Samuel L. Smithers was probably on his way to becoming a serial murderer when he was tripped up by a landlord who happened to stumble across his killing fields. At the very least, Smithers — today known as the Deacon of Death — was a killer who tossed away his victims like so much dirty tissue when he was finished with them.
A former church deacon in Plant City, Florida, Smithers is currently on death row in Starke’s Florida State Prison for the murders of Christy Cowan and Denise Roach, a pair of Tampa prostitutes who had the misfortune of crossing Smithers’s path in 1996.
At that time, Smithers attended church with a woman who owned a vacant house on 27 fenced acres with three ponds in Plant City. In 1995 she hired Smithers to perform general caretaking work at the property because she was trying to sell it and needed to keep it well maintained.
Smithers was given a key to gate and garage, but because he had no need, was not given access to the house.
The arrangement continued through 1996 and on May 26 of that year Smithers was paid by the woman for mowing work he did a week earlier. Two days after paying Smithers, the property owner decided to pay an early evening visit to the house and was somewhat surprised to find Smithers’s car in the driveway and the caretaker cleaning an axe in the garage amid a large puddle of blood.
He told the woman told her that someone must have come by and killed a small animal. He assured her that he would clean up the mess.
She subsequently left the house but bothered by the blood and Smithers’s odd story, the woman called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. A deputy met her at the house later that evening and they found that the site had been cleaned up. However, the deputy noticed what appeared to be drag marks in the grass leading towards one of the ponds. He followed the drag marks down to the pond and discovered a woman’s dead body floating in the water. She was identified as Cristy Cowan.
Cowan, 31, had once dreamed of becoming a nurse but had fallen on hard times after becoming addicted to drugs. She had been feeding her habit most recently by working as a prostitute.
Cowan’s mother in Connecticut told the Tampa Tribune that her child moved to Florida with her boyfriend and their two children because she loved the beach and the warm weather. But after failing an entrance exam for nursing school she became depressed and turned drugs for consolation. The drugs inevitably led to estrangement from her family and to prostitution.
“She wanted to straighten out, but she just couldn’t,” another friend told the Tribune reporter. “If they had put her in jail and kept her there for a few years, she would have had time to think about what she was doing.”
At the time Cowan’s body was discovered, she had not been dead for more than a couple of hours, the medical examiner said. There was a foam cone around her mouth which suggested that she might have drowned. Cowan had an injury to her eye, a laceration under her lip, a blunt impact injury to her jaw, a chop wound on the top of her head which penetrated her brain, and a chop wound behind her ear. She also had injuries consistent with manual strangulation. The ME stated that death was caused by strangulation combined with the chop wounds.
While police were examining the crime scene a dive team subsequently discovered a second dead female body in another part of the pond. She was later identified as Denise Roach.
The 24-year-old died of a skull fracture after she was beaten and stabbed in the head. They identified her body by matching fingerprints from records in the Hillsborough County Jail, where she served 10 days for prostitution in 1995.
The medical examiner would later testify that Roach’s body had been in the pond seven to ten days and was therefore very decomposed. There were two slits in Roach’s clothing which were caused by a sharp instrument. Her face and skull were fractured. There were also sixteen puncture wounds to her skull, several of which penetrated the skull. Finally, she had injuries consistent with manual strangulation (the hyoid bone was fractured; there was petechial hemorrhaging and bruising around the neck). The medical examiner stated that death was caused by the combined effects of strangulation, stab wounds, and blunt impact to the head.
A search of the house revealed a condom wrapper in one of the bedrooms and a semen stain on the carpet. Test results established that Cowan could not have contributed to this stain, but Roach and Smithers could not be excluded. A fingerprint taken from the kitchen was identified as having been made by Smithers. Roach’s DNA was consistent with a blood stain found in the carport. Shoe prints by the pond matched shoes found in Smithers’ home.
Also, Smithers and Cowan were seen on a convenience store videotape about an hour before the owner surprised Smithers. The videotape depicted Smithers and Cowan entering and leaving the store together.
Two detectives went to Smithers’s home and Smithers agreed to accompany them to the Sheriff’s Office for an interview. Smithers requested that his wife join them during an interview that lasted nearly three hours, and later he agreed to return the next morning to take a polygraph test.
Upon returning the following morning, Smithers took the lie detector test and failed. He subsequently admitted that he killed Cristy Cowan and Denise Roach. Smithers told police a fanciful tale that tended to lessen his own culpability for the women’s deaths.
As for Cowan’s death, Smithers claimed he was coming home from work when he spotted a car on the side of the road. He stopped to assist the driver (Cowan) and drove her to a convenience store. Once back in his truck, Cowan demanded money and threatened to accuse him of rape if he did not give her money. Smithers drove Cowan to the property that he maintained and gave her all the money that he had.
Smithers went on to say that Cowan still was not satisfied and she threw a drink at him.
Losing his temper, he picked up an axe and struck Cowan in the head. She fell down unconscious and he dragged her to the pond. He returned to the carport to rinse off the axe when the property owner arrived.
Although the woman would later testify that she heard nothing, Smithers said that during the time his employer was present, he could hear Cowan making noises from the pond. When the owner left, Smithers went back to the pond and hit Cowan in the head “to shut her up.” He also threw some tree limbs at her.
Smithers told an equally unlikely story about how Roach was murdered.
On May 7, Smithers was at the property mowing the lawn when he saw Roach. Confronting the woman, Smithers was told that she had permission to be on the property. When Smithers returned on May 13, Roach was still there. Smithers asked her to leave and she refused. Roach then hit Smithers on the arm and Smithers punched Roach in the face. Smithers said that Roach picked up a planter in the carport and threw it at Smithers’s truck, causing a dent. Smithers shoved Roach against the wall, causing a piece of wood to fall down from a shelf and hit her on the head. Roach fell to the ground unconscious. Smithers left the property, but he returned the next day and dragged her body to the pond. He cleaned up the blood with mop and a bucket of water.
Police gave Smithers’s tales the consideration they deserved and subsequently arrested him on two counts of first degree murder.
At trial, prosecutors presented the testimony of several witnesses who stated that both Cowan and Roach were prostitutes and worked in the same location. One hooker testified that she had previously “dated” Smithers, who offered her extra money to go with him to the property, but she refused. Another prostitute testified that on the day Cowan disappeared, she gave her a condom. This condom was similar to the condom wrapper found at the crime scene.
Other circumstantial evidence weighed against Smithers, including a videotape of him and Cowan at a nearby convenience store a while before Smithers was confronted at the property.
The deacon wasn’t finished with his stories and testified in his own defense. This time his explanation was even more far-fetched. He testified that he lied to detectives because he was scared his family would be hurt if he told the truth.
It turns out that the incident actually began months earlier when he was a deacon at his church. A girl named Mimi was on probation and was fulfilling her community service requirement at the church. Smithers was Mimi’s supervisor. Mimi, however, could not complete her hours and she therefore offered to have sex with Smithers if he would alter her records. He agreed.
Weeks later, Smithers was approached by a man he knew only as Mr. X who was aware that Smithers was taking care of the property. Mr. X, who had a photograph of Smithers and Mimi having sex, asked Smithers if he could use the property for a drug transaction. Mr. X said he would go public with the picture if Smithers did not cooperate. Smithers agreed to let Mr. X use the property. On two separate occasions, Mr. X contacted Smithers and asked Smithers to meet him at the property to unlock the gate.
Several people were present during the first visit to the property, including Denise Roach. Roach got into an argument with Mr. X and Mr. X hit Roach in the head with a hatchet. Smithers claimed that he just stood and watched. Mr. X then approached Smithers and hit him with a tire tool. He ordered Smithers to drag Roach’s body to the pond. Mr. X told Smithers that he would kill his family if he did not keep quiet.
Ten days later, Mr. X again asked Smithers to meet him at the property. This time Cristy Cowan was present. Several people went inside the house to conduct business. Afterwards, Mr. X ordered Smithers to go inside the house and clean up. When Smithers returned outside, Cowan’s dead body was lying in the carport. Mr. X and his cohorts left and Smithers dragged the body to the pond and returned to clean up the carport.
It was at this time that the property owner arrived at the property and the crimes were revealed.
Just as the detectives had done months before, jurors gave Smithers’s stories the consideration they deserved and convicted him on both counts. He was subsequently sentenced to death.
On appeal (so far) the only major controversy has been whether the cases should have been severed and tried seperately.
What really makes the Smithers decision interesting to true crime aficionados is that few court opinions cite so many different front-page murders as precedent. In upholding Smithers’s conviction and death sentence the Florida Supreme Court cited the cases of two high-profile serial killers (Ted Bundy and Danny Rolling), and the appeal of Kosta Fotopolous, whose story was was so eloquently recounted elsewhere on The Malefactor’s Register.
The relevant Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure states “Joinder of Offenses. Two or more offenses that are triable in the same court may be charged in the same indictment or information in a separate count for each offense, when the offenses . . . are based on the same act or transaction or on 2 or more connected acts or transactions.”
The court explained that “the acts joined for trial must be considered in an episodic sense.” For joinder to be appropriate the crimes in question must be linked in some significant way.
In the past this has meant that the crimes must have occurred during a “spree” interrupted by no significant period of respite (Bundy) or the crimes must have been causally related to each other, even though there may have been a significant lapse of time (Fotopoulos). But the mere fact of a general temporal and geographic proximity has not been sufficient in itself to justify joinder except to the extent that it helps prove a proper and significant link between the crimes.
There is clearly a “meaningful relationship” between the two crimes and they are without question “linked in some significant way.” Under these circumstances, we find that the trial court did not err in denying Smithers’ motion to sever.
Smithers remains on Florida’s death row while his case is considered by the federal courts.