Janet Vance did not feel right around her sister's new boyfriend. And when her sister said he'd been threatening to hurt her, Vance said it was time to call the police. Instead, Lois Jean Vance Smyth promised to stop seeing him.
A few months earlier Smyth, then 40, and Kenneth Brunetti had reconnected on Facebook. On May 29, 2011, he lured her to Leakin Park, shot her, left her for dead and stole her car and bank card.
"He sat on my couch with my kids, watched my TV," Vance, 42, said, "and he killed my sister."
On Friday a Baltimore circuit judge sentenced Brunetti, 41, to life plus 25 years in prison, to start after he completes a nine-year sentence for violating his probation in an armed carjacking case. Vance, Smyth's daughter Erin Morman, 23, and other members of the family testified as to how badly Brunetti had hurt the family.
"Lois was a good person, everybody loved her," Teressa Vance Graves, 47, another sister, said in an interview. "She had the biggest heart in the world."
Brunetti maintained his innocence throughout the case. His attorney, Margaret Mead, has said he cared for Smyth and that she plans to appeal the conviction. She could not immediately be reached Saturday.
Smyth's death marked a dividing line in their lives, Vance said. Even a picture of Smyth holding her grandson — who was running around and playing at his aunt's Glen Burnie home Saturday — took on new meaning.
It was his first Christmas and Smyth's last, Vance said.
Less than two months later after that snapshot was taken, Brunetti contacted Smyth on Facebook. They had been in the same gym class for a semester at Old Mill High School in Millersville and Smyth was planning a reunion. Brunetti did not come to the party, Vance said, but he and Smyth developed a relationship.
Vance and her sisters did not remember Brunetti, whom they knew as Todd, and they did not know that he started getting into trouble in his high school years. When he rediscovered Smyth, he was still on probation for the carjacking conviction.
Even though Vance did not know Brunetti's record, she realized quickly that his relationship with her sister had taken a dark turn. A few times Brunetti visited Vance's house and he always wore a white baseball cap pulled low over his face, she said.
"He just didn't seem right," Morman added.
Once, Vance said, she heard him down the line screaming and demanding to know whom Smyth was on the phone with.
"She had been trying to end it," Vance said, "but he threatened her when she did."
"She figured everything would be fine. She always thought everything would be OK."
In May, just days after Smyth promised to stop seeing him, Brunetti invited her to go to a cookout in Leakin Park. When they got there he walked her down to a wooded area and shot her in the head. A jogger discovered Smyth's body a few hours later.
In the meantime, Brunetti had taken her bank card and car, withdrawn $700 from her account and gone off to enjoy a crab dinner with friends just a few miles from the murder scene, according to filings in the case.
On June 1, police arrested Brunetti on a violation-of-probation warrant that had been issued that March. Vance now thinks he knew the warrant was out and wore the cap to avoid being spotted. Officers found Brunetti getting into Smyth's car at the Red Roof Inn on Reisterstown Road.
Vance thought something was wrong as soon as Smyth went missing and her mind immediately turned to Brunetti.
"I just … Todd did it. He said he would," she said. "Everybody instantly knew."
Graves said she's glad Brunetti's sentence means he will not be able to harm another woman, but added that the conviction has only brought the family some small measure of comfort. The family will still have to deal with the loss, and now without the distraction of the criminal case, she said.
"If you didn't want her around, " Graves asked of Brunetti, "why didn't you just send her back to us?"
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