‘Somebody knows where he’s at’
Family of young man shot and killed as a bystander while others argued over $20 holds
out hope that his killer will one day be caught, even after nearly 25 years
By Gordon Anderson
The pain of losing of a loved one to murder is something that never goes away. “It’s something we think about every day. It’s something we talk about every day,” said Robert Cotten, who has owned and operated Sanford Barber College on Wicker Street in downtown Sanford for the last two decades.
Cotten lost his youngest brother Rodney in a shooting that happened on the afternoon of June 16, 1995. Rodney, 21 at the time, married with two children and working for his father in the trucking business, was sitting in the back seat of a car on East Forest Oaks Road off U.S. 1 near the Lee-Chatham county line when two other people standing some distance away got into an argument over $20.
Guns were eventually drawn, shots were fired, and Rodney — suffering the worst consequence of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time — was struck in the back of the head.
He died at the scene.
“We’ve done our best with it,” Robert explained of what losing someone to senseless violence does to a family. “There are just certain moments and times that bring it out. Family occasions, different things. You look back and you remember, but you try not to do it sadly. (Rodney’s) life wasn’t in vain because we have his children, and now his grandchildren. We’re able to love him through them.”
An outstanding warrant for first-degree murder is also something that never goes away. Not until it’s served, anyway. And sitting somewhere in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office is just that — a warrant charging Willard Eugene Smith, who lived on nearby Breezewood Road and was only 16 years old on June 16, 1995, with first degree murder.
“Everybody there knew each other. They all knew who the shooter was,” said Lt. Van Holly of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “Willard Eugene Smith fled, but based on witness statements, they were able to secure warrants for murder against him.”
But in the nearly 24 years since, authorities haven’t been able to locate Smith. There have been all kinds of rumors — sightings in locations like Philadelphia, Charlotte, New York and New Jersey, even a tip that he’d won $400,000 on a scratch-off lottery ticket right here in North Carolina and sent a family member to collect the money — but none have panned out.
Holly has a binder that’s six or seven inches thick containing all of the case files — witness statements, a wanted poster with a school photo of Smith, all of the calls the office has gotten over the years.
So far it’s been for naught. No one who worked on the case in 1995 still works at the sheriff’s office — Holly joined the office in 2006 upon the election of now-Sheriff Tracy Carter — and so that binder is essentially the combined memory of everyone who’s been involved with investigating Rodney Cotten’s killing.
“You can go through an old case file and review it, and a new, fresh set of eyes may see something that someone else didn’t notice, or might recognize something that’s important. But there are also a lot of tough parts of this case,” Holly said. “(Smith) was so young that he didn’t have a criminal history with us, and we don’t have any fingerprints on him or other ways to identify him today. We believe that more than likely he’s using an alias. Back then he was 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, but surely his appearance has changed. We have some descriptions of him, but we don’t have any current photos of him. I firmly believe his family is still in contact with him, but they’ll deny that.”
Attempts to contact members of Smith’s family for this article were unsuccessful.
Robert Cotten and the rest of his family — another brother and sister survive Rodney, as well as their mother (their father passed away last year) and Rodney’s wife and now-grown children — have had lots of contact from the sheriff’s office and the U.S. Marshals’ service over the years. Robert says they understand the difficulty the case presents and are pleased with the departments’ efforts to bring Smith to justice.
But they also wonder from time to time what more could be done.
“There’s always a question in your mind — is there something else that could be done?” Cotten said. “Because somebody knows where he’s at. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”
That said, Robert — who is also an ordained minister — said he does his best to forgive.
“I’ve seen some members of his family over the years — being in the hair business you know everybody — but I’ve never treated any of them differently than I would anyone else,” he said. “I’m sure they can help, but I know they’re also torn between blood and what’s the right thing to do. I’m not walking in their shoes. I think forgiveness is important. My brother is gone and there’s nothing that can bring him back. I just hope and pray (Smith) forgives himself, and then comes home and faces it, whatever it is.”
Cotten said there have been times the family had more hope that something would come to light — like when WRAL TV produced a brief segment on the case back in 2009 — but for the most part they’ve had to accept that closure may be something that’s out of their reach. Instead, they focus on the family — something that’s always been important to them — that Rodney left behind.
“(Rodney’s wife) got remarried, to a good, good man,” Robert Cotten said. “Nothing could have made us happier. He’s raised those children like they were his own, and there are grandchildren now.”
Lt. Holly is not exactly optimistic about closure either, given the challenges investigators face in even positively identifying a suspect as being Willard Smith.
“The only way we can prove who he is is through DNA. Even if we identify a suspect who we believe is him, we’re going to have to lay it out to a judge that we have probably cause to get his DNA. That can be from inconsistencies in his story, things like that,” he explained. “But at the same time, it’s not one of those whodunit cases. We have a warrant and we know who did it. Somebody is just going to have to come forward and say ‘I know who Willard Eugene Smith is and where he’s at.’”
Holly said the sheriff’s office stays in regular contact with Smith’s family, and some of them have said they’ve spoken with him over the years, but don’t have a way to reach him. Smith turned 40 years old last month.
“We’ve got people who know his family, who say they know for a fact that they talk with him. We have contacted his family and attempted to get him to turn himself in because this warrant isn’t going away,” Holly said. “It’s going to take someone that knows him or is close to him to give him to us. Or he’s going to have to come to conscience, but he’s been doing this for almost 25 years. It doesn’t seem to bother him.”
Anyone with information about the location of Willard Eugene Smith should call the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at (919) 718-4577. Tips can be left anonymously.