The only possible witness to Marsha Carter’s murder couldn’t testify. He was too young to speak.
On the the morning of Dec. 7, 1983, 25-year-old Marsha Carter’s three oldest sons woke without their mother. The boys, ages 10, 9, and 7, entered the single mother’s room to find a pool of blood on the mattress and their 10-month-old brother cowering beneath the bed. There would be no sign of the young Richmond, California, mother for another 10 days until her body turned up some 70 miles away, in the trunk of her own car in Sacramento. Without a witness or even a suspect, the case faded away without a trace, just as Marsha Carter had that foggy December morning.
Then, nearly 33 years later, police announced their first suspect in the case. On Sept. 14, the cold case reignited with the arrest of 54-year-old Sherill Smothers, Carter’s one-time boyfriend whose own brush with death was once the subject of headlines.
Smothers is quadriplegic, his spinal cord badly damaged at the neck. He cannot move below the chest, his lawyer testified during a 1991 lawsuit against General Motors. In 1988, five years after Carter’s death, Smothers had been driving his Corvette with his wife and infant son when a drunk driver rear-ended them, sending the Corvette flying upside down off the road. Smothers’s baby was ejected from the window, an accident that may have saved the child’s life. The overturned car’s roof collapsed, crushing Smothers’s neck.
But at the time of Carter’s death, Smothers was abled-bodied and living near her in the Bay Area, public records show.
“They were in a dating relationship,” Lt. Felix Tan, a public information officer for the Richmond Police told The Daily Beast, declining to address what he considers Smothers’s motive. “The prosecutor doesn't want to share that at this time,” Tan said.
Public records show Smothers was married in June 1984, just six months after allegedly slaying his once-girlfriend.
When police arrested Smothers on murder charges on Sept. 14, they placed his bail at $1.03 million, a fraction of the $6.1 million in damages he won from his lawsuit against General Motors. Now Smothers is out on bail. But for the first time in 33 years, police say they are moving in on a suspect in Marsha Carter’s slaying.
Reached by phone, members of Smothers’s family declined to comment on his arrest. Richmond Police reopened the case in 2008, as part of an effort to clear old cold cases. They were working with a slaying that had stumped investigators even in its immediate aftermath. “POLICE FIND NO TRACE OF MISSING MOTHER OF 4,” an Oakland Tribune headline had read after the hunt for Carter’s body stretched into its third day.
At the time of the murder, Smothers had been 21 and working in the circulation department of the Tribune. He’d worked for the newspaper since he’d started delivering papers at age 12.
Carter was 25, and worked for a manufacturing firm, the Oakland Tribune reported in 1983. She was in a rock band. She drove a 1975 Mercury Monarch, the same car in which her body would be discovered on Dec. 17, 1983, parked outside a Sacramento hotel. She lived with her four sons on a street of short, neat houses between two south Richmond freeways.
When Carter went missing the morning of Dec. 7, her three oldest sons ran to one of the neighbors’ houses for help, police said Saturday. When the boys returned with a neighbor, they found their baby brother hiding under Carter’s bloody mattress, rattled but unharmed and unable to tell anyone what had happened.
Police would not find their mother’s body for another 10 days, or her alleged killer for 33 years.
A grand jury hearing, conducted in secret, moved to file murder charges against Smothers in August, police announced Saturday. These charges include a special provision for murder with a knife, which could could extend Smothers’s prison sentence if convicted, the East Bay Times reports.
“The department is extremely proud of our detectives’ amazing work,” Richmond Police said in their Saturday statement. “We hope that this arrest and indictment brings some relief and closure to Marsha Carter’s family.”