Crime

From child murderers to serial killers, he got them to confess, with a touch of kindness

Former Miami-Dade Police Detective Greg Smith, a member of the department’s original cold-case squad, died Saturday at age 64. He is pictured here testifying at the 2012 trial of Geralyn Graham, a foster caretaker charged with abuse and murder of foster child young Rilya Wilson.
Former Miami-Dade Police Detective Greg Smith, a member of the department’s original cold-case squad, died Saturday at age 64. He is pictured here testifying at the 2012 trial of Geralyn Graham, a foster caretaker charged with abuse and murder of foster child young Rilya Wilson. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

During his decades investigating murders, Miami-Dade Detective Greg Smith got confessions from some of the county’s most infamous killers.

He was an imposing man, tall and sturdy with long flowing hair. But Smith, who died unexpectedly Saturday at age 64, did not browbeat suspects — instead, he spent long hours chatting them up, building a rapport with patience, decency and natural charm.

That’s what happened with Albert Lucio, a suspect in the 1990 disappearance of a British businessman. Smith spent more than 20 hours in a police interview room with Lucio, who had partnered with the vanished man in a faltering surgical supply company.

“He would take as much time as possible to make you feel comfortable and relaxed,” said Smith’s former partner, retired Detective Ramesh Nyberg. “Albert was literally calling for Greg anytime he’d leave the room.”

Smith’s deft touch worked. Lucio ultimately confessed that he and two others murdered Howard Bates after the Brit discovered they’d been pilfering the company’s money. The trio buried the corpse in a swampy field.

“He not only admitted to the murder but he took us out and showed us where the body was,” recalled former homicide Sgt. David Rivers.

The case was but one success in a legendary career that stretched decades and included spearheading the department’s pioneering cold-case squad. Smith died Saturday of complications from a series of abdominal surgeries. He was 64.

Smith retired from Miami-Dade Police in 2005 and later went to work security for events at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Carnival Cruise Line, where he befriended many performers. Once for a skit, he was asked to don a kilt and appear on stage at the Hard Rock alongside comedian Martin Short.

Smith was born on April 19, 1953, in Baltimore. In 1968, his family moved to South Florida, where he graduated high school, earned an associate’s degree from Miami-Dade College and joined the police department in 1974.

He worked patrol and general investigations before joining homicide. In 1983, he joined detective John LeClaire and Sgt. James Ratcliff to start the department’s cold-case squad, dedicated to solving murders long since left unsolved in the frenzy of violence that engulfed South Florida at the time.

They pored over hundreds of dusty case files, tracking down witnesses, analyzing crime scene photos, reconstructing the final hours of the dead. “We don’t have the benefit of being at the scene, but it doesn’t take long to get a feeling and feel like the case is yours,” Smith told the Miami Herald in January 1984.

The first case they reopened was the 1982 murder of 10-year-old Staci Weinstein, who was shot to death inside her North Miami home. Within six months, the squad arrested two carpet cleaners who killed Staci after trying to rape her. Both men were convicted.

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Marvin Weinstein, 67, whose 10-year-old daughter Staci was shot and murdered by two Stanley Steamers carpet cleaners in 1982. Greg Smith, one of the Miami-Dade cold-case detectives who arrested the men, died Saturday at age 64. CHARLES TRAINOR JR Miami Herald

Among the criminals he helped capture:

▪ Earle Bernath, who murdered tourist Charles Joseph Mourey in 1960. Mourey had been Gen. George Patton’s wartime chauffeur. The killer was arrested in 1983, confessed and pleaded guilty.

▪ Two men who murdered Genevieve Abraham, wife of prominent car dealer and philanthropist Anthony Abraham, and her friends, during a burglary in Coral Gables in 1984. Both men were convicted.

▪ Robert “Bobby” Young and Ben Kramer, the pair who murdered famous Miami speed boat mogul Don Aronow. He was found shot to death in his Mercedes-Benz outside his office in Northeast Miami-Dade in 1987.

In another high-profile case, Smith got weightlifter and killer Danny Lugo to take him to the dismembered bodies of Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton, who had been kidnapped and tortured in 1995. How Smith got him to confess: He asked Lugo to pray, then questioned him about the nightmares the killer suffered from cutting up the bodies.

Closure in some cases remained elusive, including that of the murder of Coral Gables officer Walter Stathers, who was shot to death by a prowler in 1967. His death is one of two unsolved police murders in Miami-Dade County history.

“I had the file on my desk for 20 years,” Smith told the Herald in 2007 for a story on the 40th anniversary of the killing. “It was one of those cases you just don’t want to put back on the shelf. It was just a horrible case. I would have loved to have closed it.’”

Smith chased many more suspected killers whose cases went to trial after he retired in 2005.

That included ex-FBI agent John Connolly, who helped Boston mobsters assassinate a Miami gambling executive; Geralyn Graham, the caretaker accused of murdering foster child Rilya Wilson in the early 2000s, and Clifford Friend, who murdered his ex-wife and dumped her body at sea.

All were convicted and sent to prison.

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Ex-FBI agent John Connolly is serving a 40-year sentence for the 1982 murder of gambling executive John Callahan. Greg Smith, one of the Miami-Dade homicide detectives on the case, died Saturday at age 64. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald

Even after the cases were complete, some of the killers kept in touch, former colleagues recalled.

“After their convictions, they would call him just to chat, knowing he would take their call,” said former detective Jarrett Crawford.

And relatives of the victims kept in touch, too — the daughter of Bates, the murdered British businessman, even visited Smith in the hospital earlier this year.

“That’s how special he became in their lives,” said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague, Smith’s longtime partner. “He had a lot of empathy and sympathy for the next of kin.”

Outside of work, Smith was a devoted Catholic. At St. Mark Church in Southwest Ranches, Smith ran the annual Christmas tree sale, organized the spring carnival and even scrubbed the church’s fountains. He also helped run the pumpkin patch at the neighboring Methodist church. “His life was all about giving and helping,” Hoague said.

Smith is survived by his older brother, Michael Smith, 65, and twin siblings, Timothy Smith and Annie Smith, both 61. Services are pending.

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