An elderly kidnapping victim took the stand July 18 to describe two days during which she was carjacked, robbed, thrown into the trunk of her car and left there without food, water or medication.
Delaware State Police found Margaret Smith pantless, shoeless and disoriented in a graveyard, March 20, and took her to a hospital. Charged in the case were Junia McDonald, 14; Jackeline Perez, 15; Rondaiges Harper, 17; and Phillip Brewer, 17.
When police first interviewed Smith, her recollection of events was scattered, and family members told them she was suffering from the early stages of dementia.
Entering Sussex County Superior Court for a facts and circumstances hearing, Smith walked with a cane, and needed some assistance making her way from one side of the courtroom to the other.
As she testified, she spoke clearly and appeared mentally alert, clad in a zebra-print top and pearl earrings.
Smith said she drove her tan 2001 Buick La Sabre from her home on Slaughter Neck Road to the Chicken Man gas station in Milford to get an ice cream cone. She said she had planned to go to Walmart afterward to buy a present for her sister, and she was carrying more than $500 in cash. “I had it wrapped up in my bosom,” she said.
Smith said at the gas station two teenage girls knocked on her window and asked for a ride. “First, I said ‘no,’” she said.
Smith said she then changed her mind. “I thought, ‘you’re not doing anything, you can take them a little ways,’” she testified.
Smith said she took the girls to two separate residences, planning to drop them off, but the girls didn’t go into either one. Then asked Smith for her keys.
“I said, ‘Oh no,’” Smith testified. “Then they started pulling.”
Smith said she struggled to keep her car keys from the girls, but they overpowered her. She said she doesn’t remember whether she was pulled out of the car or got out purposely during the struggle, but one of the girls hit a button on her keys that popped the trunk open. She said the girls then pushed Smith into the trunk and sped off. “They took off really fast; there was nothing I could do,” she said.
Smith said for two days she went without food, beverages or her daily medications, which the 89-year-old uses to treat arthritis and a heart condition. Smith said she hollered from the trunk that she needed to use the restroom. “They ignored me,” she said. “They turned the radio as loud as they could get it up.”
Smith said she was cold and scared in the trunk, which was empty except for a few tools. “It’s pretty much not knowing whether you’re going to get out or not,” she testified.
The girls took her money and spent the night in a motel, she said. “They went on in and left me out there all night long,” she said.
Smith vaguely recounted the graveyard where police say her kidnappers released her from the trunk and left. “I seen that I was in a cemetery, but I didn’t know my way out,” she said. “I got on my hands and knees and crawled, trying to get to where there was an opening.”
“I was just trying to get to the road,” she said.
In April, a grand jury indicted four juveniles in Smith’s kidnapping, and the state vowed to try the teens as adults. McDonald and Perez, both of Milford, were charged with one count each of first-degree carjacking, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery and three counts of second-degree conspiracy. Harper and Brewer, both of Bridgeville, were indicted on one count each of first-degree carjacking, first-degree kidnapping and two counts of second-degree conspiracy.
Only Jackeline, Junia and Rondaiges were subject to the facts and circumstances hearing.
Attorney John Brady, representing Rondaiges, asked if Smith recognized anyone in the courtroom.
“Not really,” Smith said.
Brady asked if Smith spoke with anyone besides the two teenage girls during her kidnapping. Smith said she had not.
Attorney Vincent Vickers, representing Perez, asked if it was possible the teens offered Smith food or medicine. “I don’t remember,” she said.
Smith also said the girls may have put her in the trunk of a different car before dropping her off at the cemetery.
Vickers said some parts of Smith’s account are variable but other parts remained consistent, including that one of the girls was black and one was white. Jackeline is Hispanic and bears a birthmark above her left eye, which Smith, who wears glasses, never mentioned when asked to further describe the girls.
Delaware State Police Cpl. James Gooch testified he was called to the cemetery on March 20 by Betty Edwards, who told him she found a confused woman who had at first tried to run from her.
Gooch also said Smith gave Edwards a few different answers when she asked her name.
When Gooch arrived at the cemetery, he said, Smith was wearing a long winter coat. “No pants, no shoes,” he said. “I noticed her knees were scratched up and dirty.”
Gooch said Smith first told him she had walked to the cemetery from her home in Lincoln. She then told him about the two girls.
Gooch also testified Smith told him the girls took the Buick to the top of hill and let the vehicle coast into a body of water below while she remained locked inside, meaning to kill her.
After Smith was taken to the hospital for treatment, Gooch said a nurse found $800 cash rolled up and stuffed into Smith’s bra.
Detective Robert Truitt said he interviewed Smith after she was released from the hospital on the same day police found in her in the cemetery. Truitt said Smith was not thinking or speaking clearly at the time, and her niece told him she was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia. “She was off, healthwise,” he said.
Police recount suspect interviews
Trooper Patrick Schlimer said he pulled over five teens on March 20 in Smith’s Buick – the four defendants and Deniaya Smith, 15, of Bridgeville – and took them to Troop 4 for questioning.
Truitt said he interviewed Junia, Jackeline and Deniaya; he watched a videotaped interview with Rondaiges.
Truitt said Rondaiges did not know Smith was in the trunk when he entered the car with Junia and Jackeline, but he later discovered her there and did nothing to free her.
When interviewed, Junia said Jackeline had taken Smith to the graveyard alone, Truitt said. When asked why she kidnapped Smith, Truitt said Junia told him, “I don’t know. I was trippin’.”
In a March 21 interview, Jackeline said Junia asked Smith for her keys before the two girls forced her into the trunk.
According to Jackeline, she and Junia picked up Rondaiges and Phillip in the Coverdale area, spent the night in a hotel in Seaford and used Smith’s money to pay for the room, gas, food and bags of clothes from Walmart, Truitt testified. Jackeline also told him all four teens dropped Smith off in the graveyard.
State prosecutor Melanie Withers showed pictures of the trunk of the Buick, which contained an egg crate mattress pad and a pile of clothing. Detective Michael Patrick Maher testified he examined the Buick, and the trunk also contained an iPod Light and unopened cans of ginger ale, but no food or food wrappers.
Withers asked if there was any odor coming from inside the truck. Maher said the trunk contained a strong urine smell.
Vickers asked if police failed to inventory some of the contents of the trunk. Maher said he found a bag of tools in the trunk that he did not inventory.
Maher said on March 29 he went to the cemetery where Smith was found, located on Calvary Lane, a dirt road four miles east of Seaford. “You don’t even know the cemetery’s back there,” he said. “It’s very desolate.”
Near the entrance to the cemetery, Maher said he found a pair of jeans, a black reusable Ace Hardware bag containing Smith’s medications and a black metal cane propped against a tombstone.
Attorneys attempt to hold private hearing
Before testimony began, John Daniello, representing Junia, and Vickers requested the hearing be closed to the public. The small courtroom gallery contained fewer than 15 people, including family members of the defendants and three members of the press.
“This case has received quite a bit of media attention,” Daniello said. He said some information presented at the hearing might not be admissible when the case goes to trial.
Vickers noted a July 8 suppression hearing was closed to the public in a pending case against former Senate candidate Eric Bodenweiser, who is accused of raping a young boy in the late 1980s.
“That was because of notoriety,” said Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes.
Vickers argued his case received national media attention. “It’s even more appropriate than the Bodenweiser case,” he said.
Stokes said Bodenweiser is an adult and a public figure. He ruled there was no need to close the proceedings.
Stokes approved Vickers’ request to have chains removed from the defendants’ hands. Vickers said with the chains on, Jackeline was unable to reach the defense table to write him notes.
Stokes made no ruling when the hearing was over. Separate reverse amenability hearings – to decide whether to transfer the case to Family Court – are scheduled for Jackeline, Junia and Rondaiges in the coming weeks.