COMBES, TEXAS — In this little truck-stop town in the Rio Grande Valley, Keith Smith steered his rental car into a gas station to refuel. He and his adult daughter had traveled 1,770 miles away from Maryland — trying, police say, to outrun murder charges in Baltimore that authorities here had been alerted to shortly before the unsuspecting pair arrived.
Mexico lay just 20 minutes ahead. They were almost there. They just needed some gas.
No one appeared to notice as Smith got out at pump No. 2 to refill the silver Camry with out-of-state plates.
No one but a Texas state trooper who was on the lookout for just such a car.
With the tank filled, Smith began to drive out of the station and toward the border. But, lights flashing, the trooper pulled right up behind the Camry until it stopped. The officer got out, pointed his gun and ordered Smith to step out of his vehicle.
Smith emerged from the driver’s side, hands raised. The trooper ordered him to lie face down. Out stepped Valeria Smith, barefoot and wearing a shower cap over bleached blond hair. She, too, lay face down on the lot as a Combes officer arrived to help.
The pair was cuffed and seated in patrol cars as police searched and towed the Camry. A cat with them in the car was taken to a shelter as the two were driven off to the county jail.
The arrests last weekend, captured on surveillance camera, represented a rapid conclusion to a hushed police manhunt. The news shocked Maryland and the nation even more than the tragic tale the father and daughter tearfully told in December about how Smith’s wife, Jacquelyn, had been stabbed to death through a car window after giving money to a panhandler.
Baltimore police now say the story was a cover for what they allege is the truth: that Keith, 52, and Valeria Smith, 28, conspired to kill the 54-year-old engineer from Aberdeen. The two have been charged with first-degree murder and will remain in the Texas jail until they are returned to Maryland on March 20.
“It just amazes me,” said Patrick Quill, the Combes police chief. “They drove how far from Maryland? It was very, very lucky.”
For Jacquelyn Smith and her family, the arrests only compound the ongoing tragedy of the gruesome final moments that police say were orchestrated by the man she had shared her life with for six years. Face down and cuffed on the South Texas pavement, Keith Smith arrived at a destination that once seemed quite likely — until he met Jacquelyn.
A dance to the altar
Keith and Jacquelyn Smith were an unlikely couple.
His background in and around Baltimore was checkered by three bank robberies, a 12-year jail sentence and allegations of verbal threats toward a former girlfriend and their 2-year-old son.
Jacquelyn Smith was the shining star of her Rhode Island family — excelling in high school and college, achieving her dream of becoming an electrical engineer and settling in Maryland to raise two boys who are successful young men today.
Their paths crossed when Keith spotted Jacquelyn at a mutual friend’s birthday party Oct. 5, 2013. Like many how-we-met stories, Keith had to work up the courage to ask her to dance, as he would later tell mourners at her memorial service.
Three months later on Christmas Eve he proposed and she said yes. They married in July 2014.
“I like to say we danced our way to the altar,” Keith said at the service.
Family members worried about the romantic rush to the altar, but figured Jacquelyn knew what she was doing — as always.
“We trusted her. We trusted her judgment,” said her older sister, Yvonne Saab. “She was a sensible person.”
Jacquelyn grew up in Providence, R.I., where she attended a prestigious high school. She later majored in engineering at North Carolina A&T State University, where she met her first husband. The couple had two sons together, and moved around the country — and to Germany — for his Army job. In each city, Jacquelyn worked as an engineer.
The couple later settled in Maryland, but divorced in 2005. She took ownership of their Aberdeen home in 2006 and continued to raise her two sons. The oldest, Kendall Hood, graduated from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Her younger son, David, attended the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“She made sure that her boys always had the best,” Saab said.
Jacquelyn’s family describes a doting mother, always there to cheer for her kids at swim and track meets. She worked as an electrical engineer for Huntington Ingalls Industries, where she was a contractor for the Department of Defense at Aderdeen Proving Ground. She focused on engineering analysis, and development and support of system designs for chemical and biological labs. She was known to find solutions to difficult problems, her colleagues said.
Bank robberies and prison
Just as Jacquelyn was starting life as a single mom, Keith was finishing six years in prison for robbery with a deadly weapon.
He was the youngest of four children raised in public housing in Baltimore by a single mother, who worked as a parole and probation officer for the state.
Keith would later tell authorities he spent three years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, and was honorably discharged. He worked as a driver for the U.S. Postal Service and for Federal Express.
His path toward a prison cell began in December 1999 after he lost his job with FedEx because of too many points on his driver’s license, he later told Baltimore County police. At the time, he was raising his daughter alone and had recently found out he was HIV-positive, according to court records.
And so the 34-year-old Woodlawn man began to rob banks. The first two times he entered banks wearing a ski mask and wielding a pellet gun. He told everyone to lie on the floor, jumped over the counters and emptied the drawers of cash, police reports say. He hurried out rear doors and drove home to Woodlawn. Those first two robberies — one in December 1999 and another in March 2000 — netted $31,000.
Before the third heist, Keith’s name surfaced in Baltimore County District Court for a domestic issue.
In May 2000, a Baltimore County District Court judge signed off on a protective order that a Woodlawn woman had requested against Keith. The order required him to stay away from the woman’s home and her work. It also awarded custody of their son to the woman, Michelle Parker.
In her request, Parker wrote that Keith was inflicting “threats of violence” and “mental injury of a child.”
Parker took the step after their son had spent the night at Keith’s house and, she said, he wouldn’t give her the boy.
“He said that I would never see him again,” Parker wrote.
She said Keith had threatened to file a false report that she had neglected the 2-year-old.
“Mr. Smith calls at every chance to tell me that he will beat the hell out of me if I try to get him back,” she wrote. “Because this is what I get for trying to get child support.”
But Parker also wrote that there had been no physical abuse, just verbal threats and mental abuse.
At a hearing in June 2000 on whether to make the protective order permanent, a county judge denied Parker’s request, writing: “Facts do not support issuance of a domestic violence order.”
Parker did not respond to a request for comment.
Two months later, police say Keith burst into a bank for the third time. But officers were on the lookout for a gold Nissan Maxima driven by the robber, a vehicle they spotted days later in East Baltimore. A chase ensued, the Maxima crashed and Keith was arrested at the scene. Detectives said they found $20,000 in cash in his home taped in bundles and stored in a black bag.
He was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to robbery with a deadly weapon.
In one unsuccessful effort to get an early release, he wrote a judge saying he had finished several religious courses in prison, tutored others in reading and spelling and worked with other veterans.
“With God as my witness, I will never let any situation in my life cause me to break the law in any shape, form or fashion and cause affliction in anyone’s life ever again,” he said in the letter.
He was paroled in 2007.
Suddenly, a marriage
Six years later he met Jacquelyn and appeared to turn his life around.
Yvonne Saab, who lives in New Jersey, said the family was “really surprised” by the marriage.
Starting on the wedding day, the two families clashed.
Keith’s family attended the church ceremony but declined to come to the reception, Saab said.
Keith, however, became a boisterous fixture at Jacquelyn’s family gatherings. A “personable” storyteller, Keith often dominated conversations, Saab said.
“We enjoyed his company,” Saab said, recalling long visits when the couple would come to her home in New Jersey. “He was always the one doing the most talking.”
Yvonne and Jacquelyn’s brother Marcel Trisvan said their sister had always been a “strong” woman, but with Keith “she was just a different person.”
“She wanted to be first in line and head of the class, but slowly she took a back seat to this dude,” Trisvan said.
Over time, Jacquelyn’s family members say Keith told them of his criminal past.
Keith revealed he had done “some time for robbing a bank,” said his brother-in-law, Sammy Saab. “I said ‘does Jacqui know this?’ He said yes. … In retrospect, we wish we asked more details.”
A private person, Jacquelyn did not talk much about the relationship, Yvonne Saab said. The family wanted to be supportive and accepted that Keith was a changed man.
“You think, Some people make mistakes in life, but he’s gone to prison and he’s rehabilitated,” she said. “You don’t want to be so judgmental or exclusionary.”
Bishop Roger Tateum, pastor of the Harford County church the couple attended, Helping Hands Ministries, said Keith openly talked about his past. That was one reason Tateum picked him to lead the church’s ministry work at a Hagerstown prison.
“That was a big part of his turnaround: he got to know the Lord Jesus Christ,” Tateum said.
But Jacquelyn’s relatives soon began to notice changes in how the couple spent their money.
Jacquelyn had always been fairly cautious with money, driving a car “until the wheels fell off,” her brother said.
After marrying Keith, the couple began to enjoy a more lavish lifestyle. She traded up to a Mercedes-Benz. Keith began driving an Audi. They purchased a 50-foot yacht with a $2,000 navigation system, according to Trisvan.
The couple even built a recording studio at their Aberdeen home that went largely unused, said Sammy Saab.
State records show that Jacquelyn was sole owner of the home for the 12 years since she took out a $275,400 mortgage to refinance and pay off the outstanding $244,207 mortgage she and her first husband had taken out, state property records show.
In the petition to become the administrator of Jacquelyn’s estate, Keith claimed his wife owed more money on the home than it was worth. The estate appeared to be worthless, he wrote in documents filed with Harford County’s Register of Wills. The family was unsure whether Jacquelyn had a life insurance policy.
Those who knew the couple — even family members who were surprised by the quick marriage — said they never believed Keith had ever been violent toward Jacquelyn.
“They always held hands. He spoke so nice to her, about her. They were always so affectionate to each other,” said Lida Henson, who attended church with them. “How is this possible?”
Said Yvonne Saab: “He always professed a strong love for Jacquelyn.”
But in the months leading up to her Dec. 1 killing, Jacquelyn’s relatives said they had noticed that she had become more independent and assertive.
“She was like her old self,” Yvonne Saab said. “Maybe she knew things that we didn’t know and she was less tolerant.”
What they did not know but which detectives learned during their investigation is that Jacquelyn had told Keith she wanted a divorce.
Long before Keith Smith’s arrest, Jacquelyn’s family members were torn about whether to believe the panhandling account.
Her brother said he never bought the story that Keith and his daughter tearfully sold to the public after the killing. Jacquelyn’s sister, however, said she chose to believe.
“His explanation of what took place that night didn’t really make sense,” Yvonne Saab said. “However, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t think he murdered my sister, I thought maybe he had failed to protect her.”
She remained in touch with Keith after the killing. He told her he was moving to Florida for his truck-driving job. Even then, she did not suspect what police say they had begun to figure out: Keith was making a run to the border.
As Saab and other family members were still packing up mementos of an accomplished, seemingly happy life inside Jacquelyn’s Aberdeen home, police in Texas executed an arrest warrant sworn in a Maryland court and took Keith Smith and his daughter into custody.
Police have not said if they know of a motive for the killing.