When worlds collide: B.J. Smith gets his day in court

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B.J. Smith

By Alan Bean

I have been following the case of B.J. Smith for well over a year now.  His plight was brought to my attention by a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth where Mr. Smith was once a member.  Like George Zimmerman, Smith is accused of using his gun to kill a man; only in this case, the shooting victim was carrying a knife and threatening bodily harm.

B.J. Smith is on trial because the two primary shaping influences in his life, the US Navy and the Christian faith, collided in the moments after Robert Fowler died.  The military taught Smith how to use deadly force.  Don’t draw your weapon unless you mean to use it, B.J. was told, but if you start firing, don’t stop until the enemy is no longer a threat.

That advice makes sense on the battle field, but in civilian life it can get a military vet into trouble.

Questioned by police shortly after the shooting, Smith was in the throws of self-recrimination.  His Christian faith taught him to turn the other cheek, to forgive his enemies, to return good for evil.  Had he followed this teaching?  Perhaps he should have stopped firing when Fowler was on the floor.  Maybe, if he had, a dead man would still be alive.  Smith was thinking out loud, and in a trial that started last week in Port Angeles, Washington, the prosecution is making the most of his unguarded statements.

While attending Broadway Baptist Church, B.J. Smith was a student at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.  In those days, Broadway and the Baptist Seminary were virtually sister institutions; now Southwestern professors cannot attend Broadway (it’s a long story).  The Fort Worth seminary has always been an evangelical hothouse, and the teaching B.J. Smith received there stuck with him.

So did his long stretch with the US Navy.  B.J. Smith suffers from PTSD.  I suspect the same was true of his victim, an ex-marine.  Smith and Smith didn’t choose to live next door to a man who self-medicated with illegal drugs; but when you don’t have an income, unstable neighbors are generally part of the package.

What if B.J. Smith had never signed on with the Navy?  What if he had graduated from Southwestern, maintained a solid marriage, and settled into a string of progressively more prestigious pastorates?  What if?

But that’s not what happened.  B.J. Smith joined the military and learned how to kill people.  Faced with a psychotic neighbor, the old military training kicked in.  Then, struggling to come to terms with his violent reaction to his neighbor’s sinister behavior, Smith’s Christian training surfaced.

I am pleased that the local media chose to cover the trial.  Too often, overworked reporters show up for opening arguments then disappear until the verdict is announced.  Unfamiliar with the facts of the case, they take a statement from the DA and fire off a story.  Either that, or they ignore the courtroom drama altogether.

But Rob Ollikainen was on hand to hear B.J. Smith’s testimony.  That’s a very good thing.

I was also pleased that defense attorney Karen Unger chose to put her man in the witness box.  Most defense attorneys, working on the naive theory that they don’t have to prove a defendant’s innocence, won’t let their clients testify.  It’s a safe strategy since it keeps the prosecution from asking inconvenient questions or bringing up prior offenses.  But jurors understand none of that.  All they know is that if their life was on the line, they would want to defend themselves.  If the defendant won’t get on the stand, jurors think they must have something to hide.

But B.J. Smith has nothing to hide.  That’s why he’s in so much trouble.  If you’re the praying kind, say a prayer for B.J. Smith and the people who love him.

By Rob Ollikainen

Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Bobby “B.J.” Smith carried a concealed pistol in his back right pocket in the days leading up to the shooting death of his next-door neighbor because he was concerned for his and his daughter’s safety, he told police.

Smith, 60, is on trial for first-degree murder in the death of 63-year-old Robert Fowler, who was found shot to death in Smith’s living room June 20, 2011.

The trial began with jury selection Monday.

Recorded interview

In a recorded interview with Port Angeles Detective Jason Viada, Smith said Fowler was “delusional” and that his neighbor had threatened to cut Smith’s throat if he did not loan him $20.

“He says, ‘Give me the goddamn money,’” Smith told Viada in an interview that was played to the jury Tuesday.

“I went, ‘No, Robert,’ and backed up.

“He says, ‘You know that my hands are registered with the government, and I can kill you in an instant with my hands. Give me the money!’”

Smith said he drew his .45-caliber pistol when Fowler, an ex-Marine, walked toward him gripping a leather-handled knife in his right hand.

“I pulled [the gun] out, and he says, ‘I’m not scared of that,’ and kept coming toward me,” Smith said an the interview that was recorded shortly after the early afternoon shooting on Vashon Avenue in south Port Angeles.

“Well, I didn’t wait for him to get close,”Smith said in the recording. “I didn’t know he could throw a knife or how quick he was.”

Smith said he fired two rounds, as he was trained to do in the Navy, and saw blood on Fowler’s left shoulder.

Fowler then stumbled up the stairs, where Smith’s daughter, Bethany, who had recently completed her senior year in high school, was just waking up, Smith told Viada.

“I went, ‘There’s no way you’re getting to my daughter,’” Smith said.

“’My daughter’s up there, and you’re not going up those stairs, so I’m stopping you right now,’” he said.

After Smith fired two or three more rounds through the stairway railing, Fowler came down the stairs and faced him again, Smith told Viada.

Shot in torso

Knowing that his pistol carried only nine rounds, Smith told Viada that he aimed carefully and shot Fowler in the torso, dropping his neighbor to the floor.

“I walked up to him, but he was still moving, his limbs,” Smith recalled.

“I said, ‘What is it going to take to stop this guy?’

“I said, ‘I’m going to have to aim at his head.’ So I aimed at his head and pulled the trigger, and then he went motionless.”

Smith told Viada that he was 3 or 4 feet away from Fowler when he shot Fowler in the side of the head.

An autopsy revealed that Fowler was incapacitated by gunshot wounds before a fatal shot to the brain stem.

As of Thursday afternoon, Clallam County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ann Lundwall was still calling state witnesses, meaning the defense had yet to present its case.

‘Cautious’ friendship

Before recounting the graphic events in his living room, Smith told Viada that he had struck a “cautious” friendship with Fowler about eight weeks before the shooting.

The neighbors shared bottles of Smith’s Miller 64 beer on the front porch of Smith’s house.

Although he grew skeptical of Fowler’s war stories, Smith loaned his neighbor $5 for cigarettes because he “felt sorry” for Fowler, he said.

Smith said he grew more leery after learning that Fowler had stabbed a mattress because he said someone living inside the mattress or under his bed was having sex with his wife.

Smith told Viada that he offered to take Fowler to Peninsula Behavioral Health for treatment.

“When he first starting talking to me, he was starting to get the hook in my mouth to believe him,” Smith said.

“But then, what really goddamn pissed me off is he kept trying and trying and trying to get me to smoke marijuana, and I have never used marijuana or any other illegal drug in my life.”

Smith, who earned undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in religion, said he befriended Fowler to stay true to his Christian faith.

“Jesus would keep talking to him,” Smith said. “Jesus would not give up on him.”

A few days before the shooting, Smith said he asked Fowler to stop coming over to the house because Fowler’s presence and marijuana smoking triggered his post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD involved

Smith said he had developed severe PTSD while working on a nuclear submarine in the Navy.

“I wouldn’t even let him in the house because he was just stoned out of his mind on the marijuana,” Smith told Viada.

Smith and the jurors read transcripts of the interview as it was being played in court.

Smith, who was booked into the Clallam County jail two years ago Saturday, and his daughter had moved to Amarillo, Texas, by the time police had probable cause to make an arrest.

Bethany Smith testified Thursday that she did not hear Fowler cry out “I’m sorry” a couple of times between gunshots, as she originally told investigators.

“I was still half asleep when this happened,” she said.

“There was still noise, like a little yelling, but I don’t remember any words. . . . It was more like just yelling in general.”

Defense attorney Karen Unger objected when Lundwall asked Bethany Smith if she recalled filing for a protection order against her father after they had moved to Texas.

The paperwork filed in Texas said Fowler was taken to a hospital after the shooting and that Bobby Smith had fled.

Bethany Smith denied making those statements to authorities in Texas.

Unger made a motion for a mistrial after the jury was excused.

Clallam County Superior Court Judge George L. Wood denied the motion for a mistrial and instructed the jury to disregard testimony about the restraining order.


Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.