It was a Friday night in December, and for almost an hour before his wife’s memorial service, Keith Smith stood in the aisles of Helping Hands Ministries in Churchville, Harford County, accepting words of consolation from those who had come to mourn his wife.
He hugged men. He hugged and kissed women. He walked the aisles of the modern church, sometimes standing directly in front of a photo portrait of his wife, Jacquelyn Smith. The portrait was framed in flowers on the church’s stage, the stage washed in special studio lamps used for Helping Hands’ weekly televised service.
All eyes, including mine, seemed to follow Keith Smith, a man of slight build in a gray suit, as he moved slowly about the Apostolic church to greet friends and fellow members of the congregation. Smith had lost his wife — a woman he would call his “soulmate” later that evening — in a fatal stabbing a week earlier and 35 miles away, in East Baltimore.
But, according to Baltimore police, the widower’s manner and words on that Friday night in Churchville were apparently part of an act. On Sunday, Smith, 52, and his 28-year-old daughter Valeria Smith — a stepdaughter of Jacqui Smith — were arrested in connection with her death. Keith Smith’s claim that Jacqui Smith had been stabbed by a man after she gave money to a woman panhandling with a baby in her arms — that did not happen, police say.
And suddenly, a national story about Baltimore violence, seemingly so pervasive it even left a Good Samaritan dead, became a twisted story about a scheme to stage a murder.
And suddenly, the memory of Jacqui Smith’s funeral, extra saturated with emotion because of the nature of her death, becomes fraught with irony — the mourning widower in the front row being consoled by speaker after speaker on stage, the kind words about Jacqui Smith’s charitable nature and her last act in life, and the five women who sang “Every Praise.”
That song, in particular, hit powerful chords and sensitive nerves. I was moved to tears by it.
The speakers at the service, including coworkers from Aberdeen Proving Ground, spoke with profound affection for Jacqui Smith, and some told humorous stories that softened the edges of their sorrow.
“Jacqui’s tragic death has shaken this community,” said Bishop Roger L. Tatuem, senior pastor of Helping Hands. “Not just this community, but the entire world.”
Tatuem told mourners to continue to be charitable — “We are believers. We don’t stop giving,” he said — but to be careful about giving money to panhandlers, echoing a warning that went up across the country, from New York to Oprah Winfrey to California, after Keith Smith’s version of his wife’s death became news. Tatuem said giving had to be done with wisdom and caution, and he advised making donations through established charities.
Toward the end of the funeral, Keith Smith stepped up to the stage and to the lectern at its center. His eulogy was, in that moment, soft and sweet.
He told of meeting Jacqui Smith for the first time on Oct. 5, 2013, at a birthday party of a mutual friend. He was nervous about asking her to dance. But, he said, it was love at first sight. “I like to say we danced our way to the altar,” Smith said. He proposed to her the following Christmas Eve.
“Me and my wife, we became one,” he said. “We became one in everything. That’s what happens when you find your soulmate. That was my everything.”
He thanked everyone, including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, for their support and kind words.
“One day I’ll find peace within myself,” Keith Smith said. “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.”
Kweisi Mfume, the former Maryland congressman and president of the NAACP, felt compelled to be there to pay his respects. “After the service, [Keith Smith] looked me right in the eye and thanked me for being there, and said it meant so much to him,” Mfume recalled Monday, after hearing about Smith’s arrest. “I’m 70 years old and thought I’d seen everything. ... I’m beyond appalled. This is tragic. It’s senseless, it’s monstrous and shocking.”
The stabbing of Jacquelyn Smith was traumatic — not just to those who knew her, but to Baltimore: As first reported, a senseless and vicious killing by someone who should have been grateful for her kindness in the rain. And, coming in December, as we moved toward the holidays and the end of another violent year, the story amplified the worst feelings about Baltimore, a real sense of foreboding around every corner.
But now, based on what police say, the story is not about that. Nor is it about martyred charity. It’s about something much worse.