Long Story Short: Murder he writes

7/9/18



illustration by JP Thimot

 

An unsolved mystery enters the digital age

Fifty-five years ago, this Friday, on July 13, 1963, seventeen-year-old Jack King took eighteen-year-old Shari Smoyer to the Rochester Star-Lite drive-in in his ’55 Chevy. Smoyer had just completed her first year at Ithaca College, and King had a scholarship for the fall. Summer was for fun. After the movie, the two headed to Bushnell's Basin, a popular lover’s lane in Perinton, near the banks of the Erie Canal.

 

The next morning, a fisherman saw the two lying behind the car in a nearby gravel pit. He thought at first that they were sunbathing, but quickly realized both were dead; shot multiple times. Smoyer was also bludgeoned. Despite massive efforts by police at the time, the case went unsolved.

 

For as long as Lynn King can remember, her extended family never talked about the murder of her uncle and his date. It was too painful, and maybe a touch scandalous. But about three years ago the Buffalo Parkside neighborhood resident and mother of two grew curious. “In the age of the internet,” says King, “it's amazing what's out there.”

 

King began researching the murder case, and eventually she came across a book by Michael Benson titled, The Devil at Genesee Junction: The Murders of Kathy Bernhard and George-Ann Formicola. It chronicled a similar double homicide from the same time and region, and Benson included a chapter on her uncle’s murder. Sensing a potential ally, King contacted the author, and then the private investigator who assisted him, Don Tubman. They all agreed to work together informally in a quest for more information.

 

A dramatic development

Then something happened that almost never happens with fifty-five-year-old cases; Benson got a long, detailed email from a man professing to know the identity of the murderer. Remarkably, the email’s author claims the killer is his brother, and that he is still alive. The accuser alleges that his brother also killed another family member and got away with it. The motive for the King/Smoyer murders was jealousy, he says; the murderer had previously dated Smoyer. The email provides details that match the murder timeline. And, most intriguing, the accuser claims to know where the killer threw the gun after the crime. Tubman looked into the claims and found them credible.

 

Lynn King contacted the Monroe County Sheriff's office with the new information, and they reopened the cold case based on Benson and Tubman’s leads. Police Investigator Mike Shannon took the case. “He's lovely and diligent and we are beyond grateful for his amazing efforts,” says King.

 

The search for an answer

King was asked by family members to take the lead with the police, and act as spokesperson in the new investigation. She’s also becoming something of an amateur sleuth.” Last summer, I clocked a lot of time on the phone and internet” she says, “coordinating with family, accuser, PI, author, and the various sources of potential information, of which there are many.” After so many years, leads have grown cold. Certain evidence in the case was destroyed in a sewage flood years ago. But some remains—enough, perhaps, to go after a suspect. 

 

The Monroe County Sheriff’s office recently searched the area where the gun was allegedly disposed of, but did not find it. They’re planning to do one more search, and this time, King’s family may join in. Right now, the team is looking for “a couple small facts” that would corroborate the informant’s story and build a case against the accused man. What the police are looking for are minute parts of the puzzle, ones not directly connected to the murders. “What we need,” explains King, “is something Shari's friends and acquaintances would have known.”

 

The police plan to talk to the accuser’s brother later this summer. In the meantime, they are trying to track down anyone who knew the murder victims, particularly Smoyer. King worries that potential helpful sources will assume they have nothing of use to contribute, and encourages even casual acquaintances to come forward with any information they have.

 

The King family started a Facebook group at the request of the police, and they encourage everyone to join and share the posts. It’s their hope that crowd-sourcing will accomplish what police were unable to do more than half a century ago—uncover a clue that break’s the case.

 

Meanwhile, Lynn King pores over the thick folder of articles and leads she has accumulated, as she continues to track down additional sources. She and her family are once again waiting for what they had given up hope for long ago—news from the police that will bring closure. “It's been a quiet, unsettled wound in our family since way before I was born,” says King, “To have this new lead, and not have the little pieces of information we need, is agonizing.”

 

Long Story Short encourages readers to go to the Facebook page, and share the family’s requests for any information, no matter how small. We will post developments as they become available.

 

 

Hot fun in the summertime

Last April—as local residents bemoaned the frigid weather that saw temperatures linger around the thirty-degree mark—a friend of mine posted the following Facebook message: "I can't wait for the next few months to go by, so all the people that are complaining about the cold will have to hear me complain about the heat. #shutup”

Well the months have passed, and memories of snow flurries and frozen windshields have faded. Sure enough, last week, my friend was complaining about the heat—along with most of Western New York. The first day of July reached 92 degrees, one degree short of the all-time high for that date, and 13 degrees hotter than normal. Wednesday reached 93 and broke our local Independence Day record. As area air conditioners strained against the heat, and every available electric fan was pressed into service, nearly 10,000 National Grid customers lost power. The heat streak continued, slowly retreating throughout the week.

During the hottest days, media stories offered suggestions on how to beat the heat, which often amounted to going places outdoors. Long Story Short wanted to know how people around Western New York were really dealing with the heat, so we asked.

 

Here’s what we learned:

Without air conditioning, Sara Ali says she was “rocking the nude lifestyle indoors,” and occasionally sticking her head into the freezer. Outside she carries a bottle of cold water and places it on her chest to cool her body temperature. That makes sense to Moira Graney Murray, whose mom taught her to put something ice cold like a frozen washcloth on “pressure points:” wrist, neck, and, we must assume, chest. Al Dixon limits frozen items to his head.

-When it’s hot, but not humid, Elizabeth Cushman Brandjes employs a “complex system of fans and window treatment routines.” But last week she just hunkered down in her air-conditioned bedroom. Holly Hughes Bohner uses a “few strategically placed mobile AC units and fans” to cool the house. The kids live in the driveway pool and chow down on watermelon. Several people mentioned play-pools, sometimes for the family dog. When the day heats up, Hughes Bohner gets sick, as does Michael Collins, who claimed he was “going to Ireland” to beat the heat

-Daniel Sack prefers ceiling fans, but Don Brown says that even at the highest setting, his ceiling fan only “serves to make our room seem like a convection oven” (see fun facts below).

-A few people identified beer as their coping mechanism, but Adrianne Boudreau took it a step further. In the middle of cooking she “gave up,” left everything on the stove, and went to a bar. Unfortunately, she was covered in dry couscous, which “looked like skin tags.”

-Some people (like Spree Editor Elizabeth Licata) profess to love the heat, and some just solder on in spite of it. Stacey Lechevet mowed the lawn and gardened. “Once I was past the point of being saturated with sweat, and my clothes were wet, I wasn't as hot,” she says. Melissa Kate takes walks and soaks the heat in. Angel Miller recalls winter, which she hates. Several who claimed to like the heat also admit to having central air.

-Kaelei Hooper has a special problem, working as she does at a summer camp. Her approach is to act “like the weather is totally normal and fine so the kids don’t revolt.”

-Some people said they went without underwear, but Mary Faith Bonney puts wet undergarments in the freezer, then wears them. Long Story Short pointed out that this is also a plot point from The Seven Year Itch. J Tim Raymond freezes straw hats, which might be a plot point from Hee-Haw.

-Marty Boratin and a couple others have discovered that running the fan on the furnace brings cool air up from the basement. It was “rather pleasant” in his house last week.

-Bob Collignon tries many of the usual tricks—ice packs, cold showers—but at bedtime his room was 85 degrees, so on went the AC. “No amount of cold showers and ice packs will let one sleep at that temp,” he says. Catherine Faust doesn’t have AC, so she researched a DYI air-conditioner, but she “was so sapped of energy” that she “couldn't get up the urge to make one!”

-Angie Zimmerman tries to embrace the heat, reminding everyone that its “24 weeks until Christmas.”  

 

Fun facts about heat

• It’s exactly the same temperature in the shade as it is in the sun. Solar radiation hitting our bodies makes it feel hotter in the sun.
• Fans do not cool rooms. In fact, because the motor generates heat, they imperceptibly increase the room temperature. They make you feel cooler by moving air over your skin, like the wind-chill factor in winter. So, when you leave a room, turn the fan off (or you’re just wasting energy). If you use fans to blow cool air from outside into the room (assuming it is cooler outside), that can actually cool the air.
• The highest temperature ever recorded in Buffalo was 99 degrees on August 27, 1948.
• The warmest July in Buffalo was in 1921, but 2012 was third warmest.
• In 90-degree weather, a car in the sun will reach 135 degrees in as little as fifteen minutes.
• It takes three consecutive days of 90 degree or higher heat to qualify as a heat wave. So, we’re not having heat wave, a tropical heat wave.

 

 

A tale of two monuments

Honoring African American veterans

If all goes well, about a year from now, Buffalo will be home to a first-of-its-kind interactive African-American veterans monument, installed at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park at Canalside.

The details

Black soldiers have fought in every American war, but their contributions have often been marginalized or forgotten in the historical accounts. This will be the first monument in the nation to recognize their service and sacrifice. Twelve US wars (or, more properly, “conflicts”) will be represented by a dozen, ten-foot-tall, three-foot-wide charcoal black concrete columns, representing candles. Creative director Jonathan Casey of Solid 716 explains that mothers often put candles in windows when their children go off to war. Smaller concrete kiosks will provide historical details with the help of a phone app. 

 

Organizers hope to break ground on Veterans Day and complete the project by around the Fourth of July in 2019.

 

A horse is a horse, of course, of course, unless…

When Randy Beresford of West Virginia bought a home on a large plot of land in Wilson, he had no idea he would become embroiled in a controversy over a dead horse. The animal in question was a Confederate warhorse named Billy Sherman, who was captured during the civil war by Lorenzo Pratt and brought to Wilson, where he became a local celebrity. Pratt acquired the horse during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863, and, when the war ended, he trained it to respond in various ways to bugle calls. The horse became very popular. Even now, the Wilson Town Hall sells a two-dollar booklet called The Story of Billy Sherman. On at least one occasion the noble steed led the Fourth of July parade in Buffalo.

 

So, what’s the controversy?

Billy Sherman was laid to rest on the Pratt farm, which Beresford and his wife just purchased. Near the road, a state historical marker and a stone marker with a metal plaque, placed by the Wilson Historical Society, commemorate his resting place. Both are on private property. An earlier owner added three little wooden flags, each maybe six inches wide: the American flag, the Tennessee state flag, and the Confederate flag. Someone anonymously called Wilson Town Hall to complain about that last one. The story made the news.

 

As this is private property, the owners have the right to keep the monument the way it is, and they have chosen to do that, allowing the wooden flags simply rot away in obscurity, as they will over time. The intent is to honor a beloved Confederate war horse, and while the flag has recently become a lightening rod for protest over the unconscionable slavery policies of the South, the motivation here is to recognize the historical background of the secessionist animal.  

 

The takeaway:

The media should focus on the high profile educational memorial honoring black veterans, and let dead horses lie.

 

 

Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

 

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