In her new book Masking Evil: When Good Men and Women Turn Criminal, biographer Carol Anne Davis examines how man of God Sam Smithers became a murderer...
Everyone said that Samuel Smithers was a really nice guy – a family man who was custodian at the First Baptist Church in Plant City, Florida.
Everyone except the young women who were forced to spend time alone with him…
He embarrassed and frightened them by making explicit comments and suggesting they have sex.
Some reported his conduct and, by 1994, the church asked him to have psychological counselling.
He refused and they asked him to resign, which he duly did.
Sam Smithers had received counselling before, in 1986 when he lived in Tennessee.
Working as a church deacon, he’d started several fires and attempted to help put them out – hoping to be hailed as a hero.
But police became suspicious. An enquiry showed these were arson attacks – and that Sam Smithers was responsible.
He resigned from the church but they forgave him. The state showed leniency, giving him a three-to-five-year sentence, suspended on account of his good behaviour.
The former deacon moved to Florida with his wife Sharon, and he got a job as an electrician’s apprentice and was respected as a good, steady worker.
He was also a loving husband.
But he led a secret life sneaking out to see prostitutes when his wife went to bed.
By the late 80s, he was working as a church custodian, while Sharon was a teacher’s aide and their adopted son was at college.
He had loving sex with his wife, but what he really wanted was rough intercourse.
Hence his treatment of women at his church which led to his resignation.
Smithers had endured beatings from his devoutly religious mother who was still taking off her belt to him in their hometown of East Ridge, Tennessee when he was 17.
She told the boys that premarital sex was sinful and that prostitutes deserved to be killed.
By 1996, Sam was picking up prostitutes on the street.
That May, he met streetwalker Denise Roach, 24.
He drove her to a remote house where he was caretaker and took her to a bedroom. Afterwards they walked out into the yard, where he beat her repeatedly on the head and strangled her to a point of near unconsciousness.
He then stabbed her in the face and head – several of the wounds cutting so deeply that they penetrated her brain.
The man of God dragged the still-warm corpse to a nearby pond and threw her in, before going home to mow the lawn…
Within a fortnight, he was ready to kill again.
The victim was 31-year-old prostitute Christy Cowan.
He drove her to the same house.
Then Smithers grabbed an axe and brought it down on her head.
She was still alive, so he strangled her before dragging her body to the pond.
At that very moment he heard a car drive up ,and went to meet the driver – the resident of the property. She stopped and stared at the pool of blood on the garage floor.
Smithers stammered that someone must have killed a squirrel – then froze as he heard moaning coming from the direction of the pond. Christy Cowan was still alive…
Alarmed, the woman left and contacted the sheriff, who found Christy’s recently deceased body and Denise’s decomposing remains in the stagnant pond. Smithers had finished Christy off by battering her with a garden hoe.
A police officer went to the former deacon’s home, and he was arrested.
Samuel Smithers’ trial began on 15 December 1998.
The jury heard from a forensic expert that semen found on a rug in the bedroom of the house where Smithers was caretaker. .
Smithers testified in his own defence.
He took the stand, and said that he’d had adulterous sex with a woman at his church called Mimi.
He said a mysterious man had seen them, taken photographs and threatened to tell Sharon about the liaison if he didn’t give him access to the house he was tending. This man, he added, had killed both women and made him dispose of their bodies.
The prosecution asked Smithers what Mimi’s surname was. He didn’t know. What about the name of the mysterious man, then? He didn’t know that either. Why hadn’t he gone to the police? He said he’d feared the mysterious man would kill his family…
His story soon fell apart.
The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on both counts.
At the penalty phase, the prosecution said that both murders were premeditated – he’d chosen to take both women to a remote location where he could butcher them and dispose of the bodies.
The defence argued that the killer had been so traumatised by his abusive childhood that he hadn’t really known what he was doing.
His wife said that he had been a wonderful husband.
He had told her that it’d felt as if someone else had committed the murders.
But the jury were unconvinced and recommend that he be put to death.
Samuel Smithers now resides on death row, awaiting his date with the electric chair.
‘A toxic mix’
Carol Anne Davis says: Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest, so it’s no surprise that Sam Smithers was attracted to the prostitutes his mother hated. She raised him with a toxic mix of violence and sexual repression, and he was never allowed to relax, make friends or forge his own identity. He tried to live up to her ideals, got married and devoted his life to religion – but the deep wounds formed during his brutalising childhood never went away. Eventually, his mingled lust and rage rose to the surface, and prostitutes were used, beaten, strangled and left to die…
Carol Anne Davis’ book Masking Evil: When Good Men and Women Turn Criminal is available now on amazon.