The Confession
In 1967, the Slayings of 2 Women Shocked a Va. Town. Recently, the Killer Came Forward, and a Suspect Was Cleared. Still, Closure Is Elusive.

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

STAUNTON, Va. Some in this Shenandoah Valley community will tell you that the black and white tile bled for years on the same day -- April 11 -- in what used to be the ice cream shop where two young women were killed in 1967.

Like many violent acts committed in places where there are few, the slayings in this quiet city about 160 miles south of the District never faded with time. They grew with it.

Theories turned into rumors, which turned into folklore.

"A lot of Stauntonians will tell you where they were or what they were doing" when the women were killed, Staunton Police Chief Jim Williams said. "Like a lot of people can tell you where they were when Kennedy was assassinated or when the space shuttle blew up."

A few weeks ago, Staunton authorities announced that, at last, they had solved the case. Several men were suspected over the years, including one put on trial, but in the end, a woman confessed on her deathbed, they said. Even more surprising than the killer's sex was why she did it and how she got away with it for so long. She killed those women, she told police, because they teased her about her sexuality. She also told them that afterward she handed the gun to the lead detective and he buried it.

Suddenly, with those few details, a case that the community had held on to since Charlie Chaplin opened his last film and Elvis got married was both over and not. Recent weeks would find a police department investigating its own, relatives dragging out faded photographs and at least one man discovering what freedom feels like. It would become clear that in some places, some cases never die, even when those responsible for them do.

'I Shook So Hard and Cried So Hard'

The first Super Bowl had just been played and anti-Vietnam demonstrations were erupting throughout the country when two shots rang out at the High's ice cream shop, striking Constance Smootz Hevener, 19, and her sister-in-law, Carolyn Hevener Perry, 20, each in the head.

When police arrived about 11 p.m., both women were lying in a puddle of blood, dying. One had a weak pulse, the other a strong one, the lead detective wrote in the police report.

He also noted a man at a pay phone.

William Thomas Jr., whom friends call Bill and Gus, was a 24-year-old teacher. He was outside the strip mall, talking on the phone, for about 12 minutes before police appeared, he said recently. He hadn't heard the shots and didn't know the women were injured, he said, when he walked up to the detective.

"I don't know what has happened here, but if this will be of any help?" he said that night, according to the police report. "I saw two men split and run."

Within months, Thomas was the prime suspect, facing trial on one murder charge and indicted on the other.

A jury would find him not guilty, but the indictment would not go away until two months ago. Before then, it would show up during job interviews and on loan applications. It also meant he couldn't leave the country.

He said his daughter called him at a motel in Pennsylvania while he was away on business to tell him about the confession.

"I shook so hard and cried so hard," said Thomas, now 65. "I've never had something weaken me like that. I prayed. Then I just started making a list of things I could do. I can now go to Canada. I can now go to Mexico. I can now go to Europe."

He uses the word "nightmare" to describe those years.

"Many a times, I've said, if you're going to be indicted for 41 years, you need the King James version, a good quality gin and good friends and family," he said.

Jokes slip off his tongue often, as if to cushion harsher memories. After laughing for a few minutes, he described the dozen or so beatings he's faced over the years by those who didn't agree with the jury.

"I've been pretty worked over," he said. "People saying 'Now it's time to get yours.' "

'God Put a Blindfold Over Me'

After his twin sister died, Carroll Smootz said a hatred grew in him that made him think only of getting somebody. And to him, that somebody was Thomas.

He remembered seeing Thomas once outside a shopping center and driving his car so close to him that the bumper brushed the back of his legs. He said he followed him that way him for a while.

"The only thing I can say is God put a blindfold over me for just a second," Smootz said, adding that for a moment he wondered whether he had the right man, giving Thomas just long enough to walk away. "This is what haunts me right now. . . . I could have killed him. I could have hurt him real bad."

Smootz, now 61 with white hair and a frame that only hints at his once 16-inch arms, was born 11 minutes before Constance. When she and Perry died, Smootz said, he disappeared many nights, leaving his wife searching for him.

"I'd be in Waynesboro laying on her grave," he said, tears forming under his wire-rimmed glasses. "I'd say: 'Dear God, I'm in so much pain. You've got to help me. I can't stand living without her.' "

The week after Staunton authorities held the news conference, Smootz found himself at the strip mall where the High's used to sit. He had imagined many times how that night must have unfolded, and he did so again. Only this time, he saw a woman's face where he had always pictured Thomas's.

"She parked in the back," Smootz said, standing in an alley that leads from a lot to the front of the stores. "Here's the steps she came down.

"Might even have stood over here in the dark."

A Primary Suspect Is Identified

Sharron Diane Crawford Smith might have died without confessing if it weren't for a chance encounter at a yard sale June 21, 2008.

Joyce Bradshaw, who used to work with Smith, was at the yard sale when she saw a truck that belonged to one of the victim's relatives and left a note asking him to call her. Until then, Smith's name had been buried deep in police files.

Bradshaw told the relative, and later police, what she had seen two weeks before the killings. She had met Smith at a burger joint, she said, when Smith told her to look in the glove compartment. "There is a gun with two bullets in it," Bradshaw remembered Smith saying. "One for Emmett and one for the Heavener girl that lives on Grubert." Emmett was Smith's stepfather, and Constance Hevener lived on Grubert, according to records.

Bradshaw said that she told all this to the lead detective after the killings but that he dismissed her concerns, saying that Smith passed a polygraph and that a ballistics check on the gun did not match the bullets used in the slayings. She said he also told her that Smith "target-practices on his farm and is a crack shot." The detective, Davie Bocock, died before Smith's confession.

With these few statements, a case that showed little chance of cracking spilled open.

Relatives of the victims hired a private investigator, who found Smith in Room 33 at the Harrisonburg Health and Rehabilitation Center. Several relatives would meet with her over a few months, some talking about forgiveness and redemption and others carrying crime scene photos.

On Sept. 10, the Staunton police department received an anonymous call saying Smith admitted to killing the women.

The next day, police would officially interview Smith. Although she denied involvement in the slayings, investigators noted at the bottom of the police report: "Sharron Diane Crawford Smith has become the primary suspect in this case."

'I Was Just Pushed So Far'

Smith was 19 and working part time at High's at the time of the killings. From what she told police, it is known that she was abused by her stepfather and that she later married a man, left the area for North Carolina and had two children. After her divorce, she returned to Staunton and lived with a woman for the last 20 years or so of her life.

She told police that she had never told anyone about that April 1967 night.

That is, until she confessed to them Nov. 28, 2008.

After relatives of the victims assured her that she would not go to jail, that all they wanted was the truth, she asked them to call police. Detective Mike King arrived a while later, assured her that he was not there to arrest her and then asked her to take him back to that night.

"I went down to the store to tell them that I couldn't work," Smith said, according to a transcript of that interview. Smith said she spoke to Constance. "I just said that I couldn't work and she got a little upset. I got upset. I was thinking she had told some things I'd rather not go [into] and that's about it."

"What happened next?" King asked.

"I was just pushed so far so I shot her and that was it," Smith said.

"What did they do to push you?"

"Talking, teasing," she said.

What was the teasing about, one of the victim's relatives asked.

"About my lifestyle," Smith said.

"How did they know about your lifestyle?"

"How do kids find out about anything?" Smith said. "I mean it was really unusual back then."

Smith told police that she thought she shot Constance first but could have been confused. She remembered Carolyn yelling, "What have you done, you [expletive]?" She said she then grabbed a deposit the women had been preparing and drove away. She was scared, she said.

"What did you do with the gun?" King asked.

"I gave it to Mr. Bocock," she said. "He asked if I had the gun and I gave it to him."

After the Resolution, 'Then What?'

On Dec. 12, authorities charged Smith with two counts of first-degree murder. Before a trial could begin, she died Jan. 19 after suffering kidney and heart failure.

Later that week, on the day she was buried -- in the same cemetery as her victims -- authorities held the news conference. They said they had no doubt that she was the murderer, and they vowed to investigate Bocock's role.

In recent weeks, officers armed with shovels and metal detectors have been tasked with finding a gun that may or may not exist. The department has also enlisted help from state police and sent at least one .25-caliber gun for tests after a detective's widow said Bocock gave it to her husband in 1981.

Few close to the case have used the word "closure."

Relatives of the victims said they waited for an apology that never came. Thomas said his phone continues to ring with threatening calls. And those in the community who have grown gray with the case are generating new theories -- this time about why a detective might have helped a teenage girl.

"There is almost this feeling of postpartum depression," said longtime resident Susan Blackley, 61. "When something has grabbed your mind for decades, and it's something you've been mulling and mulling and mulling, and now all of a sudden you don't have to mull anymore, then what?"

She can tell you, down to what the leaves looked like on the trees, where she was when the women were shot.

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