Longform

A DEADLY PRESCRIPTION

part 1 of 2
For three years, until his death in January 1994, Gary Smith's life was a nightmare of medication, hospitalizations, chemotherapy and pain--pain so severe that eventually even huge doses of morphine could not extinguish the fire that coursed through his cancer-riddled body.

"Smitty's" wife, Sue, found some comfort in the fact that her husband's death ended his earthly torment. But for her, she believed, things had hit bottom. She was only 45 and a widow. The suffering of her husband, a construction supervisor and volunteer firefighter for the small mountain community of Georgetown, had taken an emotional and financial toll on her. Things couldn't possibly get worse.

Or so she thought.
Eight months later, Sue Smith woke to find a dead man sitting on her sofa and a second corpse parked in her Ford van. Autopsies showed that the men, a houseguest and another man Sue and her roommate had invited home for food and drinks after a night on the town, had overdosed on morphine--Smitty's morphine, which Sue never threw out following her husband's death.

After the bodies were discovered, Billy Been, a semi-literate short-order cook who was also at Smith's home that night, told police Sue Smith had provided the morphine to at least one of the dead men. Sue and two other witnesses denied it, telling investigators the men must have found Smitty's stash of narcotics and taken the drugs without her knowledge.

It was a classic he said/she said battle pitting middle-class, middle-aged townspeople against young, rootless men. To date, the young and the restless have won almost every round.

Prosecutors couldn't tie Smith to the death of the man in the van, which was parked in her driveway. But she was charged with manslaughter in the death of the man found in her living room. Been's testimony--and Smith's inability to provide a plausible explanation for some of her actions--led to Smith's conviction last fall on charges of drug distribution and criminally negligent homicide. She could face as long as 24 years in prison.

Following the verdict, the families of the dead men appealed to the court to hand down a suitably harsh punishment for Smith, whom they characterized as "smug" and a liar. "I believe Billy Been," says Diane Wirtzfeld, whose 26-year-old son was found dead on Smith's couch. "[Smith] is lying through her teeth."

But many Georgetown residents believe Smith. Her friends have engaged in a letter-writing campaign urging the judge to go easy on a woman they describe as a selfless grandmother and Good Samaritan. Two days prior to Smith's scheduled sentencing, 300 townspeople bought a full-page ad in the local newspaper voicing their belief in her innocence. Even the police chief, who investigated the case and believes Smith is guilty, concedes that the drug episode appears out of character for her and suggests that her actions may have sprung from thoughtlessness and grief.

Six months after being convicted, Smith has yet to spend a day in jail, her sentencing repeatedly delayed by District Judge William Jones. The judge's rulings were prompted by a motion from Smith's attorneys, which asks the judge either to vacate the sentence or to order a new trial. The lawyers based that request on what they call "newly discovered evidence"--provided by Smith herself--that the state's star witness perjured himself. The attorneys say they believe so strongly in Smith's innocence that they have been representing her without charge since the trial.

Judge Jones has scheduled a hearing on Smith's motion for March 1. If she fails in that bid, she likely will be sentenced later that month. The uncertainty of her future has weighed heavily on Smith, who has put her house up for sale to pay her legal bills. "If I had done it, fine, I'd deserve all this," she says in a voice made gravelly by cigarettes. "But I didn't do it."

Sue Barnett and Gary Smith met in August 1989 on a blind date arranged by mutual friends from Denver. Sue was living in New Jersey at the time, running her own wholesale uniform business. Smitty, a construction engineer who supervised roofing contracts at various 3M plants, was working on a project in the area.

"We went out one weekend and we were together ever since," Sue says. When Smitty's work took him to California later that year, they launched a long-distance relationship, making numerous cross-country trips to see each other. By March 1991, the couple was ready to make a real commitment and bought a house in Georgetown, which had served as Smitty's home base for nearly twenty years.

Their choice was a compact, three-level house at the top of a hill, just minutes from the town's main street. The two of them looked forward to sprucing up the house and settling in together. But Smitty's stay would be short.

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Karen Bowers