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When a big crime reaches a small town: Alleged Baltimore killers cause a stir near the Mexican border

When a big crime reaches a small town: Alleged Baltimore killers cause a stir near the Mexican border
Texas Gas Station where Keith and Valeria Smith were arrested (Tim Prudente / Baltimore Sun)

The phone keeps ringing on the desk of the Texas sheriff, but what is there to say?

Here in Cameron County, “the front door to Mexico” as Sheriff Omar Lucio calls it, they don’t often find themselves jailing alleged murderers – two from far-away Baltimore, no less – and the sort who attract attention from around the country.

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And yet, this 80-year-old, a friendly man with a silver mustache who won re-election four times, likes to be helpful, if he can.

“No, no, no. I don’t have any details,” Lucio tells another out-of-town caller.

He jots down a phone number, promising to call back when, or if, something happens in the case of the accused killers, father and daughter Keith and Valeria Smith. Lucio hangs up, again.

“I must have answered 50 calls,” he says. “They want details, but I don’t have any. We don’t know much because it happened in another state.”

The Smiths’ arrest Sunday at a highway truck stop in the little town of Combes, Texas, has caused a stir. The pair traveled more than 1,700 miles from Baltimore, where they are charged with stabbing to death Jacquelyn Smith, the wife of Keith and stepmother of Valeria.

In a violent Baltimore, Smith’s murder stood out for what Keith, 52, and Valeria, 28, told police. They said Jacquelyn was repeatedly stabbed after handing $10 to a panhandler with a baby. It was a shocking crime: a woman brutally murdered during an act of charity.

Now police say it was all a ruse. The Smiths took off and were arrested 20 minutes from the Mexican border. And so this twisted tale has ended up far, far away.

The southernmost tip of Texas is a flat place of big trucks and little houses, where skinny palm trees rise taller than streetlights. The Rio Grande river runs dry this time of year. On one side, Texas; on the other, Mexico’s Matamoros. It’s easy to cross over, but hard to come back.

“Nobody would have stopped them,” the sheriff says.

Cameron County is nearly 90 percent Hispanic. Some restaurants don’t bother with English on the menu. Here the politicians wear white cowboy hats, and the teenagers play in conjunto bands with accordions and sousaphones.

And yet, in a county of nearly half-a-million people, there hasn’t been a homicide in two years, the sheriff says. The sort of criminals who keep these cops busy are those who steal cars to run over the border.

The arrest of two Marylanders wanted for a brutal murder has caused some talk.

“Maybe they thought it was far, far away and they couldn’t get caught in this small town,” said Rigo Aramburo, a bail bondsman who works in a yellow trailer across from the jail.

Inside the brick jail wrapped in razor wire, Keith Smith has declined all visitors. Valeria, held in a nearby women’s prison, has declined them too. The sheriff’s deputies are listening, but they made no phone calls.

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On Wednesday, detectives arrived from Baltimore, but they went right back out the door. The sheriff runs the jails, and he says the two probably weren’t talking.

So this high-profile arrest has brought a pat on the back for the sheriff’s office and the Texas Department of Public Safety officer who spotted the two.

“It gives a lot of pride to a lot of people,” Lucio says.

Soon enough, his phone is ringing again.

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