The killing of two boys sears a town's psyche

November 06, 1994|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Sun Staff Writer

UNION, S.C. -- They'll put the little Smith boys to rest here today in a gush of sweet carnation scent and worldwide attention.

But there'll be no peace of mind in this small textile mill town that must carry on and face a gnarl of complex issues torn from its core by Susan V. Smith's alleged murder of her sons and the grueling 10 days it took to break the case.

This back-road Bible Belt community's faith has been tested, its innocence betrayed and its cool racial cordiality -- a legacy of its cotton-plantation past -- made even cooler.

"By the very nature of this crime, this community has been subjected to a microscopic look at its very roots," says Donald Wilder, publisher of the Union Daily Times.

That scrutiny, say Mr. Wilder and religious and civic leaders, shows a version of the community unity this city was named for 200 years ago when local churches decided to worship together in one building.

Indeed, projected to the world in the glare of network cameras that have mushroomed around the gold-domed Union County Courthouse, the earnest drawls and fiercely tight small town connections look enviably wholesome and all-American.

Union did pull together behind Mrs. Smith and her estranged husband, David, in the intense hope the boys were still alive.

Residents -- both white and black -- mounted a large-scale search after Mrs. Smith turned up the night of Oct. 25 on a wooded country road, wailing that a black gunman had forced her from her car and stolen it and her babies.

But as the wholesome Mrs. Smith, voted friendliest in her 1989 high school class, tugged at America's heart when she asked for help in finding the boys, law enforcement officials found nothing but clues that pointed to Mrs. Smith.

The key evidence was a letter in which Tom Findlay, son of the owner of the textile trimming factory where Mrs. Smith worked, broke off a short relationship with her. Among other reasons for the breakup, said Mr. Findlay's lawyer, was his reluctance to have responsibility for the two boys.

Mrs. Smith charged

When Mrs. Smith reportedly confessed to the killings Thursday, the Union County sheriff's office then found the bodies of the boys in the John D. Long Lake.

She was charged with two counts of murder Friday.

A collective gasp of disbelief and anger followed the word of a mother's betrayal of her children, a hometown girl's betrayal of family and friends, and the incendiary nature -- in a state that still fights over the appropriateness of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse -- of the fabricated black carjacker.

You can hear the strain in the voices -- of both men and women -- that suddenly quiver on the verge of tears even as they speak of what a unifying experience it all has been.

A common conversational spiral here is concern about the children's last moments. Everyone seems to struggle to hold back those unbidden but persistent imaginings of exactly how 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex, strapped helplessly in the back seat of their mother's car, sank to the depths of a murky lake.

Magazine report

Newsweek magazine, in its issue out tomorrow, will report that Mrs. Smith told police that she stood by the water's edge and watched as Michael struggled for his life before he sank alongside his younger brother.

One stocky young woman, a textile dyer, described how quiet the lake is and how Mrs. Smith had to have heard the cries of her children. Mr. Wilder -- the newspaper publisher -- speculates, with eyes glistening, that if the car floated, the children may have even watched her as they drifted out, then down.

If they're haunted by their imaginations, Union residents are even more troubled by what apparently is much more tangible: the possibility that Mrs. Smith lied -- and lied elaborately, with nationally televised embellishments such as her description of how Michael had just learned to tell her he loved her.

"If this was betrayal, it's because in a small town people think they know each other," says Mac Johnson, head of the local Chamber of Commerce.

A happy woman

It would seem that Mrs. Smith, by virtually every account, was a wholesome, happy and generous woman. The idea that she could have harmed her children alarms people's sensibilities.

"I must have been a fool," says Peggy Medford, 25, who was

handing out ribbons in memory of the boys at the courthouse Friday. She and the Smiths went to the same Methodist church, and she grew up playing with Mrs. Smith on the same softball team and loved her.

Ms. Medford is without forgiveness today. Like so many others here, she claims that there's not a punishment strong enough for Mrs. Smith -- who still must go through the judicial process to be deemed guilty or innocent.

But others are more evenhanded in their judgments.

Gloria Carwile, a retired special education teacher, knew Mrs. Smith as a cheerful student volunteer at Special Olympics events. Dabbing at tears, she says she cannot believe that Mrs. Smith could have committed the crime if she had not "snapped."

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