Family shares its loss as a lesson for others

October 17, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

For just the second time in the months since their 4-year-old son's death, Miles and Nicole Smith mustered the strength to visit the cemetery. They stood, silently, at a hilltop gravesite marked by a tattered, blue-and-white stuffed dog. The father, a sturdy, athletic man wearing a medallion with his boy's image, hung his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

A few feet away, a video camera rolled.

Less than six months ago, during a game of hide-and-seek, Miles Patrick Smith Jr. found his father's loaded handgun wrapped in a towel inside a blue gym bag. Right there, in the living room of the family's Randallstown home, Miles Jr. pulled the trigger.

Leaving a firearm within the reach of a child is against state law. But instead of charging the boy's 36-year-old father, Baltimore County prosecutors made a deal with him: He would tell his story for a gun safety video and a public service announcement.

Last Sunday, the film crew joined the Smiths at the cemetery, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, in western Baltimore County. The crew then followed the parents back to their townhouse in Catonsville. They moved there in August, unable to bear living in the house where Miles Jr. died.

At the home, the producer and videographer rearranged the furniture in the pristine white dining room. They spread family photos on a glass table. The parents sat down for a taped interview.

Beneath the bright lights, Miles Smith talked about how one horrible mistake had cost him the youngest of his three children -- his namesake, his little basketball protege.

"You never think that something like this would happen," he said. "No matter how hard you wish or regret, there's nothing that will change. It's my fault. People say, `It's not your fault.' But the bottom line is, it is my fault. I had the gun. I brought the gun into the house."

There are dozens of photographs for the mother to leaf through.

There's Miles Jr. clowning around in his Winfield Elementary School pre-kindergarten class picture -- barely visible because he's leaning over to try to get his friend's attention. There he is, beaming, atop his daddy's shoulders. And there's his big brother, Torrel, lifting him up to make his very first basket, at the age of 1, into a children's basketball hoop.

Miles Jr. loved to copy Torrel. When the 16-year-old began doing push-ups to build up his strength, it wasn't long before Miles Jr. was saying, "Daddy, I did my push-ups. Daddy, look at my muscles."

Nicole Smith, 34, told that story on camera, as she tried to convey all that the family has lost. "He was very energetic, playful," she said. "He was just a real loving child."

Later, producer Ed Reahl coaxed the father into the conversation.

"He was into basketball, huh?" Reahl asked, taking a gently upbeat tone. "Talk about some of his skills."

"He played with the 7-to-8 age group," the father replied.

He stopped, fixed his eyes on the glass table in front of him. A minute of silence passed. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He rubbed them away with his shoulders and began again.

"He played with, um, the 7-to-8 age group. ... He could dribble with both hands. He could make it in the 10-foot goal. He knew positions on the court. He just loved the game."

Miles Smith Sr. has coached basketball since his eldest son was 5. When he took charge of a 7- and 8-year-olds' basketball team last year for the Edreco Clinic Basketball League, 4-year-old Miles played, too. In one photo, little Miles is wearing an ear-to-ear smile -- and holding a basketball that looks twice the size of his head.

There's another picture with Miles Jr. and a bright orange basketball. It's on the cover of the program from his memorial service.

The Baltimore County police reports lay bare the events of April 26:

Miles Jr., his 10-year-old sister, Nykolette, and their 6-year-old cousin, Akins, were at the Randallstown home on Bryony Road that evening playing a game they called "Hide the Key." One of them would hide a fancy automobile key that a relative had given them, and the others would search for it.

Nykolette hid it on the black leather sofa in the living room, and while the boys looked for it, she went into the kitchen and called a friend. About that time, Akins' mother called for him to come into the bedroom to start his homework. The two others who were home -- Torrel and an uncle -- were in the basement.

A loud noise drew everyone into the living room, where they found Miles slumped on the floor next to the couch. He was bleeding from the head.

Assuming someone had shot from the outside, the group stayed low to the ground. Then they saw the family dog sniffing a black handgun that lay inches from little Miles.

Someone called 911, and someone called Miles Jr.'s parents. The uncle wrapped the child's wounded head in a towel to try to stop the bleeding.

Miles Jr. went into cardiac arrest during the flight to the Johns Hopkins pediatric trauma unit. He was pronounced dead there at 6:30 p.m., about 40 minutes after the shooting.

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