I had a week to catch a killer.
And the trail was only 70 years cold.
Actually, I first heard about the case more than a year ago when Ashland Police Chief Billy Martin called me up. He had an interesting story to tell me, he said. It would make a great book.
On a hot summer night in 1929, around midnight, a shot rang out in Ashland's town square. The next morning, a garbage collector found the body of Ashland's sole law enforcement officer, Chief Harry Smeeman, laid out in an alley. He had been shot in the head. To this day, nobody knows who did it.
Martin said he and some other Ashland folks, including Smeeman's daughter and granddaughter, had formed a committee to discuss theories about the murder. They thought they knew who did it, but they didn't have proof yet. Nearing retirement, Martin wanted to close the books on Harry's murder before he left.
I should look into it, he urged.
I did a little. I met with the group and borrowed a large black photo album full of photos and original documents, and newspaper clippings, now yellowed and crinkling like ancient parchment.
Chief Martin was right I was fascinated by the story and fascinated even more by the fact that the group believed someone in town perhaps many people still knew who the killer or killers were but wouldn't give them up, even generations later.
Things being what they are, however, the black photo album sat on my book shelf, and the story stayed in the back of my mind until the 70th anniversary of Smeeman's murder came and went.
I knew if I didn't tell the story soon, someone else might. Before they called me, the group contacted Patricia Cornwell's office. They were told curtly that Cornwell does her own research. But just about a month ago, Cornwell and an assistant were seen storming Ashland's book and curio shops in search of history books about the town. Maybe it was unrelated. Who knows? But if so, that left a worse specter that no one would tell the story and Smeeman's killing would not only be unavenged but largely forgotten.
Several weeks ago, then, I renewed my contact with Martin and his group of armchair sleuths. It includes former Town Councilwoman and Ashland historian Rosanne Shalf; the town clerk, Betty K. Kennon; Terry Shaw, daughter of Smeeman's now deceased daughter Dorothy; Terry's husband, Steve; and Martin, the friendly, white-haired police chief. A 34-year veteran of the Ashland police force, Martin has been chief for four years. He's just working up to full days again after suffering a heart attack.
The group has been meeting on and off for more than three years, researching old archives, tracking down leads and interviewing surviving town residents who still remember the June 1929 murder. They sift through the miasma of rumor that still hangs over the town everything from Smeeman committing suicide because he contracted a venereal disease to him being killed in a double-cross by bootleggers.
Once, the group thought they had a bead on the murder weapon, which was never recovered. Kennon's family has always told the story of how her Uncle Leroy, who was 18 at the time of the slaying, found and kept the murder weapon while he was on his way to work at Luck's Dairy on the Sunday morning Smeeman's body was discovered. He never said where he found it, or whether he saw the body.
Leroy Cross died in 1994. Apparently, decades before, he had given the gun to his brother, who lived in Washington, D.C., and died in the late '70s or early '80s. Kennon tried to trace the gun's whereabouts but could only learn that Leroy's brother had traded the gun to a friend, leaving behind no bill of sale or traceable record.
[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasAshland these days doesn't look much different from the time of Smeeman's murder. His body was found in an alley behind the town square at this railway intersection at Railroad Avenue and England Street.
The group that meets at the Ashland Police Department to discuss Harry Smeeman's murder would probably seem like a club of murder-mystery devotees or an amateur historian's society if it weren't for its final member: Mildred Davis, Harry Smeeman's daughter.
Davis, a 78-year-old widow, has sparkling blue eyes beneath her white hair and wears a perpetual smile. She kept children in her home for years and years, and practically everyone in Ashland calls her Auntie. She was just 8ø when her father was killed.
"I remember seeing my dad ... I remember seeing the place where [the bullet] went though his temple," Davis recalls in a halting voice. "He was embalmed and brought back to the house. ... I just could remember [the gunshot wound] was just like a little spot, you know."
The killing left her mother, Lula Smeeman, a 37-year-old widow with two young daughters to care for alone. She took in sewing to support her family and never remarried. A photo of Harry hung above her bed until the day she died at age 93 in 1985.
Shortly before her mother's death, Davis says, Lula Smeeman wondered aloud, "I wonder if Harry will love me as much as when we met. He was so young and good-looking and I'm so old."
Harry Smeeman's family has been haunted by his death all their lives. Lula believed vehemently and angrily that townsfolk knew who murdered him but were protecting the killers. She remained afraid that someone might come after her or her daughters if they found out too much not that it was a problem.
Even today, generations later, with anyone connected to the murder probably long dead, the Smeeman family still can't get any answers. Ashland is a place with a long memory. People still remember slights against their great-grandparents. For that matter, they not only know who their great-grandparents were, they know who their neighbors'
When Davis or her niece, Terry Shaw, or even Chief Martin, ask people about the murder, invariably they get the same answers: It was a long time ago. Let it rest. Leave it alone.
"It makes me feel bad that I think I have lived here all of these years and perhaps people who were friends of [the killer or killers] would never care enough for what my father gave of himself to let us know what happened, and who actually did it and why they could have done such a thing," Davis says. "I feel cheated that I never really had a chance to grow up with my father."
But in Ashland, folks have hardly remained quiet about the murder. Legends, folklore and oral histories have been passed down from generation to generation behind closed doors. Some claim to know definitively who killed Harry Smeeman. Much of it's just unsubstantiated rumor. But even 70 years later, no one wants to admit knowing anything. There are still stories about those who claimed to know too much meeting their ends from poisoned whiskey or other nefarious means, though no one can prove these things actually happened. Their close-knit and closemouthed ways make up the character of this small town just as much as the mystery that bubbles right below its surface.
I worked as hard as I could to make room in my schedule to look into Smeeman's murder, but other more pressing things came along. Finally, I found myself with just five days left to work on it. Five days to pry open Ashland's reluctant mouths. Five days to see if I could learn the 70-year-old secret they held. I wondered if I could do it.The Official Story
[image-2]Family PhotoHarry and Lula Smeeman pose for a family portrait with their daughters Dorothy, left, and Mildred, right.
On the surface, Ashland hasn't changed that much since 1929. It's probably why the pink-flamingo-bearing protestors don't want a Wal-Mart in this little hamlet centered around the railroad tracks and Randolph-Macon College. Small business thrives in this town where shopkeepers know everyone who walks in their door.
What is known about Smeeman, his death and the investigation that followed is a hodgepodge of colorful figures, red herrings and unanswered questions. I even had a hard time keeping all the players straight in my head. But it all leads to a small-town whodunit worthy of Poirot, Holmes or Miss Marple.
Known as "The Skipper," Harry Valentine Smeeman was a familiar and popular figure around town. His police motorcycle with attached sidecar was a subject of conversation, and he often gave rides to local college kids, who later gave him a small terrier dog, which they dubbed "Capsy" after Smeeman's military-style police cap.
Only 5-foot-5, Smeeman was a tough customer, skilled in the arts of judo and jujitsu, which he often displayed in local exhibitions. He took pride in not using his gun, though he wasn't averse to socking someone with a blackjack. The one time he's known to have used his gun, he shot into a ceiling to bring order to a rowdy party and nicked a partygoer in a bed upstairs.
His Ashland was a more lawless place than the sleepy rural suburb we know now. A railroad resort town, it was a hotbed for gambling, prostitution, narcotics and bootleg whiskey.
Though some rumors about his death have him in league with bootleggers, I have a hard time believing it. Harry Smeeman, I learned in my research, was praised for destroying stills by the state director of prohibition. Smeeman even wrote an article for the Ashland Herald-Progress in which he decried the "tendency of many to shield the violator(s) of law, and especially the Prohibition law."
On the evening of June 29, 1929, Harry went out to attend night court, collect fines and patrol the town square. He told his wife he'd be home early.
According to an investigator's report, a lot was going on that night, including a midnight craps game at the back door of Duke's grocery store in an alley behind the town square.
Around midnight, according to witnesses, a shot rang out.
At the time of the killing, Frank Stimpson, now 92, lived in an apartment on the town square above Hughes' Drug Store, where he worked as a clerk.
Just as he was getting ready for bed, Stimpson told me, "I heard a shot back there, but I don't know if it's the one that killed him or not. ... It sounded like a car backfiring."
When he didn't return home that night, Smeeman's wife went out after midnight, searching for him. She found his car parked with a door open by the train tracks that run through the town square. She honked the horn, a signal for him to come to the car if he was on patrol nearby, but he never came.
Early the next morning, a garbage collector coming through the alley behind Duke's found Smeeman's body. Some would recall later that he was laid out like an undertaker might arrange a corpse, with his arms over his chest. His blackjack was strapped to his hand and his gun was on the ground at his side. His handcuffs and keys were missing, but he still had money on him.
[image-3]Photo by Stephen SalpukasStanding in the alley where the slain chief's body was found, Smeeman's daughter, Mildred Davis, and her niece Terry Shaw still are searching for information about his murder. When she asks people who killed her grandfather, Shaw says, they say it happened a long time ago, leave it a mystery. But "that makes you madder ... because it's just one of those things you just need an answer to ... and because you know people know in this town."
Curious onlookers trampled the murder scene, which wasn't preserved, and the Richmond police were brought in to investigate. Ashland Town Council also hired a private detective, Col. Frank Morgan, known for his trench coats and dogged investigative tactics.
There was a great debate over whether Smeeman had committed suicide. Some townsfolk swore that one of the bullets from his gun had been missing, and others swore the gun had been full. But there were no powder burns on Smeeman's face and hands to indicate he had shot himself, and a later autopsy disproved the theory.
Ashland Mayor B. Morgan Shepherd, a popular man known as the Colonel, was one of the biggest proponents of the theory that Smeeman was murdered in the line of duty, and he attested to it as town coroner and director of an inquest into Smeeman's death. He immediately had Town Council post a reward of $500 for information leading to the arrest of the killers.
Under headlines such as "Called By Death," the local newspapers theorized that Smeeman had been killed in the alley while trying to apprehend a criminal.
But Frank Morgan, the private detective, believed the body had been moved from the actual crime scene, hidden overnight, and dumped in the alley that morning.
In one of his reports, he noted that the blood from the bullet wound had drained down inside Smeeman's clothes, as if he had been held upright for some time.
Also, I learned, a paperboy had been through the tiny alley not long before Smeeman's body was discovered, and he saw no body there.
"My brother and I were delivering papers. We didn't see anything," says Dennis Thompson, now in his 80s and living with his son in New Jersey. "If he had been there, we would have saw it. We had a big collie dog and that dog would have smelled it and went right to him."
Morgan eventually found an alleged eyewitness, a 16-year-old boy in a reformatory who claimed that he had seen two men kill Smeeman during an altercation off U.S. Route 1 about a mile north of Ashland. According to the boy, Smeeman had tried to arrest one man and put handcuffs on him, prompting another man named Joe to shoot Smeeman. The two later drove Smeeman's body back to Ashland in his squad car. Backing up the boy's story was the fact that a local police officer claimed to have found a button from Smeeman's police cap at the site off Route 1 where the boy said the slaying took place.
Murder charges ended up being brought against John Randolph Taylor and Joe Clayman, two shady characters allegedly involved in the narcotics and bootleg whiskey trade. However, the 16-year-old witness didn't identify Clayman as the murderer and charges were dropped against him. Taylor was acquitted soon after for lack of evidence.
A grand jury eventually indicted in absentia a third man, known only by the alias Joe Rust. The teen witness later positively identified a man named Lewis Josephine, who had just been convicted of killing another police officer, as the Joe who shot Smeeman, but apparently charges were never brought against him.
The case remains unsolved.Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2