he lay dying, according to witnesses. Her husband, a carpenter, was 23, and the couple had a toddler daughter.
"God has helped me through tough times before," Mrs. Smith said at a news conference Monday night. "And He will help me now."
Two men were charged in Mr. Smith's death the next day, but the case never went forward. No one was ever indicted. Police estimate that 10 to 15 people were involved in the fight.
Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said investigators never could determine the cause of the fight or the sequence of events, nor could they find a witness to the stabbing. The weapon also was never found.
Like the victim's brother, Capt. Morris said he hopes talk about Mrs. Smith's heroism in Duluth will prompt people to talk about her husband's death and someone whose conscience is moved will pick up a phone.
"As time goes on, people forget, or don't want to remember," Capt. Morris said.
Despite the time that's passed, District Attorney Danny Craig, of the Augusta Judicial Circuit, would not release documents from the file Monday, saying it's still an open investigation. He said his office could have sought an indictment but he didn't think prosecutors could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
"It could be, though, that there will be a time when we can," Mr. Craig said.
According to police, residents of Applecross Apartments off Washington Road were awakened Aug. 18, 2001, at about 3:30 a.m. by shouting and arguing in apartment 3C, Barry Keith Tabor's apartment.
Joel Smith said police and the district attorney's office told him they'd done all they could do. He said Mr. Tabor, one of the men charged in the killing, had been a close friend of his brother. Based on conversations with Mrs. Smith, he said, the fight apparently started when a girl spat on her, and her husband said something to the effect of, "You can't control your girlfriend," to another man.
A witness who lived next door told The Augusta Chronicle that he saw 15 people fighting in the hallway and that as the argument spilled into the parking lot they were hitting each other with broken beer bottles.
Joel Smith said he believes most of the people ganged up on his brother. He said his brother went to his truck and got a baseball bat and that two other men went inside and got a knife. The fighting resumed, and someone wrestled the bat away from Mr. Smith and stabbed him, his brother said.
Mr. Smith collapsed.
"His girlfriend turned around, and she started screaming for somebody to help her," a neighbor told The Chronicle. "She was saying, 'Look, he's bleeding from his mouth.'"
Mr. Tabor and Jairo Humberto Lopez were charged the next day. A magistrate judge later dropped the charge against Mr. Lopez for insufficient evidence, and Mr. Tabor was never indicted.
In October 2003, Mr. Tabor was charged with armed robbery, burglary and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime in a Burke County case. Three masked men, dubbed the "bacon bandits," demanded a Waynesboro man's wallet at gunpoint outside his home after breaking in and stealing a package of bacon and fixing themselves drinks.
Staff Writers Sandy Hodson and Rob Pavey contributed to this article.
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: The following statement from Ashley Smith was given at a press conference held Monday night outside West Lake subdivision in Columbia County:
I want to thank everyone for their prayers and support over the last several days. I also want to extend my deepest sympathies to the families of Judge (Rowland) Barnes, Julie Ann Brandau, Deputy (Hoyt) Teasley and Special Agent (David) Wilhelm, as well as my prayers for Deputy (Cynthia) Hall, who is fighting for her life right now in the hospital. As I'm sure you can imagine, this event has been has been extremely difficult and exhausting for me and my extended family. I have experienced just about every emotion one could imagine in the span of just a few days.
Throughout my time with Mr. Nichols, I continued to rely on my faith in God. God has helped me through tough times before and He will help me now.
I hope that you will respect my need to rest and to focus my immediate attention on helping the legal authorities proceed with their various investigations. It's natural to focus on the conclusion of any story, but my role was really very small in the grand scheme of things. The real heroes are the judicial and law enforcement officials who gave their lives and those who risked their lives to bring this to an end.
Thank you again for your prayers. God bless you all.