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People Top 5
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- September 13, 1993
- Vol. 40
- No. 11
A Small Town Is in Shock as a Child Is Charged with Killing a Child
D.J. never got there. That afternoon his bruised and beaten body, dressed in red shorts and a yellow Lank top that read I'm a Little Devil, was found in a patch of trees and brambles 300 yards from his front door. The discovery stunned Savona, a community of 973 people 70 miles southeast of Rochester, where doors go unlocked at night and, as one resident says, "We've all been here forever." Everyone immediately assumed the murder must have been committed by an outsider. So the town's shock and dismay only deepened a week later when Derrick's alleged murderer was discovered to be one of Savona's own—and only a child himself.
"It was like a second death in our family," said Rev. Neal Strong of the arrest of 13-year-old Eric Smith, a slight, bespectacled redhead. "Like a second child had died at the hands of something we didn't understand."
What Savona can't comprehend-maybe no one really can—is what would drive one child to cold-bloodedly kill another he didn't even know. And how could such a dark side have remained unobserved for so long by family, friends and teachers? "I suspect that when this case is all over, you're going to be asking the same question: Why?" said Steuben County District Attorney John Tunney, whose office has charged Smith with second-degree murder and may prosecute him as an adult. Village Clerk Barbara Campbell agrees. "All 1 know," she said, "is that a little boy walking down the street to the park was killed, and no one can explain it in any way that makes sense."
In retrospect, those who knew him say there were signs that Smith—who lived with his mother, stepfather and two sisters in a dilapidated frame house across town from the Robies—was slightly odd. He was fond of Stephen King novels and other horror stories, reportedly put fruit in the car exhaust pipes of people he fell were mean to him and, more seriously, was blamed by an elderly neighbor for strangling his pet cat in a premeditated, sadistic manner four years ago. Though regarded as bright, Smith was held back a grade. But the boy, who played drums in the school band, also admired clean-cut country star Garth Brooks and did chores for the few people, mainly adults, who befriended him. Most seemed to feel he was someone to be pitied rather than feared, a nerdy misfit who yearned for affection.
"I've never seen a tough spot on him," says Laurie Elliott, mother of 10-year-old Bradley Elliott, whom Smith hung out with. She owns the Savona Diner, where Eric would sit at the counter for hours just listening to customers talk. "This kid was nice, quiet, real polite. He opened my car door. If you knew Eric, you wouldn't believe that he could do what he [allegedly] did."
Although Smith, like all the children who attended the rec program, had been interviewed twice by state police, he did not become a suspect until a member of his family detected inconsistencies in his story and brought him back to police for further questioning. (The family has declined to be interviewed.) At that point, says Capt. Walter DeLap, who interviewed him, Eric described the crime in a "very matter-of-fact and very explicit" fashion.
According to DeLap, the killing occurred following a chance encounter between Derrick and Eric, who had just been sent home from the park for disobeying a counselor. DeLap says the younger boy initially refused to accompany Eric, saying his parents didn't allow him to go with strangers. But 10 minutes later he was dead, choked and then killed by blows to the head. "Almost any child could have been the victim," DeLap said. "Derrick just happened to come along."
The swift arrest of their son's alleged killer has brought little comfort to Dale and Doreen Robie, who are struggling to maintain a brave front for Derrick's 18-month-old brother, Dalton. "I just hope that [Eric] never gets to ride a bike or play with his friends again," says Doreen, 27, packing for the family's upcoming move to another house in town, away from painful memories. "He had nine years that Derrick didn't." "Dalton doesn't understand where Derrick is," says Dale, 33, a printer, as he strokes the toddler's blond curls. "The other day he picked up one of Derrick's pictures and was kissing it and hugging the frame."
Despite the tragedy, the couple say their faith remains unshaken. "We have to believe he's up there being taken care of," says the grieving Doreen. "We just have to believe there's someplace better."
MARY HUZINEC in Savona
- Mary Huzinec.
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