What police now say was a false story of a Good Samaritan from Harford County being killed after giving money to a panhandler in East Baltimore played on the worst stereotypes of the city and created widespread — and unwarranted — hysteria about the threats posed by the homeless, Baltimore officials say.
Police concluded that the killing of Jacquelyn Smith in December was not, in fact, committed by a robber pretending to thank her for handing a few dollars out the car window to a panhandling woman with a baby in her arms, as her husband and stepdaughter tearfully claimed.
Instead, Keith Smith, 52, and Valeria Smith, 28, were arrested Sunday by Texas State Police in Harlingen, near the Mexican border, and charged with first-degree murder while trying to flee the country.
The initial story, coming at the end of Baltimore’s fourth straight year of more than 300 homicides, made national headlines and prompted feelings of outrage and hopelessness about the city. Baltimore’s long-standing reputation for violence played into the case, according to the acting police commissioner, mayor and state’s attorney.
“People take advantage of Baltimore,” acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. “What we want to make sure is that the truth comes out and justice is done.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh said the suspects used the issues of homelessness, crime and poverty that have long plagued the city to stage her death as a Good Samaritan killing.
“These individuals took advantage of a situation, a city that is already dealing with its own problems,” Pugh said. “We’re looking forward to this cruel act being brought to justice.”
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who accompanied Harrison and Pugh at a news conference Sunday, noted that the city’s negative image played into the ruse.
“Oftentimes we have these negative depictions about our city, and it’s rather unfortunate when people take advantage of these negative perceptions,” Mosby said. “This is an example where collaborative efforts of the Baltimore Police Department and my office were able to get to the truth of the matter.”
The lie affected more than just the city’s public relations efforts. Panhandlers in Baltimore told The Sun they heard the click of door locks and saw a large drop in donations in the days after the killing.
Blaming a murder on an already vulnerable and often stereotyped group of people is “reprehensible,” said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.
“This claim was made and then suddenly there was outright fear of vulnerable people on the street,” Lindamood said. “You turned on any news station and you heard people talking about this news story in a very sensational way.”
Because of their poverty, homeless people are often assumed to be violent, when they are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators, he said.
“It’s never been uncommon for the larger public to stereotype populations living in poverty,” Lindamood said. “We find that particularly when it comes to the association between violence and homelessness, it’s just absolutely overblown.”
Oprah Winfrey tweeted in the days after the killing that Smith’s death “struck my heart” and that while she had given to homeless people 1,000 times, she would reconsider doing so again.
After police said the story was a hoax, Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, was among those asking the billionaire media mogul for an apology.
“Please issue an apology to Baltimore,” Milli tweeted. “This deserves outrage beyond the negative attention it put on our city. Please use your platform to unpack the real reason so many were so quick to jump on Baltimore City.”
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, called the case “unfortunate on so many levels.”
It reminded Fowler of the case of Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who Chicago police allege staged and paid for a racist attack on himself to promote his career.
“When it comes to Baltimore, don’t believe everything you hear,” Fowler said. “I’ve lived here 28 years, raised kids here — it’s wonderful city. Sometimes people take advantage of our reputation to cover up crimes. It’s heinous.”
The story was always too far-fetched for Johnston Square resident Brandon Cottman to believe.
“I knew it was bogus from the start,” Cottman, 34, said Monday afternoon. “It seemed orchestrated from the beginning.”
Cottman said he has lived in the neighborhood for three years and had never heard of panhandling on the block of Valley Street where police initially said the stabbing happened after midnight.
“When I heard of the details … it didn’t sit right,” he said. “For someone to be panhandling in this neighborhood at that time, it is unheard of — especially on that block, which is desolate, even during the daytime.”
Johnston Square residents feel a “sense of betrayal” toward the suspects for allegedly framing their neighborhood as the site of a random killing, Cottman said.
“You had people walking around, getting pulled over, and harassed” after the killing, he said. “They probably felt like it wouldn’t be investigated because it was a minority, low-income area.”
By many measures, Johnston Square is one of Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods, according to the data compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. The Greenmount East area, of which Johnston Square is part, has an unemployment rate of 25.8 percent, and 24.2 percent of family households there are living below the poverty line, the report found.
The killing was a blow to the neighborhood’s morale. The news of the alleged lie has further upset residents.
“It was inconceivable,” said Terence Alexel, 59, who was among those who never believed the story. “I thought someone else did it.”
Lindamood, of Health Care for the Homeless, said destigmatizing homelessness and poverty, as well as avoiding the inclination to jump to assumptions, are key to ensuring scenarios like these don’t become sensationalized.
“Things like this are rooted in fear — fear of people who are different than we are,” he said. “We need to really work to break down these stereotypes that aren’t often based in reality.”