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Part 2

Murder In a Small Town

The Theory

The group looking into Smeeman's death thinks they've found the real answer. Martin, Ashland's current police chief, first heard the story from an old-timer in town who wants to remain anonymous. He and the rest of the group now feel certain it's correct.

As they tell it, Smeeman broke up a card game of members of the Hanover Club, a men's gambling club that still meets in Ashland today. It was being held above a barber shop (now torn down) next to the old Herald-Progress building, just on the edge of the town square.

In the game that night were Mayor B. Morgan Shepherd and A.S. "Sim" Clayton, the town undertaker. Clayton and Smeeman had been business partners in the local funeral home until Smeeman sold his interest in the business because he thought he conflicted with his law-enforcement duties.

There was bad blood between Smeeman and Shepherd and Clayton, the story goes. Smeeman threatened to run them in, and Shepherd and Clayton exited the card game, one of them saying they were going to "take care of that SOB."

A shot rang out, and the rest of the men at the card table were sworn to secrecy, on threat of losing the bank notes to their homes and businesses or worse.

Mildred Davis believes the story is true. She remembers that Clayton made a big deal of refusing to let her into his house late that night when her mother wanted to drop her off there so she could look for Harry. Davis now wonders if Clayton wasn't hiding her father's body in the house. Her mother, she says, never spoke to Clayton after her father's funeral, and disliked him, though the Smeemans and Claytons had been friends and had once even lived in the same house. But some of that could also be attributed to that fact that she learned about her husband's death after Mrs. Clayton came into the Smeeman house crying "Harry's blown his brains out!"

Also pointing to Clayton, the group says, is the fact that some townspeople say Smeeman had been found in a position like he was laid out by an undertaker.

Adding to the theory's credibility is the fact that in 1974, someone anonymously sent the slain officer's widow a packet of papers from W.K. Saunders, who had recently died and was a town councilman and banker at the time of Smeeman's murder.

In 1930, Saunders had been corresponding with W. Kirk Mathews, a former judge who assisted in the prosecution of John Randolph Taylor. According to the letters, Saunders and a group of "interested citizens" paid Mathews $475, a huge sum at the time, to aid in Taylor's prosecution. The Hanover County Board of Supervisors contributed another $125.

However, according to news accounts, Mathews surprised the entire courtroom by stating at Taylor's trial that there was no evidence Taylor had anything to do with the crime.

In a letter to Saunders written after the trial, Mathews asked for his fee, reminding the councilman "while I regret the outcome of the trial may not have been what you expected and had hoped for, yet I must remind you that I rendered the services contracted."

Martin believes Saunders hired Mathews to frame Taylor and Clayman. Mathews apparently refused to prosecute a man he thought was innocent, but still demanded his fee from Saunders, possibly to guarantee his silence about the real killers.

Curiously, the anonymous person who sent the papers to Smeeman's widow labeled all of Mathews' bills with the handwritten word "blackmail." But the anonymous correspondent also included a short note: "W.K. Saunders loved Harry Smeeman and did everything he could to catch his murderers."

Another clue, the group believes, could be the fact that two weeks before his death, Smeeman contacted John Garland Pollard, a candidate for governor (who later won), with an unspecified matter. Martin's group speculates Smeeman could have been about to blow the whistle on some important town folks, possibly Shepherd and Clayton.

Using the group's theory as a hypothesis, I spent a few days of my week trying to prove or disprove it. I looked in old town records. I looked in the city archives. I found several older folks in town who said they had also heard the story about Shepherd, Clayton and the card game, but none could prove it was true. I was no closer to verifying it as anything but another colorful folk tale and my week was almost over.

One of the old-timers told me the name of a man, of course now long dead, who they said was playing cards that night and witnessed the argument between Smeeman and Shepherd and Clayton. I tracked down one of the alleged witness' nearest living relatives — a great-niece.

At first she told me that it was long known in her family that her great-uncle had "a vow of silence" about the killing and "just never, ever discussed it with anyone." However, she later called me back and said that statement was incorrect. Like everyone else from that generation, she wanted to clarify, her great uncle had simply observed an "unwritten and unspoken rule" not to talk about the killing because he "felt that speculation would serve no purpose."

Utterly frustrated, I set about trying to at least find Shepherd's and Clayton's graves. That was when I spoke with a local woman who, I was told, knew about Ashland's cemeteries. About halfway through our conversation, she suddenly asked, "Why don't you talk to Todie Grattan? He claims he knows who killed Mr. Smeeman."

The Enigma

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasAshland's current police chief, Billy Martin, has been frustrated by a wall of silence concerning the murders. Townsfolk have been quiet about whatever they knew from the very beginning, he says. "It was almost like nobody cared. It was done, it was over with and let's go on with business. It reminded me of the old wild West days." I phoned Grattan's house. His caretaker, Gene Luck, answered. Grattan has cerebral palsy, I was told, and needs a wheelchair to get around. I told Luck I was looking for information about Smeeman's killer and heard Grattan knew something.

"Oh, yeah," Luck replied casually. "Todie heard them reading the depositions when he was a boy. I don't think you'll get who the killers are out of him, though."

What? Well, then, I stammered, trying not to give away my shock, could I meet with him and see what he'll tell me?

His house was a huge, Faulkneresque Gothic mansion framed by holly trees and fragrant flowers in the yard. I was met at the door by Luck, a doughy-featured man in his 50s with a gray bowl cut and a wide smile on his broad face. A constant companion, Gene had lived there with Todie for the last 20 years.

He led me through cathedral-ceiling rooms and massive sliding oak doors past enough antiques to start a store. They were all original furnishings, I later learned. Grattan's great grandparents had built the place in 1904. Oil paintings of them hang in the hall. Nearby is a print of a girl sitting at a dressing table by candlelight that, when viewed from far away, looks like the image of a skull. The mood was set.

At the back of the house, we entered a comfortably furnished den and sun room. Sitting in his wheelchair at a computer was Todie Grattan. Funny and smart, he reminded me a little bit of Stephen Hawking, a vibrant mind locked in an uncooperative body.

His father, Robert Grattan Jr., owned an appliance shop on the town square and his mother, Rebecca, was a town councilwoman during the 1940s and '50s.

We sat across from each other, and I pulled out a notebook and jokingly asked him who Smeeman's murderers were. He talked slowly, and with great difficulty. Though it was hard to understand, the message was clear enough. "I found out," he said self-assuredly, "but it was told to my mother and father in confidence. I overheard and I don't think it would be right for me to repeat what I know."

OK. I didn't expect this. What do I do now? What if he really does know? I decided to throw out a Hail Mary and see if anything came of it. I told him the story about Shepherd and Clayton.

"That's not where it happened, or how it happened, or why it happened," he said, correcting me with utter conviction and sincerity in his voice.

A lot of folks in Ashland know that he knows something about Smeeman, but they don't know exactly what or how he knew it. Over the next hour, he slowly told me a story he has never told in detail to anyone but his friend Gene Luck. It is a secret he has kept for more than 40 years.

In the late 1950s, when Grattan was 13 or 14, a close friend of his parents, Emma Redd Craddock, came to his house for a visit, bearing a bunch of typewritten papers. Grattan was watching television in another room, and his parents and Craddock went into the living room and closed the door. It's the very same room in which I was now sitting with him, a fact that raised the hair on my arms.

Grattan, who at that time could still walk, stealthily stole up to the living room door and listened in on their conversation. To his great surprise, Craddock said she had made an amazing discovery while going through the papers of her late husband, a lawyer.

Apparently, the killers of Harry Smeeman had hired her husband to represent them in case anyone connected them to the murder. She had in her hands, she said, transcripts of the confessions the two men had made to her husband in secrecy.

[image-2]Family PhotoHarry and Lula Smeeman relax in their living room with daughter Mildred, left. Before becoming town sergeant in 1920, Smeeman was a member of Ashland Town Council, worked as a barber and ran the local Masonic farm. As Grattan tells it, he could only make out about half of the conversation, but he learned enough. "Police Chief Smeeman was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said matter-of-factly.

Smeeman had stopped at a roadhouse on the outskirts of town for a late-night cup of coffee. Outside the place, he saw two men he knew standing around in the parking lot. He went over and struck up a conversation. Unbeknown to Smeeman, the men were waiting for a truckload of bootleg whiskey to arrive at any moment.

They tried to cut short their talk with the friendly policeman, but Smeeman kept hanging around. Finally, with the time of the truck's arrival nearly at hand, one of them panicked. He pulled out a gun and killed Smeeman. "They couldn't get rid of him," Grattan said. "It was not premeditated. ... Things just got out of hand. There was no plot to kill him."

After Craddock read the statements, she swore the Grattans to secrecy and told them she was going home to burn the papers.

Ever since that day, he has never disclosed the killers' names to anyone, Grattan says, not even to Gene, his closest friend. "I know if [my parents] knew I heard, they would have sworn me to confidence, too," he says. "I wasn't supposed to know. It was none of my business."

One of his only regrets, he says with a big grin, is that he didn't eavesdrop well enough to hear everything Craddock told his parents.

All Grattan will say about the supposed killers is that the two men were alive at the time he overheard their confessions but are now long dead. They still have family members — children and grandchildren — living in Ashland, he says. Apparently there was never enough evidence to lead investigators to the two men, who were never charged, he adds.

"I wish nobody knew that I knew," he says ruefully. "I don't want to be known as the person who won't tell. ... [But] if I was going to tell, I wouldn't have waited until now. I would have told a long time ago."

Besides, he asks, what good could come of it after all this time?

How about putting Smeeman's family at ease? I ask. They want closure. This thing has been haunting them their whole lives.

But, he replies, does that good outweigh the ill that would be done to the families of the men he heard named that night, people who may not know their fathers and grandfathers were killers?

All right then, how about if you just tell his daughter and granddaughter and swear them to secrecy? I asked.

No dice. He knows Smeeman's granddaughter, Terry Shaw, and doesn't want to hurt her feelings. But he thinks it would be a time bomb waiting to happen. It would change how she felt about old friends who are family members of the killers. Also, Grattan says, he's made a personal vow never to tell. Not even on his deathbed or in his will, and today's no different.

I'd reached the end of the road. Grattan's story had just the right mixture of mundane reality to make it believable. I was so close to an answer, yet I was also possibly just as far away as when I'd started. "It's been a curiosity and everybody wants to know, but it's one of those things you should just let go of," Gene said kindly before he walked me out.

As I drove away, I remembered the words of Rosanne Shalf, the former councilwoman and town historian. If someone wrote a book about this, she said, there should be two books, or two endings, because no one knows what really happened.

I had just come to one of the endings, but without the satisfaction of knowing who did it. I felt as if someone had ripped out the last page from a mystery novel I'd been reading.

Maybe it was Clayton and Shepherd. Maybe it was Taylor and Clayman. And maybe this latest story was just another red herring.

But, looking back on my week in search of the men who killed Harry Smeeman, I also thought, maybe, just maybe, the solution to the riddle lay wrapped inside Todie Grattan's confident grin.

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