How the mother of a slain 9-year-old sank into despair, then sought justice

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; C01

Erika Georgette Smith was a gorgeous 9-year-old with long black hair and dark brown eyes and honey-brown skin. She loved her cats Pounce and Floppy. She was thin and shy and popular. She was a girlie girl but liked to think of herself as a sporty girl.

Late on the night of Aug. 6, 2002, she was pistol-whipped and shot to death at point-blank range by a man who broke into her father's house in Silver Spring.

The bullet ripped through the back of her neck, down through her heart and out of her chest and hit the floor with such force it left a divot. The killer shot her dad, Greg Russell, an accountant, six times. The killer ran. No motive would ever be known. Greg died after calling 911.

The next morning, Erika's mother, Carol Smith, was at her law office, where she was a director of information technology. She was expecting a giggly phone call from the pair, as Erika was visiting Greg so he could take her to get braces. The phone rang, but it was the human resources director.

When Carol stepped into his office, she saw two detectives.

That evening, a shell of her former self, propped up by her sister, she forced herself to walk into the morgue for corpse identification.

Murder fascinates us, apart from all other crimes, and little is more darkly compelling to the American psyche than the mysterious slaying of a beautiful child. There are real-life horror stories from Adam Walsh to JonBenét Ramsey. There are fictional works, from the superb "Pan's Labyrinth" to the ghastly "The Lovely Bones," which was released in theaters last week.

In part this fascination is triggered by rarity. Americans kill one another all the time, but the most uncommon homicide is strangers killing children. In 2002, 16,229 homicides were committed in the United States. Only 11 of the victims were girls between 6 and 11 killed by a stranger. Erika was one of 11.

How can a parent go on? What happens to the bonds between mother and daughter?

The following account of Carol Smith's life after Erika's death covers more than seven years. It involves crushing despair, a tortuous odyssey through the criminal justice system, being cross-examined in court by the man who killed her child, and, through sheer will, surviving to build a new life.

As it happens, I have had an unusual, front-row seat to this arc of grief. I wrote for the front page of this newspaper a lengthy investigation of how the suspect had tricked prison and parole officials into releasing him a few months before the killings. After the story was published, I developed a friendship with Carol Smith. Four years later, we were married.

That's how it came to be that I stood behind Carol when she talked to the television reporters at the murder trial in the fall of 2008. I held her purse and tried to think of a way to be useful. And about the only way I have found is to write down what happened after Erika died -- to show the hold she retains on the living, the lasting nature of those bonds between mother and daughter.

In doing so, I wish to make clear that I do not think that there are lessons to be taken away from the murder of a child. I do not think all things work together in a mystical plan for good. Some things in life are brutal, ugly and will never make sense.

But Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, held that there was suffering so great that, even in our sleep, it dripped upon the heart until "in our own despair, against our will," comes a terrible wisdom.

That wisdom is perhaps the stubbornness of hope, the human resilience that lies beyond our understanding, that we commonly call love.

Part of the American dream

The day Erika was born, Carol refused to let the nursing staff take her away for more than a minute. She was infatuated with the tiny perfection of her fingers, her toes. In the coming months, she marveled at everything: when Erika learned to giggle, at the evenness of her breathing in slumber.

She was 30, and cashed out her retirement fund to stay at home with the child for as long as possible.

She had come to Washington with her family at age 9 from the village of Johns Hall, Jamaica. She thought, as a barefoot child in the mountains, that streets in America were literally paved with gold. Instead, she grew up on Kennedy Street NW, where the potholed streets proved to be paved with asphalt, went to Wilson High, paid her way through college and became extraordinarily good with math and computers.

Erika's father was Greg Russell, a 37-year-old real estate investor who had come from North Carolina. He and Carol had been close friends for nearly a decade, since they had worked at the same accounting firm. They had decided not to marry but to jointly raise Erika.

Carol and Erika lived in a condo in McLean Gardens, along Wisconsin Avenue NW, and Greg lived on Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring. It was a life of extended family, dance classes, piano lessons and the best school they could afford: Greg footed Erika's $20,000-per-year tuition at the Potomac School in McLean.

Erika -- quiet, shy, studious -- flourished. She looked like a diminutive edition of her mom: slender, high forehead, bright brown eyes, dimpled smile. Mom and daughter liked to curl up on the couch watching movies; Carol spent hours doing Erika's hair. She felt a quiet peace when her mother, a retired nurse, would sit Erika on her lap and teach her Bible verses. Her dad, a retired mechanic, would wait at the bus stop to pick Erika up from school.

Together, Carol and Greg attended the hallmarks of childhood. The last photograph of Greg and Erika was at Erika's piano recital. Her hands shook, but she played "The Donkey" just fine. Later, she perched on Greg's lap, wearing a floral-print dress. Carol kneeled to snap the picture. Father and daughter were beaming.

'My daughter has a name!'

A couple of months later, the two detectives sat across from Carol. They told her Erika and Greg had been shot to death. Did she have any idea of who might have wanted to harm them?

Carol went into a state of shock.

Her sister, Pearl, rushed to pick her up. Friends drove her to the morgue. Carol identified Erika from a Polaroid. The child's face had deep bruises.

The case drew heavy media attention. Television stations broadcast from outside Greg's house; Greg and Erika's pictures were all over the front pages of newspapers.

In the coming days, Carol picked out a red velvet dress and white stockings, an outfit Erika had worn for Christmas, and took it to the funeral home. She held Erika's body. Her hairdresser curled Erika's hair. Carol placed Erika's favorite stuffed animal, a bunny, in the casket with her. When the hearse reached the grave site, she neared collapse.

"She was screaming: 'Nonononono! Oh God, not Erika!' " Pearl said. "Someone told her it was going to be okay, and I thought she was going to kill them."

Carol never lived in the condo again.

She moved in with Pearl and her husband, Jeff. She slept beside Pearl for weeks. Her outgoing personality became consumed by rages and a forgetfulness that bordered on amnesia, two hallmarks of profound grief. "I don't even know what happened," she'd say, as if in a trance, when someone asked about the murder. When a police officer at a community meeting called to calm frightened neighbors referred to Erika as "the victim," Carol leapt to her feet and screamed: "My daughter has a name!"

"She would just start shaking -- her legs, her hands, her body, everything," Pearl said. "And she had this stare. The nights were the worst. She would just lay beside us and shake."

In Carol's journal, a page is covered with one word: "Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain."

Therese Rando, director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Rhode Island, specializes in severe psychic trauma. The loss of a child to homicide, she said, is so shockingly abrupt that it is akin to being dropped into an ocean of freezing water. The body and mind shut down almost all systems, an ancient self-protection: memory, sustained thought, sleep.

"People think they're going crazy," Rando said. "The human being literally cannot grasp what it has lost."

Neurological research is beginning to show why. A study last year at the University of California at Los Angeles used brain MRIs to examine what happened in the minds of 23 women when they looked at pictures of a mother or sister who had died of breast cancer. In those whose grief was deepest and most long-lasting, the subjects were unable to process, at the cellular level, that their loved ones were no longer alive. Seeing their pictures brought physical joy and pain at the same time.

It was a photograph, the researchers said, of what yearning for the dead looks like.

An arrest is made

Police, meanwhile, got a dramatic break.

Montgomery County police spotted a stolen Chevy Tahoe that had been used in an attempted rape. The driver floored it, crashed, leapt from the vehicle and outran police. The driver turned out to be 38-year-old Anthony Kelly, a D.C. native with a long criminal record. He was on parole for assault.

In the Tahoe and the apartment Kelly shared with his new wife, police found clues that tied him to the murders of Greg and Erika, as well as another killing and two rapes.

The truck contained a Bible from Greg's house. Costume wigs hidden in the wheel well matched wig strands police had found on an open window at Greg's. A hairnet and wig packaging found in Greg's yard matched a wig in Kelly's truck. Belongings from the third victim killed, Seattle tourist Katie Lynn Hill, were found in the apartment. Hill had been slain as she walked to her sister's home from the Takoma Metro stop three nights after Greg and Erika were killed. The same gun was used.

Five police agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service launched a manhunt. "WANTED" fliers went up, bulletins went out. They spotted him once, but he again outran them. Finally, officers chased him down in a parking lot near the University of Maryland. He would eventually be charged with the murders of Greg and Erika, plus two rape cases.

Kelly -- 6 feet tall, a good 215 pounds, a scarred veteran of prison brawls -- maintained his innocence. He said he bought Hill's belongings from a street hustler. He said police, desperate to solve the murders of Erika and Greg, planted the other evidence.

Carol was in her sister's kitchen when she saw his face on television, the drooping right eyelid, the flat stare. It was reported that he was on parole, but that his minders had lost track of him. She was incredulous. "How he could have been free do such things," she remembers thinking.

She thought hearings and investigations would be called. Instead, the sniper case consumed all Washington and the case seemed to vanish. No heads rolled at the prison and parole agencies. No politicians vented outrage. No one who had freed Kelly even called to express condolences. "It was if those people thought Erika had never been alive," she said. She felt herself in free fall, where every waking moment was physically painful. Depression set in like an arthritis of the mind. There was no Erika. There was no homework, no swimming lessons, no girl-chat. Imagined scenes of the shooting played in her mind in an endless loop. Weeks passed, then months.

She moved into a heavily secured apartment building. She was prone to rages and a forgetfulness that bordered on amnesia. She stopped attending family dinners and holiday celebrations. Her faith disintegrated. If God wasn't going to answer prayers to keep your children safe, what other prayer would be answered?

A psychiatrist diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. She took the medication the doctor prescribed, pills that helped her sleep. She read books and pamphlets about grief.

After eight months, she went back to work, determined to pull herself from the abyss. She put on makeup, did her hair. She thought if she acted normal, maybe she would start to feel that way. She threw herself into new duties, taking assignments that sent her across the country, to Europe.

And yet the case mired down in Montgomery County Circuit Court. Kelly wanted to fire his state-appointed defense attorneys, saying they (both white and female) were part of a racist system. He wanted to represent himself, he told Judge Durke G. Thompson. A state psychiatrist declared that Kelly's worries about his attorneys had boiled into a delusional disorder, and he was sent to a state mental hospital.

There would be no trial.

Erika had been dead for almost two years. Carol found it hard to believe.

Searching for justice

I wrote my story at this juncture. A few months later, I called Carol and asked her to lunch. My wife and I were in the middle of a divorce, and I found myself facing my own worries. I had a daughter, Chipo, who was the same age as Erika. At lunch Carol and I talked about the hard things in life and how one gets past them. We traded stories about our daughters, clearly the centers of our lives.

We developed a friendship. I discovered that Carol had a terrific laugh. She liked movies and books. She was endearingly gentle. She was also working very hard to put her life back together. I admired that.

And she was determined to pursue justice for Erika.

With the criminal case stalled, she turned to civil courts. She filed suits against the prison and parole agencies that had let Kelly go free, then lost track of him. She hoped to force sweeping reforms on the system. Filings and discovery and depositions dragged on for more than a year. Her bedroom and walk-in closet filled with thick briefs and findings; she tried to read them, sitting alone in her apartment, but found when she read one paragraph that she had forgotten the contents of the previous.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton excoriated the agencies in written opinions for their failures but was forced to dismiss all but one of the suits. Carol, in her disorientation after the killings, had missed filing deadlines. It meant that the thrust of her campaign had been blunted. Disgusted, she settled the remaining case out of court to avoid the misery of a trial.

It left her with a profound sense of failure. Everything related to Erika's murder seemed to be turning into a grotesque joke. It had been four years since the killing. She was somehow 43 years old.

And then it got worse.

State psychiatrists moved to force Kelly to take medication to improve his mental health so he could be fit to stand trial. He sued to stop them, saying the state was trying to "rot his mind." The case went to the state Supreme Court.

Kelly won. He didn't have to take the medication.

Carol called me from the hearing, her voice shaking with rage. "He's going to get away with it. There's no point in any of this."

A few weeks later, my office phone rang. There was an emergency, one of her co-workers said. Carol had become so disoriented during a staff meeting that she could not speak. She was sweating profusely. She was confused. She was taken to the hospital. "I think I'm having a nervous breakdown," she told me when I saw her. "I can't do all this anymore."

She was released from the hospital the same day, but resigned her job. She described herself as an amputee. You don't look the same and you can't do the same things as before. You just find a way to cope.

She began to sleep in. She spent time with her aging parents. After a few months, she began to feel more stable, to laugh more often. She went house shopping, looking for a place where we might start anew. We went with her family back to Jamaica for a week's vacation and got engaged on the beach. Depression was a shadow that always followed her, but she felt like she was finding a way back into the sun.

Then one afternoon early in 2008 our phone rang. It was John McCarthy, the state's attorney for Montgomery County: "They found Kelly to be competent!"

A new medical team, led by a young psychologist who was black, had declared that Kelly's belief that the court system was stacked against him was not evidence of a delusion, but a staple belief among incarcerated black men.

"I don't believe it," Carol kept saying.

There would be a trial after all.

It had been six years.

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