HALL COUNTY - Rumors and theories swirl around the death of Phil Smith, a 55-year-old Atlanta Street man shot in the head last year that has caused “many sleepless nights” for Gainesville Police investigator Brad Raper.
“It’s the most difficult murder I’ve ever worked on,” he said of Smith’s June 15, 2015, death.
Raper said the case hasn’t gone cold, and he still conducted interviews as recently as late May.
But through all the tips and phone calls, the investigator knows he’s missing the person or persons who can crack the case.
“This case has been fraught with a lot of rumor,” Raper said. “A lot of people felt like this person had motivation to do it or this person had motivation to do it, and it’s led me in dozens of directions. A lot of roads that just ended.”
An Atlanta Street, Lisa Chester, Edwin Smith and Linda Harris all know the word that spreads on the street, the different working theories on what happened to Smith.
“The way this place talks, you will find out something,” Chester said. “If I stay gone for a week and come back, I hear about everything.”
Edwin Smith, Phil Smith’s second cousin, knows the man “never bothered anybody” and regales people with stories of the man’s fastball and dreams of going pro. Phil Smith pitched a no-hitter for Gainesville High School in the team’s 1978 state championship season.
“It’s still kind of sad that nobody’s found out what actually happened and no one’s talking,” said Smith’s friend, Mario Bush.
Raper said he’s heard theories about people inside and outside of the Atlanta Street community, but no physical evidence has confirmed these tips.
Smith’s body was found after 11 p.m. outside the N building at the apartments.
“(A friend) had said he gone inside to get a drink, and while he was inside, everything happened. He came out and found his friend,” Raper said.
Harris and Edwin Smith said they wonder why there are not more witnesses to hearing a gunshot at the apartments. Both police and residents agree that there may be some people that feel scared to come forward.
“Influences in that neighborhood or in that culture prohibit people from talking,” Raper said. “Candidly, in general, most of the people that live in that area don’t want to talk to the police to start with, and the others are influenced in such that they feel threatened to talk to the police.”
Those dynamics may be changing as the apartments on Atlanta Street are coming to an end. Gainesville City Council approved the construction of more than 250 new units at that location, which will cause residents to relocate.
“With that, I’m hoping that some of those people who were there and felt intimidated or threatened ... they might come forward,” Raper said.
But Smith’s death isn’t the only recent shooting case where witnesses are scant. Gainesville Police investigated two nonfatal shootings in late May at the apartments, where authorities said the parties involved would not cooperate.
“From the police department perspective, it’s very disheartening if the community does know information and they’re possibly withholding that information,” Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said.
The sergeant said the department has kept a “heavy police presence” there because of the data and statistics they gather on key areas to patrol.
For Raper, the kids he met during his 10 years on patrol are now teenagers and older, key relationships he has used to try and gain information on his cases.
The area is known for the drug trade, and “riffs between people” somehow or another can find their way back to Atlanta Street, Raper said.
As of last week, Raper said he does not have enough evidence to take the case to the district attorney.
“I have an idea of what happened, but I have five different versions of an idea of what happened,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
A memorial was set up for Phil Smith at the apartments where he was found, as people continue to talk and speculate on the death of a man whose friends say had no enemies.
“All I can think of is that it was just senseless,” Bush said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Raper at 770-535-3783 or firstname.lastname@example.org.