CONFESSION GIVES MURDER VICTIM’S FAMILY CLOSURE
Published 1:15 am Thursday, January 7, 2016
Smith murdered 38 years ago
After almost 38 years of wondering, and almost giving up ever reaching closure, Charles Smith met face to face in Holman Prison with the man who killed his father, and accepted the man’s apology.
“I had pretty much given up hope that we would ever get closure,” Smith said this week. In the years he’s been back in Florala, where he owns Florala Pharmacy, he has asked around. Even though he and his sisters were fairly certain they knew who was responsible for their father’s death, that man had been acquitted by a Covington County jury. And they always wondered if there were others involved.
Late in the day on Jan. 3, 1978, Ed Smith was shot twice with the apparent motive of robbery inside his service station in Florala. His pockets were turned inside out, and his money clip, which normally held small bills that perhaps looked like a large sum of money, was missing.
Ada Smith found her husband’s body. Smith said he was told that his mother went toward the street and flagged people to help her. Soon, there were people everywhere, and the scene wasn’t secured for an investigation.
Still, a couple of days later, Ada Smith, Charles Smith and his sisters, Eddie Searcy and Regina Smith, were assured that the man who had killed their husband and father was in custody. David Bronner, then 19, had been charged with murder. Bronner’s stepfather, A.V. Patrick, was a police officer.
“They came to our house on Fifth Avenue and told us they had made an arrest,” Smith recalled in the 2013 interview. “(Officer) A.V. Patrick said, ‘It was my stepson and we’ll put him away.’ ”
Within months, Patrick’s words would prove false.
“David Bonner was only 19 years old when he killed our father,” Smith said in a written statement this week. “As this was a capital murder offense, the jury had a choice of only two possible decisions: guilty, which carried the death penalty by electrocution; or not guilty, and the defendant goes free. Without an eyewitness or an admission of guilt by the defendant, any ‘reasonable’ doubt would allow the defendant to go free. This was a very bad law at the time, and I am glad it has since changed.
Bonner had been awaiting trial for assault charges for more than a year, and was free on bond when Smith died.
At the time Bonner lived with his mother, stepfather – the police officer, and younger siblings a few blocks from the station.
“When Bonner arrived home and got his stepfather’s pistol, he also got a couple of extra pistol cartridges from his step-father’s police holster. Bonner’s mother and stepfather were out of town shopping the day of the crime, so Bonner had his chance. He then made his way to my father’s filling station, where the criminal act occurred.”
Most of that, the family had surmised. But Bonner filled in missing details when Smith met with him at the prison in November.
“Bonner told me that after (he shot him), my dad’s last words were ‘My God.’ He told us he did not plan to shoot or kill my dad, but after shooting him once, he shot him the second and fatal time as my dad knew him and would have identified him,” Smith explained. “At this point Bonner was in a panic mode, and knew he had to get out fast.”
Ed Smith’s station, known today as the iconic place the younger Smith restored as an ice cream shop, was right across the street from the bank and the Florala Police Department.
Another question had bothered the family for years: How much did the robber get?
“When I asked Bonner how much money he had gotten, he said it was only about $150, as most of the bills were ones and fives. I know this to be true, as he kept this money to make change for fishing bait, flat tire repairs, grease jobs and the like.
“Bonner hurriedly left, closing the door behind him,” Smith said. “He told us the route he took home, how he reloaded the pistol on the way, and discarded the two spent shells before returning it between the mattresses in his parents’ bedroom.
“He told us he wore a jacket and that he had opened a seam up in the jacket and placed the money and money clip there, to hide it,” Smith said.
Smith described Bonner as a small man, but a man with a reputation. The Alabama Department of Corrections records describe the now 57-year-old man as 5’11, and weighing 155 pounds.
Ed Smith was 5’10”, almost 74, and weighed about 145 pounds when he was killed.
“David Bonner was feared by those who knew him. He was known to have pulled knives on teachers, and threaten them,” Smith said.
At the time of the shooting, a young man who knew Bonner and had grown up around him, was walking across the street. The eyewitness was questioned the next day, Smith said, and told police the man he had seen was a white man with blonde hair. The eyewitness said he did not know the man.
After Bonner was arrested, Smith said, the eyewitness came forward and positively identified Bonner as the man he had seen.
“His reason for recanting his story was that he was afraid of David Bonner,” Smith said. “The first statement he gave was wadded up and thrown in the trash at the Florala Police Department, a fact that would prove detrimental to the subsequent prosecution of David Bonner.”
Ed Smith was buried on Jan. 6, 1978, which would have been the Smiths’ 27th wedding anniversary. It was after the funeral services that law enforcement officers assured the Smith family the case would be “open and shut.”
“We were assured that the officer was quite remorseful and wanted justice for my family, even if it were his stepson that shot had killed Daddy,” Smith said.
The family thought their nightmare would soon have closure.
“Little did we know it would take another 38 years,” Smith said.
This year, Bonner told Smith that when he was picked up by the FPD in 1978, he was still wearing the jacket he wore when he killed Ed Smith, and that the elder Smith’s money clip and what remained of his money was hidden in the jacket lining.
“He told me he was amazed that he was not thoroughly searched,” Smith said. “He did say that he had some reefer on him that they did find. When he was taken to the Covington County jail, he still had the jacket on and again was not thoroughly searched.”
Bonner said he realized the money clip was incriminating, and threw it in the trash at the Covington County jail.
Even though Bonner had been awaiting trial on the previous charges for more than a year, the murder trial was completed in four months, before he was tried for the earlier offense. Smith believes the thinking then was if Bonner were found guilty of capital murder, there would be no need for the other trial.
“Bonner was assigned the two very best defense attorneys in the county,” Smith said. “He told me that even that surprised him, as they were far better than the court appointed lawyers that he was accustomed to.”
Star-News accounts of the trial state that Bonner was represented by then-local attorneys Harold Albritton and Sid Fuller. Ciurcuit Judge Murland Smith heard the case.
“Bonner told me that he told his attorneys that he did not rob and kill my father,” Smith said. “They did not allow him to take the stand.”
The three-day trial was held in April, just months after Smith’s death. The eyewitness who had seen Bonner at the murder scene was not allowed to testify.
“He had given two statements, and the second statement, for some legal maneuver reason, was not allowed,” he said.
Even after meeting with Bonner, Smith has unanswered questions. How did the defense team get the original false statement? He thinks he knows.
“Because Bonner’s stepfather, a member of the Florala Police Department, had gotten the original false statement, by the only eye witness, that had been thrown into the trash, and provided it to them.”
Star-News archives indicate the jury deliberated for five hours before finding Bonner not guilty.
“At the conclusion of the trial, it was obvious to me that the defense attorneys knew they had just gotten a robber and murderer off,” Smith said. “ They both knew David Bonner, Jr. had killed our father, Ed Smith. After the trial, and the not guilty verdict, Bonner’s bond on the previous charge was revoked. Even the judge knew he was guilty!”
Perhaps because Bonner walked, perhaps because of Bonner’s association with the FPD through his stepfather, conspiracy theories have circulated for years.
“We know now (they were not) true,” Smith said. “My family and the DA’s office always suspected that Bonner had an accomplice.”
A $20,000 reward was offered for information leading the arrest and conviction of an accomplice, but no suspect was identified.
“No one ever came forward because David Bonner, Jr. had acted alone and there were no accomplices in the actual act,” Smith said. “After speaking with Bonner in prison, I am convinced he acted alone.”
After serving time on the Covington County assault charge, Bonner was again accused of murder. This time, he was convicted, and in 1997 was sentenced to life in prison.
Smith said the 1978 judicial system failed everyone –including Bonner – involved in this story.
“Had Bonner been given a speedy trial for his first assault change, he would not have been able to kill my dad,” Smith said. “If he had been rightly convicted of killing Ed Smith, he would not have been able to commit his second murder in Montgomery in 1995.”
Still, the family is relieved to learn the details they’ve wondered about for years.
“My mother forgave Bonner before she passed away,” Smith said. “My sisters and I accept his apology and can now forgive him. At this point in his life, maybe David Bonner, Jr. has asked God for His forgiveness. If it has been done with a pure heart, then it has been given as well as received. “I believed that to be able to receive forgiveness, you have to be able to give forgiveness. We all need forgiveness,” Smith said.
He also expressed his family’s appreciation to District Attorney Walt Merrell and the Covington County Cold Case Task Force, particularly Chris Inabinett of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and David Harrell of the Opp Police Department, for their roles in bringing closure to the case.
Smith said that while many mistakes were made by law enforcement officers then, he is confident that those departments are now staffed by competent, professional officers, who would not make or allow the same mistakes to be made.