On a Sunday in August, Willie Smith Jr. and his younger brother went fishing at Spanaway Lake Park but left empty-handed. They stopped by a market on their way home and bought a yellow croaker that Smith hooked to his line for a photo before he fried it up.
“It was the best fish I ever had in my life. We had a good time,” said Jeremy Walker, 37, laughing at the memory of his brother proudly posing with his faux catch.
Eight days later, on Aug. 16, Smith, 45, was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds, lying on the ground near the entrance to Seattle’s Gas Works Park. What he was doing there at 4:30 a.m. and why someone would kill the affable, fun-loving former cook are mysteries that plague his siblings.
Walker can’t imagine that anyone would consider Smith a threat. He stood only a few inches over 5 feet and walked with a stiff gait, thanks to a cracked femur he suffered after slipping in a pothole while racing his 21-year-old nephew at a family barbecue back in Georgia.
According to Walker, Smith was wearing a white linen suit, dress shoes and a brown fedora with a red feather in the band when he was shot. Also in his possession was a small, rolling suitcase.
Detective Patrick Michaud, a spokesperson for Seattle police, said by email that homicide detectives are unable to confirm those details and there are no updates in the investigation. Anyone with information is asked to call the Seattle Police Department’s tip line at 206-233-5000.
The second of seven kids, Smith moved to the Seattle-Tacoma area from Savannah, Georgia, three months before he was killed. He was couch surfing with relatives as he settled into his new life, said Walker, who lives in Spanaway and works in landscape construction.
Smith wanted to get help with a drinking problem and find housing before his partner of more than 20 years, Phillipa Jackson, made the move from Savannah, where the couple had run a catering business, Walker said. Smith raised his stepdaughter, now a college student, from her infancy. He was affectionately known in the family as “Bugga,” a nickname derived from his older sister’s childhood attempt to say the word “brother.”
Jackson, who was planning to visit Seattle in early October for a couple weeks to celebrate Smith’s birthday, said in a phone interview from Savannah that Smith was actively looking at locations for their business, Lioness Catering. The last time they spoke, on Aug. 15, Smith, using a pet name, told her, “My Ruby, I love you.”
Smith’s death has completely upended Jackson’s life. She was teenager when they met.
“His grandmother lived around the corner from my grandmother and we met at the pool,” said Jackson, 38. “I loved him from the first day I saw him. That love never changed, it just grew.”
Explaining that Smith’s astrological sign was Libra, an air sign, and Jackson is a Leo, a fire sign, she said: “He was (the) air to my fire. My air is gone.”
Smith was buried at a Savannah cemetery on Sept. 2, his final resting place near his mother’s and grandmother’s graves, his brother said.
Walker thinks another brother, who lives in Tacoma and had hosted Smith in the days before his death, was the last family member to see Smith alive. Independent by nature, Smith regularly refused offers of rides, opting to take the bus instead, Walker said. He assumes Smith rode a bus into Seattle, but doesn’t know why.
Since returning home from his brother’s funeral, Walker said he leaves the house only to go to work and admits to feeling paranoid with Smith’s killer still on the loose. He said his address was on papers that Smith had with him when he was shot.
“I’m kind of scared to even go to the mailbox. I see strange cars I’ve never seen before and I’m noticing things I haven’t before,” he said. “It’s just scary.”
In trying to piece together his brother’s movements, Walker learned Smith — a religious man well-versed in the Bible — had researched Operation Nightwatch, a faith-based, Seattle nonprofit that offers meals and limited shelter space to people experiencing homelessness.
The Rev. Rick Reynolds, the organization’s executive director, said there are no records of Smith ever receiving services from Operation Nightwatch, which doesn’t offer addiction recovery services.
“It’s devastating for his family. You want answers and sometimes, the answers aren’t there,” said Reynolds, who has communicated with Smith’s siblings over Facebook. “It’s heartbreaking. The uncertainty of not knowing just adds to the pain.”