Bright hopes blasted by gunfire

December 12, 1993|By Michael Ollove and Scott Shane This article was reported by Michael Ollove in Wikes-Barre, Pa.; Scott Shane in Huntington Beach and Coronado, Calif.; Tom Bowman in Annapolis; and Tom Keyser in Virginia Beach, Va. It was written by Mr. Ollove and Mr. Shane.

It was a familiar moment for Ed and Bonnie O'Neill. Their daughter, Kerryn, a graceful long-distance runner, had once again won her race, and they were rushing toward the track to embrace her.

What stopped them was the sight of Kerry, a girl of uncommon beauty, already joined at the finish line by a handsome young man.

"I had this feeling that we should let her alone," Mrs. O'Neill recalled last week, sitting in her daughter's tiny, childhood bedroom in Kingston, Pa. "You could just feel it."

The stranger turned out to be a fellow Naval Academy midshipman, George Smith. One year ahead of Ms. O'Neill at the academy, he would soon become the first love of her life, and she his consuming passion.

They seemed an impossibly perfect couple, each a striking combination of ability and magnetism, the very best of what the academy stood for. He was a bright, self-assured young man with a laugh that invited company. She, too, was quietly aware of her even more remarkable gifts, though never comfortable being the center of attention.

"They were the all-American couple," said Leslie Nicholas, one of Ms. O'Neill's high school coaches who met Smith when the couple visited Ms. O'Neill's hometown last summer. "When they walked away, I said to my wife, 'What a future they have -- young, Annapolis, talented, good-looking.' They seemed to have everything."

Yet, while the world saw a relationship full of affection and mutual admiration, their needs and desires were diverging. Ms. O'Neill emerged triumphant from her grueling years at the academy eager to test a seemingly boundless future. Smith, too, left the academy with a brilliant career beckoning but with one ambition apparently paramount: to make Ms. O'Neill his wife.

She yearned for independence; he wanted security. She needed to be let go; that was what he could not do.

"I rise with the sun in the morning and run with the sun going down in the evening," Ms. O'Neill told her mother a month ago, explaining her decision to break her engagement. "I want my freedom.'"

The conflict ended 11 days ago in a spasm of violence and lost promise that left not only the young couple dead in Ms. O'Neill's Coronado, Calif., apartment but also took the life of a third academy graduate, Alton Grizzard. The celebrated former Navy quarterback, whose future had looked as bright as theirs, died after apparently responding to Ms. O'Neill's call for support.

In the early hours of Dec. 1, Smith, 24, entered Ms. O'Neill's apartment carrying two semiautomatic handguns, police said. He shot Mr. Grizzard, 24, twice in the legs and once in the abdomen, then put the gun to the back of the wounded man's skull and fired again. He stepped over to Ms. O'Neill, 21, who was screaming and kneeling behind a chair. He shot her once in the back of the head. Then he turned the pistol on himself.

In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where Ensign O'Neill was buried last week and at Lieutenant Grizzard's funeral in Arlington, Va., dark-uniformed naval officers shed tears and wondered over the imponderability of the tragedy.

They did so, too, in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Ensign Smith was buried. But there, mourning mixed with more complicated feelings.

"There is not only grief," the Rev. Steve Duffin said over Smith's white-draped coffin. "There is guilt."

"We grasp for answers. We seek solutions," the priest said. "And we don't find them."

An inseparable pair

Kerry O'Neill was the last to arrive in Annapolis, a quiet, dark-haired girl from the rough, coal-mining region of Northeast Pennsylvania. By then, the summer of 1989, Alton Grizzard was already a big name at the academy, the quick-thinking leader of Navy's otherwise woeful football team. And George Smith was welcoming a new beginning after an arduous plebe year made even more trying by the death of his father.

In their respective high school yearbooks, Ms. O'Neill was voted "best-looking" and "most likely to succeed" and Mr. Grizzard "most school-spirited." Smith's senior class at Marina High School in California elected him "Best All Around."

Smith had unmistakable brains and ambition but also a calm, winning manner, a personality without sharp edges. He was more likely to defuse an argument with a joke than to start one, more apt to lighten a friend's mood than to need cheering up himself, friends say.

"He was so well-balanced," says Brian Smith, one of a group of buddies from the Marina High School football team who hung around together. "In our group, we all excelled in something. He excelled in everything."

Larry Doyle, a math teacher and assistant football coach, was impressed by George's drive in class and on the field, where he was named "Lineman of the Year" on a championship team in his senior year. But something else stands out in Mr. Doyle's memory.

"When I picture George, I picture him laughing," he said. "Being as intelligent as he was, he could see the humor in things others didn't."

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