VICTIM NO. 1ON NEW YEAR’S NIGHT, DANIEL SMOTHERS BECAME A STATISTIC

SAGINAW — The first hospital she called was St. Mary’s which was just across the street from where Daniel took the bullet.

“I’m looking for my son,” Debry Davis said over the phone. “they say he’s been shot. Do you have him there?”

What’s his name, the voice asked.

“Daniel Smothers. He’s 18.”

No, came the answer, we do not have your son here.

Davis hung up. Her hands were shaking. She tried the next number. St. Luke’s Hospital.

“I’m looking for my son,” she said. “They say he’s been shot.”

What’s his name?

“Daniel Smothers. He’s a football player. About 6-foot-2?”

No, ma’am. He’s not here. Sorry.

Next hospital. Saginaw General. Same questions. Same routine.

“My son. He’s been shot.”

Name?

“Daniel Smothers.”

Nobody by that name here.

Next hospital. Same questions.

“Daniel Smothers?”

We don’t show a Smothers . . .

Saginaw’s first homicide of 1999 began with a search for the body; it was conducted by the victim’s mother. Debry Davis had waited in her small house on Robinwood for the police to verify what everyone was whispering. That her only son, her beloved Daniel, the honors student, the football star, the kid who had a college scholarship waiting just nine months down the calendar, had been shot at a New Year’s Night party.

And he might be dead.

“Why don’t the police come?” she kept yelling, pacing across the floor, looking in Daniel’s small bedroom as if he might materialize if she checked enough times. “If it was really Daniel, if he was really shot, then the police would come, right? Wouldn’t they come?”

But the police didn’t come. Not that night. Not the next morning. And after so many sleepless hours, Davis took matters into her own hands. She picked up the phone and began searching for a corpse.

She tried every hospital in Saginaw. She braced herself for the worst. And when the phone calls failed, because she loved her son in that desperate way a mother loves her best hope, Davis didn’t stop. She took the advice of her pastor, who said, “Debry, nobody’s gonna help you. You need to get up and do this yourself.”

So she drove out to HealthSource Saginaw, on Hospital Road, because, she was told, that was where they took crime victims’ bodies. It was, effectively, a city morgue.

“I’m looking for my son,” Davis told the receptionist. “They say he was shot. I don’t know if he’s still alive . . .”

Maybe it was her tone, maybe it was the pleading look in her eyes. But finally, something about Debry Davis made the woman behind the desk do more than check the admissions sheet, which, at first, showed no Daniel Smothers. She made a few phone calls. She asked Davis to wait.

Davis waited. Two hours. Three hours. Four hours.

Finally, as she recalls, this is what she was told:

“I’m sorry. It’s not our fault.”

“What?”

“Your son is here. He is dead. I’m sorry.”

“He’s dead?”

“His body is in a drawer.”

“Can I see him?”

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“The man who has the key to the drawer has gone home for the day.”

In the biblical story, Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den because of his strong faith. And that faith keeps him alive despite the danger of the beasts.

Daniel Smothers, who was named for the biblical character, was a young man of faith himself. He carried a small orange Bible in his pocket. He sang in a choir. He minded his mother, behaved in school, played the trumpet, and excelled in sports, mostly because, as his football coach, Don Durrett, put it, “He was an overachiever. Real thin, but he worked so hard. And he played with his heart.”

At the start of his senior season, Daniel told his coach, “I’m going to show my mother. I’m going to get a college scholarship.” And by standing out as a wide receiver, by making five catches against Flint Northern — often leaping in a crowd and coming down with the ball in his oversized hands — by taking over as quarterback during a playoff game and helping Saginaw High win, 31-0, he made good on his promise. A recruiter from McPherson College in Kansas came to Daniel’s house the day after Christmas and offered him a scholarship.

“Daniel told me he laid his head down on his mother’s lap and cried,” Durrett said., “He said, ‘I told you I could do it.’ “

Daniel Smothers was the brightest currency this city has. A young black man with smarts, skills and a future.

But unlike his biblical precedent, neither faith, strength nor hard work could save this Daniel from death.

The strangest thing is, the killer didn’t even know who he was.

Q. Was there a particular group of people that you and Sabrina had decided you didn’t want to attend your party?

A. Yes.

Q. And what group of people would that have been?

A. The boys off Weadock.

Q. Why did you not want the boys from Weadock to attend your party?

A. Because I had different cousins and stuff that was going to be at the party, and they like from the north side of town, and I didn’t think they would get along.

Q. What area of town would Weadock Street be considered?

A. East side.

Q. Is there a reason you were concerned about your the north side mixing with east-side people?

A. Yes.

Q. Why is that?

A. I thought they was going to feud, fight, trouble.

— From the testimony of Mildred Long

It was a New Year’s Night party, hosted by two teenage girls, Mildred Long and Sabrina Barnes, at Mildred’s aunt’s house on Meredith. The girls had made up flyers and handed them out after Christmas. “Watch out for 1999! Come party on New Year’s!” the flyers read.

It was not a huge gathering. Maybe 40 or 50 people at its peak. The girls had set up speakers in the basement for dancing to the radio. Mildred’s mother was in the kitchen upstairs, making beef tacos. The girls charged a dollar at the door to help defray the costs.

And everyone who came was “patted down” by one of the hosts.

“Why did you pat everyone down?” a prosecutor later asked Mildred.

“We just didn’t want nobody in there with weapons,” she said. “It was a non-violence party.”

A non-violence party.

Daniel Smothers was not much for New Year’s parties. He was more comfortable around his own house, flopped on his bed, gazing at the Michael Jordan pictures on his wall or his sports trophies for football, basketball and track. He had basketball practice the next morning. He knew that. But he was 18, he was a senior, he had a college scholarship offer, and he told his mother he felt he should experience a real New Year’s party. “Just make sure you eat something before you go,” Debry Davis said. “There’s chicken in the kitchen.”

She smiled at her son. But then, so did everybody. Daniel Smothers was the sort of young man who talked to the kids in high school that everyone else ignored, who told girls they were pretty when they clearly were not, who made jokes when everyone else seemed down, who cooked for his younger sister, Shivetta, and who slept nights at the hospital when she was admitted with a heart murmur.

Who didn’t smile when they saw Daniel? Now here he was, dressed in his new black Eddie Bauer pants he got for Christmas and bright white track shoes someone had bought him as congratulations for winning a high school high jump title. It was a new year. It was going to be great.

Daniel ate a few pieces of chicken, said good-bye to his mother, and took off. She did not think much about it. She certainly did not think that would be the last time she’d ever see him. Daniel always had been responsible. He always called. And besides, he was now wearing a pager that Davis had bought him for Christmas.

This way, she would always know where he was.

Q. Did there come a point in time when some trouble started down there in the basement?

A. Yes.

Q. Tell us about that please.

A. We played a song, it was a rap song, and then everybody started yelling.

Q. What rap song did you play?

A. “War Wounds,” by Master P.

Q. “War Wounds.” Does that have reference to gangs in it?

A. Yes.

Q. So is that what started people yelling “Weadock” and things like that?

A. Yes…. They was yelling “Weadock” and some people in the party, I don’t know who, they were like “f— Weadock.”

Q. I see. Was anyone throwing up gang signs?

A. Yes.

Q. Did that get everyone going down there?

A. Yes.

Q. And tell us what you mean by got them going.

A. They was jumping, crowding around each other, pushing.

Q. Did you know a person named Daniel Smothers?

A. Yes.

Q. Was he at the party?

A. Yes.

Q. Was he in the basement when all the people started jumping and yelling?

A. Yes.

Q. Did Daniel Smothers participate in that type of behavior?

A. No.

— From the testimony of Samantha Harrel

The sign for the Weadock Boys is a “W” formed by four fingers, with the middle two crossed over each other and the thumb folded into the palm. What constitutes a gang — versus a bunch of guys who live on the same block, such as Weadock Street — is pretty much a question of interpretation.

But according to witnesses, members of this Weadock gang were at the party, and when the song roused up territorial emotions, there was pushing and shoving, and yelling and screaming, and next thing you knew, the music was off, and Mildred Long, the teen who made up the original invitations, was yelling, “Party’s over! Everyone go home!”

Suddenly, she claimed, she was confronted by a young man, one of the Weadock Boys, who said, “Bitch, this party ain’t over. I’ll slap the spit out your mouth.”

Things grew tense. Young people spilled out the side door. Coats were thrown out after them. More shoving and pushing continued just outside the house, with the hosts trying to push everyone out and some of the rowdier guests trying to get back in.

Meanwhile, on the front porch, the owner of the house, a woman named Phillipa Banks, came face-to-face for the first time with a tall man named Andrei Williams. He wore a black leather coat and a black skull cap. Williams, 20, had not been inside the party. In fact, he had driven there earlier with several other younger men, but had been told that he was too old to come inside.

Now he stood on the front porch of the house, surveying the mayhem. According to Banks, he waved and said, “These young men are my soldiers. And they do what I say.”

“Then can you make them leave my property?” Banks said.

What happened next is sketchy. There was an attempt by some of the exiled guests to push back into the house. Doors were locked. Several windows were broken. Minutes later, as things were calming down and Andrei Williams and several others were about to leave in his car, a female guest named Kathy Palmer threw something at his rear window. It hit the car and the car sped off.

“Why’d you do that?” the remaining guests screamed at Palmer. “Now they’re just gonna come back!”

The next 30 minutes — the last half-hour of Daniel Smothers’ life — were a horrifying combination of timing and circumstance. Daniel and his cousin, Marcellus, had been among the few guests allowed back in the house. The rest were sent home.

Eventually, Daniel and Marcellus left, too. They got in their car, pulled away from the house, then pulled back. Daniel had forgotten his pager. He had given it to one of Banks’ nieces to hold while he danced. Daniel re-entered the house to retrieve the pager.

After all, it was a Christmas present from his mother.

Q. You looked outside the window and saw this person on the sidewalk?

A. Yes.

Q. Was it a man or a woman?

A. Male.

Q. Could you describe this individual for us?

A. Tall, light-skinned with a black short leather coat and a black skull hat.

Q. Did you see this person on the sidewalk have anything in his hand?

A. A black handgun.

Q. What did you do when you saw the handgun?

A. I said, “He got a gun! Get down!”

Q. And you dropped to the floor?

A. Yes.

Q. What was the next thing you heard?

A. Three gunshots.

Q. Were you aware of anyone being shot?

A. No.

Q. Did you become aware that someone was shot?

A. Yes.

Q. And who was that?

A. Daniel.

— From the testimony of Samantha Harrel

The bullet pierced the front window. It hit Daniel in the back of the head. There is no indication it was meant for him. There is no indication the shooter, Andrei Williams, even knew Daniel was inside.

Nor is there any proof of what Williams was thinking when he pulled the trigger, since, to this day, he denies doing it. All anyone knows — all anyone recounted for the jury — is that the green car Williams left the party in pulled back in front of the house around 20 minutes later, and Williams stepped out, aimed his gun at the house, and began firing.

Moments later, Daniel Smothers and all his football dreams were dead on the floor, lying in a pool of blood between the kitchen and the dining room.

This was shortly after 1 a.m. on Jan. 2, which made Daniel the city’s first homicide victim of the year. At the police station, friends and relatives gathered, and, according to Saginaw Police Lt. Tom McGarrity, officers asked the crowd “if Mr. and Mrs. Smothers were there.”

McGarrity said two people stepped forward, claiming to be Daniel’s parents. It was later determined that they were only relatives, McGarrity admitted. But, police said, someone claiming to be Daniel’s biological father did call the station later that morning. And because Daniel’s last name was different than his mother’s (she had remarried) — and because, as McGarrity said, “when a murder happens in the city here, quite often the next of kin are on the scene before our officers are” — no one was suspicious. No one bothered to ask whether the parents’ address matched the one on Daniel Smothers’ driver’s license, which was in his pocket.

In fact, no one questioned the relatives’ status at all.

“Any normal, reasonable person wouldn’t think that someone was lying about that,” McGarrity said.

Nonetheless, Daniel’s mother, Debry Davis, was waiting all this time at her house, desperately hoping for some official word whether her son were dead or alive. She had been told by a niece that Daniel had been shot. But in her mind, wild with grief, she thought perhaps it was mistaken identity. Perhaps Daniel had given his clothes to someone else to wear. Perhaps it only looked like her son.

“I kept saying, ‘No, it can’t be Daniel. Not Daniel. Don’t tell me that my son has been killed.’ “

Soon her agonizing series of phone calls to hospitals began. She went to HealthSource and was told, among other things, that not only had the man with the key to her son’s morgue drawer “gone home for the day,” but her son’s body was considered evidence in a murder, and she wasn’t allowed to see it anyhow.

Later, her daughter, Daniel’s younger sister, Shivetta, went to the gym at Saginaw High, where the boys basketball team was practicing. Daniel, a gifted defensive player, was supposed to be there.

“What’s wrong?” Marshall Thomas, the coach, asked Shivetta. “Where’s Daniel?”

“Daniel’s been killed.”

Thomas looked at her.

Then he screamed.

Q. What was the defendant, Andrei Williams, doing when you went into (the) home (the next day)?

A. We was all sitting in the room, watching TV, playing a game and listening to the radio.

Q. How was the defendant acting?

A. He was — he was acting like himself, a little bit.

Q. A little bit. Was he acting different in any way?

A. He was just looking like he had to get something off his chest or something …

Q. What was he saying about the party that night?

A. He was just saying that was messed up what happened …

Q. Did he say who messed up? …

A. He was — he was just saying that he had messed up.

Q. He had messed up.

A. Yes.

Q. Did he say anything about shots being fired or people being shot?

A. He said that he went and shot up the house …and that’s when he got a phone call on his cellular phone, and he went out the room, and then he came back and he said he fitting to leave.

Q. He said what?

A. He was fitting to leave.

Q. Fitting to leave?

A. Yes.

Q. Did he say where he was going?

A. He said his mama told him to get his ass to Chicago.

— From the testimony of Damore Harris

Andrei Williams, who had a drug conviction and a long arrest record, fled to Chicago, then to Ruston, La., where he was arrested 10 days after the shooting and brought back to Michigan to face charges for the murder of Daniel Smothers.

The trial took months, mostly because witnesses were reluctant to testify.

“They were scared,” said Saginaw assistant prosecutor Jon Sahli, who handled the case. “Andrei Williams is the de facto leader of the Weadock Street gang. That intimidated a lot of people.”

During the trial, Sahli said, gang members were throwing the “W” sign to one another. A search of Williams’ jail cell, Sahli said, revealed a rap he was writing, which contained lyrics such as “when I’m throwing lead, you better duck your head.”

Those lyrics, however, were eventually disallowed as evidence. And the jury never saw a murder weapon. Nor did it hear Williams confess.

But jurors did hear witnesses such as 40-year-old Phillipa Banks, who owned the house on Meredith. Although that house had been in Banks’ family for several generations, she boarded it up and left it the day after the murder. She left the state as well. She never spoke about the incident until she took the stand for the trial, nearly 11 months later.

When the defense grilled her for not coming forward previously, she said:
“That was one of my greatest mistakes. But I’m telling the God’s honest truth now. And I am sorry that I waited so long.”

She then recounted a green car pulling up in front of her house. She recounted that Andrei Williams got out, raised his gun and pointed it. She recounted yelling, “He’s about to shoot, get down!”

When asked to identify the shooter, she pointed across the courtroom to Williams.

“It’s your testimony that a man got out of that vehicle?” the defense attorney asked.

“No,” she answered, pointing again, “My testimony is that that man got out of the vehicle.”

The jury took three days. It found Andrei Williams guilty of second-degree murder. Because of his prior conviction, he faces more serious prison time, possibly up to life in prison. He is being held in the Saginaw County Jail. His sentencing is scheduled for late next week.

And yet, all throughout the trial, Debry Davis never heard the one thing that haunts her to this day:

A reason.

“I’m sitting there listening to a guy who took my son’s life and he don’t even know my son’s name,” she said. “All he knows is that he played football.

“I kept waiting for someone to say Daniel spit at the guy, or stepped on his shoe, or it was over some girl, or something. Just something! I keep sitting there saying, ‘I don’t understand. Why Daniel?’ “

“All I know is my life was devastated. My son was taken away from me and I don’t even know why….”

On the day the jury convicted Williams for murder, Davis came home and found a videotape that had been dropped off by one of Daniel’s former teachers. It was footage of Daniel, as a sixth-grader, singing during a Christmas play. He was hamming around, as usual, taking over the microphone.

“This Christmaaaas,” he sang, “will be a very special Christmaaaas….”

Q. When did you become aware that someone had been shot?

A. After I heard gunshots, I like — everything was over. I got up, and I said it’s over, they done, they done. I walked towards the kitchen and I was like, “Daniel, get up. It’s over. They done.” And that’s when I saw the blood

Q. Between the shooting and now, have you been scared?

A. Yes.

Q. Are you in fact still concerned today?

A. Yes.

Q. What is — what are you scared of?

A. Revenge. That they probably try to come after me for being up here.

— From the testimony of Mildred Long

Debry Davis finally saw her son’s body. It was lying in a casket. Because of the police department’s initial mistaken assumptions, and because of rules and bureaucracy when a murdered corpse is considered evidence, her first viewing came in the church at Daniel’s funeral.

When she saw him, she gasped. In an attempt to make him presentable, the people at the funeral parlor had darkened Daniel’s skin to the point that Davis wasn’t sure if this were really her son.

“I lifted his head and felt around for where they said the bullet hole was,” she recalled, “because I kept thinking, maybe they made a mistake, you know? I kept holding on to that wish.”

There was no mistake. And Davis, 35, lives every day now with the agony of her loss. She rarely goes out, other than to work in her job as office manager for a dentist. She is alternately fearful and angry.

Inside her small house on Robinwood, she shows a visitor how Daniel’s room is the same now as the day he left it. The football jersey is still laid out on the bed. The TV is still set to the channel he last watched.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to touch anything in this room,” she said.

She talks about how Daniel sometimes slept with a football cradled in his arms. She talks about the time he won the Saginaw Valley League high jump title, and he came home with the medal around his neck and threw his arms up and yelled, “I did it!”

She talks about the time a young Daniel ate a small mountain of candy, then tried to blame the cable TV man.

“He was the last one in the house,” Daniel insisted.

Debry Davis can laugh and cry in the same sentence now. “Every day I wake up my life is just totally miserable,” she said. “This morning, at 7:15, I’m out at the cemetery talking to my son because that’s the only way I can relate to him now….

“I never believed in guns. My children never had them. I don’t have them. But I can say now I wish we had the death penalty. Because the worst thing that could happen to me is to ever wake up and know Andrei Williams is back on the street to harm somebody else’s child.

“Maybe even yours.”

She leads the visitor to Daniel’s high school diploma. It was awarded during a special moment in late June’s graduation ceremony. All the Saginaw seniors wore buttons with Daniel’s picture. And when his name came up in the alphabetical order, it was called out and given the same amount of time as his fellow students were getting, as if an invisible Daniel were walking across the stage and claiming his prize.

A scholarship was awarded in Daniel’s name. McPherson College sent a football jersey with Daniel’s name and number on it, one he would have worn had he lived.

This fall, the Saginaw High football team hung a picture of Daniel in the locker room, over a sign that read, “You don’t get a second chance.” Players touched that sign before every practice, before every kickoff, and before the last game of the year, which the Trojans won to capture the Division 2 state championship …

One week after Andrei Williams was convicted of Smothers’ murder.

At the awards banquet, the school band played a song in honor of Daniel. It was called “I Believe I Can Fly.”

But if Daniel Smothers could fly, he would have flown away from the bullet, his mother said, he would have flown away from the danger that seems to hang like a perpetual shadow over these city streets.

The first homicide of 1999. And now we stand on the lip of the year 2000. What awaits our youth?

“If any kids in this world could listen to me,” Debry Davis said, “they would not want their mothers to go through what I went through just so they could have a party.

“I know that, in all reality, kids should be able to go out and have a good time. But in all reality, you can’t.”

She pinches the corners of her mouth, holding back her tears. Then she cries anyhow. All she has left of her greatest hope, her only son, is what he did in his 18 years, and what he had on him the night he was killed. A hairbrush. A driver’s license. And a pocket-sized Bible.

The new millennium is just days away, and in some parts of the world, the celebrations will be spectacular. But in other parts, like Robinwood and Weadock streets in Saginaw, life goes on nervously, and young Daniels struggle inside a different sort of lions’ den, where all the faith in the world is still no match for a random bullet.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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