Even in a city hardened to senseless violence, the killing of Jacquelyn Smith was shocking.
The 54-year-old engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground was stabbed in her chest while driving with her husband and stepdaughter through a desolate stretch of East Baltimore three years ago. Her husband told police Jacquelyn had passed $10 out the window to a couple panhandling with a baby, but that they snatched her necklace, stole the wallet from her lap and stabbed her repeatedly.
Her husband drove her to a hospital and told police Jacquelyn was fatally wounded during an act of charity — three weeks before Christmas 2018, no less. The crime alarmed people across the country. “This story struck my heart. I’ve done this a 1k times. But will think twice before ever doing again,” Oprah Winfrey wrote online about Jacquelyn’s act of charity.
Only detectives found none of it was true.
Jacquelyn’s husband, Keith T. Smith, allegedly carried out the crime and concocted the tale, fooling everyone long enough to almost reach the U.S. border with Mexico. His murder trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Jacquelyn’s older brother, Marcel Trisvan, has waited three years for him to stand trial.
“It’s been without closure, you know?” he said Monday. “I’m still not feeling like my sister is at peace yet with all this lingering; it’s actually pretty haunting.”
Smith, 55, a tractor-trailer driver, faces counts of first-degree murder and a weapons charge. A first-degree murder conviction brings a maximum penalty of life in prison. Smith served about six years in prison in the early 2000s for robbing a Timonium bank with a pellet gun.
His defense attorney in the homicide case, Natalie Finegar, declined to comment, as did prosecutors.
His daughter, Valeria Smith, 31, admitted in September 2019 to a role in the cover-up. She pleaded guilty to acting as an accessory after a murder and faces 10 years in prison. She’s to be sentenced Dec. 13 — after her father’s trial. Under her plea deal, she is to testify against him.
Valeria Smith recorded rap songs, worked as a boutique cashier and founded a publishing company, Purple Press LLC. In some of her last posts online before the killing, she touted a new release of her music that she called “Shalavou — Egyptian Goddess Blood.”
Days after Jacquelyn’s death, Keith and Valeria Smith held each other and cried before the media.
“I’m going to let the world know my wife didn’t die in vain,” Keith Smith said. “I want to try and get a law passed against this epidemic of these people out here begging for money and getting in close proximity of your car. ... You don’t know whether or not you’re going to give and this person’s going to take your life or they’re going to say, ‘Thank you.’”
His story played on feelings of unease toward panhandlers in Baltimore, a city that’s long debated what to do about those who solicit money on street corners and the boys and young men who squeegee windshields at traffic lights. Advocates for Baltimore’s homeless worried the crime would frighten drivers from giving — or worse, provoke confrontations.
“This claim was made and then suddenly there was outright fear of vulnerable people on the street,” Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless, said at the time.
Even as news photos and videos spread of the seemingly grief-stricken Smiths, detectives worked to unravel their account. Keith Smith had told officers the three celebrated Valeria’s birthday that night at an American Legion post before heading home to Aberdeen.
Police recovered footage from 27 surveillance cameras on their described route and found no sign of the car, detectives wrote in charging documents. Cellphone signals placed the Smiths in Druid Hill Park for 15 unexplained minutes, detectives wrote.
Police interviewed people who lived near the supposed crime scene and learned panhandlers weren’t seen around there. The story of a middle-of-the-night panhandler in desolate East Baltimore didn’t make sense, wrote Michael Moran, the lead detective.
“Based on my training, knowledge and experience, panhandlers typically panhandle in well-traveled and heavily populated areas during times of the day that would be most lucrative,” he wrote in charging documents.
Furthermore, crime scene technicians found no fingerprints of a suspect on the outside of the Smiths’ white Audi. Detectives searched homeless shelters, but found no one matching the Smiths’ description. In one police interview, Keith Smith said the woman panhandler wore a blue jacket; in another interview, he said a brown jacket.
When detectives asked Valeria Smith about the 15 minutes in Druid Hill Park, she asked for an attorney. Keith Smith left town and moved to central Florida after officers asked him about it.
“Immediately upon completion of the interview, Mr. Smith got into a rental truck and drove to Winter Haven, Florida, where he requested to be relocated by his job,” wrote Moran, the detective.
Two months after Jacquelyn’s killing, an unidentified source — police did not name him or her in charging documents — told detectives Keith Smith had tried to solicit his brother to kill Jacquelyn. The brother told detectives that Jacquelyn had been talking about divorcing Keith.
Meanwhile, police wiretapped Keith’s cellphone in Florida. They heard his brother call and warn Keith that he was being questioned by police. Detectives monitored the phone as Keith tried to book one-way tickets to Cuba and Canada, but he didn’t have a passport, according to the charging documents.
Then Keith rented a car and took off with Valeria in March 2019. Authorities sent out an alert for the pair. Texas state troopers arrested them at a gas station 20 minutes from the Mexican border.