Millionaire wins battle against 'injustice'

September 05, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

Millionaire Robert James Smith, father of four, grandfather of 13 and owner of two Rolls Royces, greeted Baltimore County police with a handshake and a smile at his 40-acre estate the evening of Jan. 13.

Almost before the smile had faded, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound former Marine was arrested, read his rights, handcuffed and placed in leg chains. A heavily armed county tactical squad waited on a rural road a quarter-mile away in case there was resistance.

Mr. Smith, 59, was accused of firing six .45-caliber bullets into the front door of Christopher's -- now Graffiti's -- a popular bar at York and Padonia roads, in the early hours of Dec. 17. More than 100 patrons were inside at the time.

After his arrest in January, Mr. Smith was taken to jail for nine hours and held on $50,000 bail while 10 officers searched his English Tudor home in northeastern Baltimore County for a .45-caliber pistol. They did not find one.

The retired businessman is convinced that if he hadn't been wealthy enough to afford $91,000 in legal and investigative fees, he would be in prison now for something he didn't do.

David B. Irwin, his defense attorney, said, "The state's case was so thin you could see through it, but a serious injustice might have occurred if Mr. Smith did not have the means to expend a small fortune on lawyers and investigators."

Six months after Mr. Smith's arrest, he heard county Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II declare after a nonjury trial, "I would not convict Attila the Hun in this case. The verdict is not guilty as to all counts."

Judge Turnbull called testimony by the prosecution's main witness "preposterous" and said the conduct of a police officer in the case "borders on the outrageous."

There was no physical evidence linking Mr. Smith with the crime, but the main witness popped up nearly three weeks later and implicated him. Of that witness, Judge Turnbull said, "I would not believe Kevin Earle on a stack of Bibles. I am convinced he got caught up in some type of situation where he was bragging . . . I'm not sure Mr. Earle shouldn't be indicted for perjury."

So how did Mr. Smith, a man apparently with the world at his elbow, get in such a mess?

Mr. Irwin thinks his client's large estate, flashy cars and lack of visible means of support suggested that he was a drug dealer and that police placed themselves in a position where they had to go after him.

"They didn't make the effort to find out who he really was," Mr. Irwin said. "And they made practically no effort to find out who really did it. It's frightening what the system can do to someone."

Mr. Irwin said Assistant State's Attorney Dean Stocksdale offered Mr. Smith a generous plea bargain before the trial: reckless endangerment, with a maximum sentence of five years, with no recommendation of prison time. It was rejected. Mr. Stocksdale would not comment.

The situation that could have put Mr. Smith in prison for 30 years began on the evening of Sept. 14, when he drove his 1993 white Rolls Royce convertible onto the Christopher's parking lot, where he was approached by Lisa Marie Young.

"She told me she was a TV actress from New York and asked me to buy her a drink," Mr. Smith said.

"I said 'Sure.' I was going through a terrible time in my life with a divorce, and I was lonely."

At that time, Young, 24, lived with her mother in an apartment in Cockeysville, and was on probation for a drug conviction stemming from an incident in Ocean City in 1991.

Drugs were concealed

There, she had delivered 45 grams of cocaine concealed in a tampon to a man she thought was her boyfriend but actually was Thomas V. Manzari of the Ocean City Police Department.

Young was convicted of possessing and distributing a controlled dangerous substance and sentenced to eight years in prison in October 1991, with all but three years suspended, and three years' probation.

She was released on probation in June 1993. By the time Mr. Smith met her, she had failed a urinalysis and was facing revocation of her probation.

Her probation was revoked on March 7. She is in the state correctional institution for women in Jessup. She was in leg chains when she testified against Mr. Smith in July.

Former friends of the 5-foot-9, 110-pound woman, interviewed by Mr. Smith's private investigators, described her variously as "manipulative," "violent" and "vindictive." One added, "She created havoc wherever she went."

Baltimore and Baltimore County court records show five charges against Young for battery or assault, one charge of theft and two charges of drug possession, beginning in December 1989.

All were dropped, but Bergen County, N.J., records show she was jailed there twice in 1991 and 1992 for distributing illegal drugs.

Judge Turnbull said, "If there was ever a more discreditablwitness, it is Ms. Young."

Mr. Smith, who describes himself as a "nondescript nobody," was reared in West Baltimore, dropped out of Mount St. Joseph High School in the 11th grade and was a millionaire by age 40.

Business begun in 1965

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