Four years ago this week, I was in Keene, N.H, (at my girlfriend’s place at the time) when I received a phone call that I will remember for the rest of my life — a call I never wanted to receive.
“Rony, I have some bad news. It’s Denita Smith; she’s dead. She was murdered outside her apartment a few hours ago.”
For those unfamiliar with this story: Denita Monique Smith was a graduate student at NCCU in the Department of English and Mass Communication. I met her in fall 2003, when I was a freshman and she was a senior.
Denita was one of those upperclassmen at the Campus Echo who took me under her wing. If I needed a ride to Wal-Mart, she would take me. Denita was one of the handful of folks who not only helped me adjust to college life away from home but Southern culture, as well. She was truly a genuine, wonderful person, who would always brighten someone’s day. She was dedicated to her academics and the communications industry.
During her undergrad years, Denita worked for the Campus Echo as a staff photographer and reporter. In May 2004, she became the second person from my alma mater to participate in the New York Times Student Journalism Institute at Dilliard University in New Orleans, an elite two-week program for student journalists. When she came back to graduate school in 2005, Denita continued to work for the Campus Echo as a staff writer and copy editor while writing her master’s thesis, in which she explored black male identity in the works of Richard Wright and Tupac Shakur.
In 2006, Denita became engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Jermeir Stroud, an NCCU alumnus and police officer with the officer with the Police Department in Greensboro, N.C.. Life seemed to be going her way.
That all changed on the morning of Jan. 4, 2007. Around 8 a.m., Denita was leaving her off-campus apartment when she was shot and killed in cold blood by Shannon Elizabeth Crawley, 27, a former Guilford County Metro 9-1-1 dispatcher.
It turned out that Stroud (who later in admitted to this in court) had been seeing Denita and Crawley at the same time. According to media reports from the trial, Crawley had allegedly become pregnant with Stroud’s child. She later aborted the pregnancy. According to testimony, Stroud called off the relationship with Crawley to propose to Denita. Crawley found out, she reportedly drove to Durham and shot Denita.
It took nearly three years for a trial and conviction. Crawley was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There is currently an appeal. I really don’t want to write about the trial itself as I still have not received the transcripts.
It was a crazy case with the defense presenting an array of theories. National and international media covered the trial well (I appeared on Oxygen’s “Snapped” back in October 2010 post-trial). I write and speak freely about this in hopes that people won’t forget the following:
- This could have been easily been avoided. Instead, two lives have been permanently been destroyed.
- The Smith family will not get Denita back. They have lost the opportunity to make future memories with her.
- Crawley’s children will grow up seeing their mother behind metal bars and security glass.
- Stroud will live for the rest of his days knowing that his mistake caused all this pain.
- The N.C. Central University community has lost a great Eagle who could have one day returned to NCCU with a Ph.D. to teach English literature with passion or be a great mentor.
- The journalism community lost one heck of a talented writer, proofreader and photographer.
I don’t usually live with regrets, but I never did get a chance to call Denita on Christmas Day 2006 or New Year’s Day 2007. I had always done that with all the staff because I wanted know how everyone’s families were doing during the holiday.
I never imagined I would lose a staff member during my tenure as editor-in-chief. Being in New Hampshire on the day the tragedy happened made it even worse (not that my presence in Durham would have changed anything that day). I opted not to call anyone that year because, frankly, I wanted a rest from NCCU during Christmas break. This saddens me to this day.
My last conversation with Denita was on the final day of the semester before the Christmas break. She was excited and bubbly about her new engagement and even more excited that she’d just became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (which at the time as a journalist, I didn’t really approve but that’s a blog post for another time).
I didn’t really understand the concept of Pan-Hellenic Organizations on the yard and their ultra dramatic yet oh-so-secretive culture, but I respected it.
She said, “Rony, you should be happy for me.”
And after thinking about it for a moment, I replied: “You know what, I am Denita. I know it means a whole lot to you. Congrats! I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas. I’ll talk to you soon.”
In my living room, there is a photo (pictured above) that Denita took of the NCCU Champagne Cheerleaders huddling with the men’s basketball team from January 2004 in Charlotte. I have it because I was with her that day. I still remember when she took it. She had given me a ride to Charlotte so I could visit an old friend from high school.
With that said, you’re not forgotten, Denita. You have a newsroom named after you even when the university threatened not to do it. We got it done. It’s how we young Eagles roll — no nonsense.
In remembrance of you.