They said a Baltimore panhandler killed their family member. Now police say they did it. How did we get here?

Police now believe Keith Smith, 52, and Valeria Smith, 28 created a ruse, originally blaming Jacquelyn Smith’s fatal stabbing on a pair of East Baltimore panhandlers. On Sunday, the Smiths were arrested by Texas State Police near the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to flee the country and are awaiting extradition from Baltimore.

Here’s a rundown of how we got here.


Dec. 1, 2018

Jacquelyn Smith’s death

Smith, a 54-year-old electrical engineer from Harford County, died early the morning of Dec. 1 after being stabbed in the chest, according to Baltimore Police.

Police initially said Jacquelyn Smith and her family were driving through the Johnston Square neighborhood around 12:30 a.m. when they saw a young woman carrying what appeared to be a baby and holding a cardboard sign that said “Please Help me feed my Baby.” Smith, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, rolled down the window to give her money, police said.

Police said a man then approached the car to thank the family — before he reached into the car and tried to grab the woman’s wallet. After a struggle, police said, the man took out a knife and stabbed Smith.

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Dec. 3, 2018

A tearful news conference

Keith and his daughter Valeria (who, at the time, identified herself as Shavon) appeared tearful at a news conference on the Monday morning after Jacquelyn Smith’s killing. Meanwhile, police canvassed the neighborhood near the alleged site of the stabbing, and detectives said they did not have any leads on the panhandlers’ identities.

Keith and Jacquelyn Smith
Keith Smith, 52 and Jacquelyn Smith, 54, at the American Legion the night of her death. Handout / HANDOUT

Smith said he wanted to get a law passed in his wife’s memory banning panhandling.

“Something needs to be done, because now 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,” Smith said Monday. “There are some desperate people. They don’t need help; they’re trying to hurt you.”

City leaders, such as Mayor Catherine Pugh, condemned the incident. Then-interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle called the killing “a heinous murder.”

In the days that followed, as police released no new details about the suspects, some of Baltimore’s other homeless citizens who panhandle said they saw the number of motorists willing to lower their windows dive.

The story also drew national attention, including from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Dec. 7, 2018

Jacquelyn Smith’s memorial service

At a memorial service at the Smiths’ church, Helping Hands Ministries in Harford County, Keith Smith eulogized his wife and told the story of how they met. Members of the church remembered Jacquelyn as a kind and giving person, and talked about how it was fitting that her last act was doing a good deed, as they thought at the time.

“Me and my wife, we became one,” Keith Smith said. “We became one in everything. That’s what happens when you find your soulmate. That was my everything. One day I’ll find peace within myself. Right now, I’m just healing…. Still, I’m going to honor my wife’s memory, and make sure my wife did not die in vain.”

Memorial
Keith Smith, left, is embraced and consoled by Kevin Oliver during a public service at Helping Hands Ministries for Jacquelyn Smith. Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun

Feb. 8-Feb.21, 2018

Investigation continues, Smiths move to Flordia

Detectives wiretapped Keith Smith’s phone, and did the same to Valeria’s one day later, according to charging documents. Then they called Keith Smith back in for questions.

“Immediately upon completion of the interview,” detectives wrote in the charging documents, “Mr. Smith got in a rental truck and drove to Winter Haven, Florida, where he requested to be relocated by his job.”

Jacquelyn Smith’s brother, Marcel Trisvan, said Keith Smith handed over the keys of the couple’s Aberdeen house and said he was moving to Florida. Despite his sister owning the home, Keith Smith removed all of the appliances before his departure, Trisvan said.

Keith Smith arrived in Winter Haven on Feb. 12., Polk County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sherrie M. Morgan said. He signed a yearlong lease at a modest home at 4030 Cypress Landing East on Feb. 21 and moved in the following day. Valeria Smith was believed to be living with him, Morgan said.

March 1, 2019

Smiths try to flee, alert issued

Keith Smith rented a car, a 2019 Toyota Camry, and drove it south through Texas, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and charging documents. This prompted the authorities to issue an alert for the vehicle in Texas, police said.

 
Booking photos of Keith Smith and Valeria Smith, charged in the killing of Jacquelyn Smith.- Original Credit: Cameron County Sheriff / HANDOUT

March 3, 2019

Arrest, arraignment and aftermath

Keith and Valeria Smith were arrested by Texas State Police, near the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to flee the country, acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced at a news conference.

Warrants charging them with first-degree murder in death of Keith Smith’s wife, Jacquelyn Smith, were issued, Harrison said.

“The information and evidence points it wasn’t a panhandler,” Harrison said.

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The news that the panhandler story was allegedly staged caused outrage from Baltimore citizens and officials, who said the Smiths created widespread — and unwarranted — hysteria about the city’s violence and threats posed by the homeless.

Keith Smith and Valeria Smith appeared in court the following day and were arraigned on the charges in Jacquelyn Smith’s death. They are being held without bond, and Baltimore Police say they will be extradited back to Baltimore on March 20

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