A Maine murder victim’s story that ‘will never die’

It’s not easy to explain loss. Yet every year those whose loved ones died at the hands of another gather in Augusta to try to put words to it. On Wednesday, about 70 people met at the University of Maine at Augusta for the 7th annual Maine Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims.

“We all have memories. Let’s not let them die along with the victim,” said Art Jette, who leads the Maine chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, an organization that supports families and friends of those who have died by violence.

Family and friends become stronger by remembering the positive stories of those who were killed; you build new memories on the old. First Lady Ann LePage read a proclamation commemorating the day but also spoke personally about the tragic death of a family member. Gov. Paul LePage placed his arm around her shoulder when she sat down.

Homicides may shock communities, but they eventually fade from the news, said one of the speakers, Attorney General Janet Mills. Yet the horror continues for children and families. Maine may have a low homicide rate, but it doesn’t lessen the loss. This year has already seen 17 homicides. Six were related to domestic violence.

One of the family members sitting in the audience was Barbara Smith, 70, of Woodland, whose husband, Darrel Smith, was murdered in the workshop adjacent to his home on Feb. 6, 2008. It was four days before his 57th birthday. No one has been charged in his death, and police continue to investigate.

Pictured are Darrel Smith and his wife Barbara Smith of Woodland. Darrel Smith, 56, was found shot to death on Feb. 6, 2008. Police continue to investigate.

Barbara drove the three hours from Aroostook County to central Maine with two good friends, and they all wore necklaces with Darrel’s picture on them. “He was just such a kind person. As he would say, we never had an argument in the 23 years we were married. He was just so easy going,” Barbara said. “He called me his buddy because we did most everything together.”

She was the one who found him. It was snowing so hard there were no tracks to follow. Darrel had a business at the house — a small sawmill — and police said he was robbed and then shot to death.

“There’s very few words, I guess, to explain it. It’s just something you would never expect to happen here. All my neighbors and everybody are as upset about it as I am. It’s really made people scared,” she said. “Thank God for all the wonderful friends I have. They keep me very busy.”

She thinks of him every day and dreams of closure — not just an arrest but a conviction.

Barbara also holds her memories tight. She’s planted a small memorial flower garden where his sawmill was. And every year, near the dates of his death and birth, she invites anyone who wants to, to come over and share food, pictures and stories. Many of the stories revolve around their camp or fishing. Others are about his practical jokes.

Darrel Smith and his wife Barbara Smith.

“He loved to tease people, and almost everybody’s got some kind of a story he’s pulled on them,” she said.

For example, Darrel never liked onions, Barbara said. Neither did their best friends’ daughters, Lindsey and Courtney Cote, of Stockholm. He used to joke with them about it and even gave them an onion as a present one year. From then on, every Christmas the girls would wrap up as big an onion as they could find for his present.

They “thought the world” of Darrel, Barbara said.

So she wasn’t surprised one year when she visited his grave at the cemetery. There, near his gravestone, was a planted pot with green onions growing out of it.

“They didn’t have to put a name on it because I knew who it came from,” Barbara said.

Life goes on. Lindsey Cote is now engaged to Barbara’s grandson, Tyler Theriault, 23. Barbara is happy about this, looking forward as she also remembers what’s difficult. But there’s joy, too, in recollecting. People may pass, but their stories don’t have to.

“I’m sure the onion story will never die,” Barbara says.

Members of the public who have any information about Darrel Smith’s death are encouraged to call the Maine State Police at 800-924-2261.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.