D.C. man charged in fatal December stabbing had served time for 2005 slaying

January 4, 2012

A D.C. restaurant worker who served a prison term for killing a man with scissors in 2005 has been charged with fatally stabbing his girlfriend about 41 times last month, possibly also with scissors, police said Wednesday.

John W. Smith Jr., 46, was arrested on a second-degree murder charge Tuesday in the stabbing of Elaine Coleman, 47. She apparently had been dead for two days when a worried relative found her body just after midnight Dec. 4 in a bedroom of her Northeast Washington home, police said.

Coleman had been stabbed in the neck so viciously that her spinal cord was severed and she was nearly decapitated, Douglas Carlson, a homicide unit detective, wrote in a court affidavit made public Wednesday.

After an autopsy, the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office “advised that some of the stab wounds on [Coleman’s] face and the front of her neck could have been caused by a pair of scissors,” Carlson wrote. It is unclear whether police have found the weapon used to kill her.

Smith, who recently worked as a server in a Jamaican restaurant in Northeast, was charged with first-degree murder in Baltimore in 2005 after police said he stabbed a man with scissors during a fight. Police said that Smith and the victim were either strangers or barely acquainted. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five years of an eight-year term, records show.

On Wednesday, in his initial appearance in D.C. Superior Court, Smith entered no plea in Coleman’s killing. He was ordered jailed pending a preliminary hearing Jan. 18.

Danielle Lueking, a spokeswoman for Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that Smith was freed from prison in November 2010. His sentence was reduced by Maryland law because of his good behavior behind bars, and his early release was mandatory, she said.

Smith had been required to meet regularly with a Maryland parole officer and was to remain under supervision until next year, according to Lueking.

Andrew Harris, one of the owners of the Jamaican-themed Roadside Cafe in the 2100 block of Benning Road, said he was aware of Smith’s background when Smith was hired about a year ago, not long after he got out of prison.

“He was a very good employee,” Harris said. “I will tell you what I told the police: He had a very good work ethic and was really trying to get his life together.”

Police said that Smith moved into Coleman’s home, in the 500 block of 23rd Place NE, in July. Their relationship was stormy, Carlson’s affidavit says.

Based on interviews with people who knew the couple, Carlson described Smith as “very possessive” of Coleman. Smith allegedly phoned her frequently, keeping tabs on her whereabouts and companions, and was quick to grow angry and jealous.

Coleman forced Smith to move out of her home on several occasions but would eventually let him return, the affidavit says. Smith sometimes slept at the Roadside Cafe during their separations, Harris said.

Smith recently complained to acquaintances that he suspected that Coleman had resumed a romance with an old boyfriend, the affidavit says. Based on interviews with witnesses, Carlson wrote that Smith also was angry with Coleman over money.

Smith recently spoke of having received a financial “settlement” of some kind and complained that Coleman had been taking advantage of the windfall by sponging money from him, according to the affidavit.

In the presence of at least one acquaintance, Smith talked about wanting to kill Coleman and mentioned that “his weapon of choice is a pair of scissors,” Carlson wrote.

Police allege that after stabbing Coleman and leaving her body facedown on two mattresses on the floor, Smith covered her head with a pillow and left the house with Coleman’s cellphone and charger, which he later sold to someone he knew.

Coleman’s approximately 41 stab wounds were mostly on her neck, face and chest but also on both hands and wrists, which appeared to be caused when she tried to defend herself, the autopsy found.

At the Roadside Cafe, Harris said he was surprised and saddened by Smith’s arrest. He said the restaurant is always willing to hire former inmates who seem eager to lead productive lives. “Our focus is not on the past,” he said. “Our focus is more on giving people rehabilitative opportunities.”

As for Smith, Harris said: “Our focus was on his very strong work ethic. He’s someone who was trying to improve his life — not just saying he wanted to do it, but attempting to demonstrate it.”

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