YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles

Triple Homicide Fractures the Calm in Duarte

For a town with the feel of Americana, 2004 is already a deadly year.

March 19, 2004|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Except for 210 Freeway traffic, Duarte is mostly a quiet, small town full of hardworking families, grassy parks, equestrian trails and neighborhoods of citrus trees and post-World War II houses nestled at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The community, which has a low crime rate, was where Murray M. Smith Sr., a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Wanda, bought a small house in 1984.

And it was where, in the 900 block of Lewiston Street, Smith Sr., 56, allegedly sprayed that house with gunfire Saturday, killing his 51-year-old wife; their son, Murray M. Smith Jr., 32; and Smith Sr.'s father-in-law, Joshua Harmon, 82.

During the rampage, Smith Sr. allegedly fired his assault rifle at a neighbor's house after the resident went outside to see what the commotion was, police said. The neighbor rushed back inside, unharmed.

Authorities charged Smith Sr. on Tuesday with three counts of murder with the special circumstances of multiple murder and personal discharge of a firearm, one count of attempted murder with the special allegation of intentional discharge of a firearm, and one count of shooting into an inhabited dwelling.

He will be arraigned next month. Murder convictions with special circumstances carry possible sentences of death or life without parole.

Smith Sr., who had fled after the shootings, was arrested Saturday night at a traffic stop in Irwindale. He had no prior criminal history, authorities said, and was being held without bail.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said the motive remained unknown.

Saturday night after the shootings, Mark Bushnell, 34, described his stepfather, Smith Sr., as a gun aficionado with a history of family violence.

"Her whole life, my mom was threatened by him every day," Bushnell told The Times. "He always told her he was going to be the one to end her life."

For Duarte, a community of 21,486 residents 21 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the triple slaying was the first homicide case since 2002 -- and made this the deadliest year in more than decade.

"It's been a sad few days for us," said Mary Barrow, a longtime resident and a spokeswoman for the primarily middle-class city. "We're a tight community. We have generations of families living here. Everybody seems to know everybody through some connection. This touches us all."

The Smiths lived in a modest section of town, south of the railroad tracks near Duarte Road. On their street, houses appear run-down but mostly tidy. Peeling paint, chain-link fences and window bars contrast with mowed lawns, pruned roses and swing sets shared by children in neighboring homes.

More than a year ago, in a nearby neighborhood, a gang member shot, but did not kill, an innocent bystander who was an alumnus of and former football player for Duarte High School.

"Like all cities, we have some gang influences," said Don Anderson, the city's director of public safety who works with the Sheriff's Department, which provides Duarte with law enforcement services. "Like other cities, we also have had problems with domestic violence, which is what happened" in the Smith case.

To help combat such problems, Duarte has mentor and leadership programs and community activities for youths, senior citizens and parents, Anderson said.

For the most part, he said: "You could go down any street anywhere, and you won't see graffiti or evidence of gangs."

For many commuters, Duarte is just a place they pass on the 210, which cuts through the town.

But for those who stop, the city, part of the area once inhabited by the Gabrielino Indians, represents small-town Americana. Old Glory adorns many front porches, and the main drag, Huntington Drive, is part of historic Route 66.

Stores range from Wal-Mart to a boutique carrying square-dancing attire to an independent hardware shop where employees dress in overalls and sell faux woodland creatures as lawn decorations.

Duarte is also home to the prestigious City of Hope National Medical Center, one of a handful of facilities designated by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center.

The hospital also runs the Beckman Research Institute, a national leader in pioneering biomedical research.

City of Hope, along with Santa Teresita Hospital, Duarte's other medical center, started in the early 1900s as a tuberculosis clinic. The last big news story in Duarte was Santa Teresita's closing of its emergency services earlier this year.

Duarte resident Krista Barrett, 57, lives in a gated condominium complex near the scene of Saturday's shootings. "All in all," she said, "Duarte is a good place to live."

Los Angeles Times Articles