What follows is the latest installment of Homicide Diary, an ongoing project in which we speak to those who have been impacted by or who deal with the aftermath of homicide in Little Rock — victims’ families, prosecutors, cops, defense attorneys, community activists and others. Currently, the number of Little Rock deaths classified as homicides since Jan. 1 stands at 25.
If you want to find retired LRPD Homicide Detective Ronnie Smith on any given night, he’s probably at the gym. He goes seven nights a week if he can. Sometimes you’ll catch him on a spinbike, but mostly, he’s a runner. He has run the Boston Marathon five times. Smith started with the department as a patrolman in 1976, and transferred to Homicide in September 1983, working sexual assaults for the first few years. He was called to be a police officer, he says, using the same word a priest or monk might use. When I asked him for a ballpark figure of the number of homicides he worked in his career, he said “about 187” before admitting it wasn’t an estimate. It’s 187, and the details of most of them are still locked in his heart: the girl from Mount St. Mary Academy who came to the department for a class project a few months before her body was found dumped in Ferndale; the woman who jealously shot into her husband’s car, the bullet finding a toddler strapped into a safety seat; the grocery store manager, killed by thieves, whose widow Smith had to inform that her husband wasn’t coming home while her two children looked on. While others transferred in or out of Homicide, Smith stayed with the unit until 2006. Since then, he’s served as a bailiff in the court of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who he met when Piazza was a young prosecutor back in the old days. Running helps him think, Smith says. It helps him think about other things than what he’s seen.
I worked my first homicide on Thanksgiving Day 1983, down at 14th and Woodrow in an old duplex there just east of the intersection. These two guys were fighting over a turkey leg, and one shot the other one. It’s kind of hard to believe that a human being will take a life over a turkey leg. But you go ahead and work it. You submit the case to the prosecutor’s office, and let it go from there.
I’d seen dead bodies by then. Being a patrol officer, that’s part of the job. Sometimes you can kind of become desensitized to it, which is good in one aspect, but also can be bad in another. Maybe it’s cold to say, but you start to look at the body as evidence. There’s not a whole lot you can do about what happened beforehand, but at least when you get to the crime scene, you can kind of take control. You have control over those circumstances. You can work the crime scene and do what you have to do to try and bring it to a conclusion and make an arrest. I can’t control why that guy shot and killed someone. That’s just the sinful nature of man. It’s the sinful nature in his heart. That’s the only way someone could do that to someone, and I guess we’re just born with that nature. But once you get there, you can control what happens inside that crime scene. You can do the best you can for that family. You can bring closure for them. You’re never going to bring that person back, but you can do the best that you can.
It’s an awesome responsibility when you’re working a homicide, because a lot of times, you’ll only get that one chance to get it right. But when you leave work, you try to leave the work there at 700 W. Markham. You always try to do that, but you can’t all the time. When I was there, I gave 110 percent, and when I left the police department at night, I tried not to carry it home with me. But you can’t do that on certain cases. There are certain cases where I’ll still wake up at night and think about them, or I’ll think about them while I’m on the job here at the courthouse. I think about cases I’ve worked in the past: Did I do everything that I could? Did I do the right thing? You have thoughts like that. I’ve been gone eight years in April, and there are still cases that come back. I’ll always think about them.
Sometimes when I’m driving around the city, I’ll go by certain parts of town and I’ll think: I worked a homicide there, or I worked a sexual assault in that house. When I go up to Kroger, you know, Andre, the chef, was killed in March or April of 1994 right across the street from that Kroger. I think about that. At the Deaf School, I worked a rape where a young girl was kidnapped and taken there. Right past the Deaf School, there’s some apartments that go down the hill — I forget the name of the street — but a young man shot his dad on a front porch right there. There was a robbery that turned into a homicide at Western Sizzlin’ on Rodney Parham in April of 1999. The manager was sitting in his office, counting the day’s receipts, and a guy came in, shot and killed him. I drive by what used to be Western Sizzlin’ on Rodney Parham, and it brings back those memories. It’s not sad. It’s just a moment of recognition.
I worked 3 to 11 most of my career. I liked that shift. It gives you something new to do every day. In Homicide, once you go to work, you’re scheduled for eight hours, but you may be there another 24 hours before you go home. The longest I’ve stayed out is, I think, 32 hours. I was kind of married to my job. I worked long hours and I didn’t have to be home. It can affect your personal life. You can get to the point that nothing really affects you anymore. You’ve seen me up at the fitness center. That was my release. Fortunately I’ve had the good health where I could run. I used to do some marathons. I’ve always kind of channeled that energy into running, where it doesn’t affect you, where it can’t make you jaded or cold-hearted. But it can if you let it.
I can remember some guys who just became cold. You always try to guard against that. But most of the guys I worked with, they dealt with it. You develop a bond among those homicide detectives. That’s the part I miss about it: being part of that special group. Unless you’re a part of it, you don’t know what it means to be a part of that.
Sooner or later, you know it’s time to leave. Sometimes I think I stayed too long in homicide. I figured 30 years at the police department was enough. I loved my job, and I loved what I was doing. I loved getting up in the morning and going to work. But you just come to hate some of the things you have to do when you get there, what you have to deal with. At the end of my career, I would go to a crime scene and I would never go inside the crime scene to look at the body. I’d start doing a neighborhood canvas or interviewing witnesses. So I knew at that point that it was time to leave. I didn’t want to look at the body.
The part I really miss is working with people, helping people out. A couple times I’ve been over here in the hallway, and somebody will come up to me. They’ll say, “Hey, I really appreciate what you did on my son’s case or my daughter’s case.” They remember me. They tell me that they appreciate what I did. That feels good. I had some doubts about leaving the police department, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be best to get away from the job. I don’t miss the long hours. I don’t miss getting called out in the middle of the night and missing holidays. I think it’s out of my blood now. But it took me awhile to get it out of my blood.
As told to David Koon