Remembering Sonya

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A week after a lone gunman killed 10 people in a 24-mile rampage that began in Kinston, took him through Samson and ended in Geneva, Cindy Kouvelos of Opp is still trying to comprehend that something like this could happen in her hometown.

And the fact that her cousin, Sonya Lolley Smith, was among his random victims, makes the tragedy almost unbelievable.

“When you have a bad dream, you wake up and eventually realize it didn’t happen,” Kouvelos said. “I kept waiting to wake up. It didn’t seem like it could happen in Samson.”

When they were girls, the two were like sisters.

“We were real close as children,” Kouvelos said. “At one time, we even lived in the house with them. It seemed like years at the time, but it was probably weeks.”

When Kouvelos’s family moved out, they only went next door, so the playmates were not separated often.

“We had a lot of good times together,” Kouvelos said. “Sonya was a tomboy all the way. We were in the creek, in the mud, and always outside.”

And sometimes, they were even in trouble.

“My aunt had a utility shed behind her house with a wringer-type washing machine in it,” Kouvelos recalled. “I’m sure we’d been told at least a 100 times not to touch it, and at least 100 or more we had. I’m sure my aunt had another washing machine, but it wasn’t as intriguing as this one was.”

One day, the two girls decided to help the family out by doing laundry in the wringer washer.

“Sonya got her arm caught in the wringer,” Kouvelos recalled. “What did I do? I took off running.”

In retrospect, Kouvelos wonders why she didn’t just unplug the washer instead of running for her aunt.

“She was up to her elbows when we got back,” Kouvelos recalled. “Fortunately, it didn’t break anything, it just bruised her arm. When they realized nothing was broken, we really got in trouble.”

It was the last time the two tackled the wringer washer, but not the last time they got into mischievous fun.

Kouvelos said memories like that one had been on her mind lately, even before the rampage that took her cousin’s life. Sonya Smith was at a gas station when she was killed.

She worked, ironically, at Reliable, the former employer of the shooter and the site at which the massacre ended when he took his own life.

“Sonya didn’t work with him, and didn’t know him, as far as the family knows,” Kouvelos said. “He didn’t know who he was shooting when he shot her because he shot her in the back. It seems she was the first person he saw outside after he left the neighborhood.”

In that neighborhood in Samson, he killed seven people, including several members of his own family.

“My husband’s sister works at the bank in Samson,” Kouvelos said. “She called me as soon as she knew that Sonya had been shot.”

At the time, Kouvelos said, the scope of the tragedy was not yet known and it appeared her cousin had been shot in a drive-by shooting. She called her mother.

“She was eating supper at Price’s in Geneva,” Kouvelos said. “My brother had called her and told her about all of the shootings and warned her to stay where she was and get behind something.

“Of course, then she didn’t know about my cousin. When I called her, she stood up, because her first thought was to get to Sonya’s sister.”

As she moved toward the door, Michael McLendon’s car came through the parking lot, followed by “what looked like hundreds of cop cars.”

“We’re a large family, and a close family,” Kouvelos said. “My mother is one of 12 children, and only one of them (Sonya Smith’s mother) has passed away.”

The family, which includes more than 30 grandchildren and so many great-grandchildren they’ve lost count, gathers every other year for a family reunion. Those who live close enough share a Christmas dinner on the second Saturday of every December.

“You see people today who don’t know who their cousins are,” Kouvelos said. “We know each other.”

Kouvelos said 600 to 700 people attended the visitation for her cousin.

“It’s been like that for all of them,” she said. “The community has been so good.”

This community has helped, too, she said.

Kouvelos has two uncles in Red Level, Max Creech and O’Neal Creech. She said a woman heard her Uncle Max speaking on the square in Andalusia about the tragedy and gave him her name and telephone number.

“He called my mother’s house and told me to take the name and number down and give it to (Sonya’s sister),” Kouvelos said. “The woman wanted to pay for the blanket on the casket.

“Everyone has been so concerned and shown it, whether with a cent, a hundred dollars, a phone call or just visits. All of it means so much.”

When Sonya Smith’s husband went to the funeral home to make arrangements, he was told the service had been completely paid for.

“We’ll never know, or be able to personally thank, all of the people who helped,” she said.

If there is an underlying lesson in the tragedy, it is that despite the horrible things that happen, there are still good people, she said.

“There are people with morals and love and concern,” she said.

At one of the funerals Kouvelos attended, the minister encouraged the congregation to remember how the victims lived, not how they died; to remember what they gave, not what was taken away.

Kouvelos said she’s focusing on precious memories.

“Sonya had a Shetland pony growing up,” she recalled. “Her brother had to saddle it up for us to ride and he really didn’t want to be bothered by us.”

As soon as the pony was saddled, the girls would take the pony to the front of the house and use the porch as a ladder of sorts.

“One day he didn’t tighten the saddle,” Kouvelos recalled. “Sonya left the porch and under the horse’s belly she went, hanging on for dear life while her brother laughed in the side yard.”

That memory, along with the meal they shared at the annual Christmas gathering in December, are among the precious ones she’ll treasure.

“Hang on to the memories,” Kouvelos said. “There’s nothing else you can hold on to.”

Smith is also survived by her husband, Wade; a daughter, Chelsea, who is 19; and a stepson, 16.