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He admitted to a deputy’s cold-case killing. Was he duped into saying so?

Prosecutors allege Larry David Smith changed his name and moved to New York, never telling a soul he shot a sheriff’s deputy in Maryland until investigators arrived at his door decades later

James Hall, a Montgomery County special deputy sheriff, was fatally shot in October 1971. (Montgomery County Police Department)
11 min

Looking to solve a 51-year-old mystery, investigators knocked on the apartment door in Upstate New York.

“Are you Larry?” one of them asked.

“Yeah,” answered Larry Smith, 70 years old and just over 5 feet tall.

He allowed the group inside and they exchanged pleasantries. “We’re actually looking for some help from you,” a detective said, asking Smith if he’d come with them.

The 2022 encounter, recorded by the detectives, represented another mesmerizing turn in the long-unsolved investigation of a slain Maryland sheriff’s deputy from 1971. The detectives took Smith, who had lived in Maryland as a younger man, to a nearby police station and interviewed him for nearly four hours.

The first two hours involved a lot of chitchat. Smith spoke about his life: Adopted by age 7, living on the streets by age 16 and his move about 10 years later to New York state. Smith married twice, had four kids and held jobs as a security guard and nursing home aide. “God bless you,” a detective offered.

She slowly brought up the 1971 case, when Smith was just 19 years old, and said old case files they found indicated he possibly witnessed what happened. If the shooting wasn’t done on purpose, they told him, it wasn’t really murder.

“I would never intentionally try to shoot anybody,” Smith finally told Detective Lisa Killen.

“Are you saying that you accidentally shot the sheriff?” Killen asked.

Smith’s answers and admissions led authorities to charge him with intentional, first-degree murder, alleging he shot sheriff’s deputy James Hall in the head in a dark parking lot after the deputy had confronted Smith and at least one other person outside a home they’d just broken into. Smith was brought to Montgomery County. And the case went to trial there this month, offering a window to the limits of police work five decades ago: no DNA, no surveillance camera footage, no cellphone records.

Jurors instead were asked by prosecutors to focus on Smith’s statements to detectives and those he made afterward to his daughter and son. Defense attorneys countered that any admissions Smith made were meaningless because they’d been coaxed from someone with a faulty and aging memory. On Wednesday, after three days of deliberations, jurors said they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, resulting in a mistrial. Smith, now 72, remains held in the Montgomery County jail and is set to be retried in June.

A country club and a life on the streets

The trial, which began Jan. 8, revealed events, characters and heartbreak worthy of a top-shelf television crime series. The first witness — Hall’s surviving daughter, Carolyn Philo, 80 — helped prosecutors round out their portrait of the slain deputy.

Hall was born in 1918, the seventh of 11 children in a family that moved around the D.C. area. He went on to work as a mechanic — specializing in the automatic transmissions of buses — and as a roller coaster operator at the Glen Echo amusement park. Around his 40th birthday, Hall took on night work as a special deputy sheriff.

“Daddy was always a hard worker,” Philo told jurors.

As she started her own family in Montgomery County, she brought them to her parents’ home for Saturday night dinners, often followed by games of cards or Monopoly. They did so on Oct. 23, 1971, Philo testified, and she remembered how her dad got a call from a colleague asking him to cover his shift that night. Her dad asked her mom about it.

“That’ll be all right,” Anna Hall replied, according to Philo’s testimony.

The assignment involved security guard work outside Manor Country Club. Some time before 11 p.m., police say, Hall came upon at least two people carrying items stolen out of a nearby house. “What are you guys doing?” he asked, according to trial evidence, as he shined his flashlight toward them.

Two shots were fired. The first hit Hall’s flashlight, according to prosecutors, and the second struck him behind his left ear. Bystanders happened upon him lying facedown on the pavement.

At the hospital three days later, with her father having never regained consciousness, Philo held his hand and said goodbye. “I love you. It’s okay,” she recalled telling him, choking up during her testimony.

The trial also revealed details about Smith’s life. He was born Larry David Smith in Upstate New York and after his adoption in Maryland started going by Larry David Becker. He left that home as a teenager and slept anywhere he could find: the woods, cemeteries and inside a community center in Aspen Hill. “My life was a hell,” he said during the interrogation played for jurors. “I lived on the streets.”

Around 1973, two years after Hall’s killing, Smith was jailed for an unrelated burglary — trouble that he compounded for himself by escaping and getting caught, according to prosecutors. He made a bold move for leniency, telling police he had information about Hall’s killing. They interviewed him using a reel-to-reel recorder but came to discount his story.

“It is the opinion of the investigators that he is in fact lying in an attempt to get consideration from the State’s Attorney’s Office relative to his pending charges,” detectives wrote in an April 6, 1973, report filed in court.

Several years later, as detectives would recently learn, “Larry Becker” went back to using the name “Larry Smith,” and he moved to Upstate New York.

Back in Maryland, over the years, investigators tried new leads in the case — taking another look at kids who were breaking into soda machines at the country club that night, for example, or testing cigarette butts found at the scene for DNA. Nothing panned out.

Then came 2021, and the 50th anniversary of the case. Killen was asked to dive back into the case records. She found the old reel-to-reel tape — inside a mislabeled case — and tried to listen but couldn’t make it out. She sent it to the FBI, where technicians converted it to audible, digital form.

His statement, played again 48 years later, was convoluted. But to Killen and Detective Katie Leggett, it revealed Smith was at least at the scene. They set out to find him — doing so through, among other clues, an obituary of one of Smith’s biological relatives and a posting on Facebook in which Smith was looking to sell a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket.

‘I didn’t want to kill anybody’

Late on the morning of Sept. 1, 2022, they showed up at his ninth-floor apartment in Little Falls, N.Y., which is about halfway between Albany and Syracuse. They took Smith to the nearby police station and led him into an interview room.

“I was hoping maybe you could tell us a little bit about who you are and those types of things,” Killen offered.

“Actually I’m an alien from Mars,” Smith said.

“Me too,” Killen said.

The seasoned officers repeatedly told Smith he was free to leave, keeping the interview in a “noncustodial” legal posture — as later ruled by a judge — which meant they didn’t have to advise Smith of his right to call a lawyer. Their manner wasn’t just calm but complimentary.

“You’re a way better person than me,” Leggett told Smith after they’d discussed his handling of a sticky relationship issue.

She and Killen eventually steered the conversation to an incident at Manor Country Club in 1971.

“As far as I know I wasn’t there,” Smith said.

At times Smith seemed to get confused about the Glenmont burglary for which he was arrested and the burglary outside the country club. Leggett spoke of the slain sheriff’s deputy, whom she also referred to as a security guard, and offered Smith two explanations.

“My inclination is a couple things,” she said. “Either you accidentally shot that security guard and you don’t want to say because you think you’re going to be pinned as a murderer — which accidents are not pinned as a murderer. Or, you know who did it and you’re terrified to tell us for some reason.”

“Do you think it’s possible,” she added, “that you shot him and you’ve repressed that because it’s traumatic and you forgot about it?”

Smith repeatedly denied pulling the trigger but eventually admitted to seeing Hall get shot.

“It was probably an accident,” Smith said, his words halting. “Or the person that had the gun got scared and just swung around and tried to scare him off. So, it wasn’t malice.”

The detectives backed off, saying at one point they were being more curious than judgmental, and minutes later returned to specifics.

“Are you saying that you accidentally shot the sheriff?” Killen asked.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

The detectives got him to repeat the admission several times without the qualifier. “I knew I hit him,” he said. “But I didn’t think it was a death hit.”

He kept speaking, adding more details about the shooting.

“We started taking things out of the house, and someone was hollering behind us,” Smith said. “And I spun around and the flashlight hit me in the eyes and I got really nervous and I pulled the trigger and it was an accident. I didn’t mean to pull the trigger, you know. I didn’t want to kill anybody.”

The detectives moved to wrap things up. They asked Smith if he had anything he wanted to say to the Hall family. “It was a terrible thing that happened and I’m sorry that I shot him,” Smith said.

The detectives soon would be driving Smith back to his apartment and within hours had obtained a warrant to charge him with first-degree, premeditated murder. This was no accidental shooting, according to the warrant, even if Smith thought saying so was mitigating.

But in the interview room as the detectives finished, they left him with pleasantries.

“It was nice to meet you, Larry,” Killen said.

“Thank you,” he responded, “for helping me.”

‘Holding this in’ for 50 years

In her closing arguments, Assistant State’s Attorney Donna Fenton urged jurors to re-watch a recording of the four-hour interview.

“The confession given by the defendant is reliable,” she said. “It is a core memory that you will never forget.”

Smith’s attorneys countered that their client, with an IQ of 83, was susceptible to accepting what detectives were suggesting to him.

“Mr. Smith was just parroting back what somebody filled his empty recollections with,” defense attorney Kevin Collins said. “The fact that Mr. Smith was convinced by the detectives that he committed this crime does not mean he did it.”

It also explained, Collins argued, the potentially incriminating statements Smith made to his daughter Melinda Allen, whom he called when he got home after speaking with detectives. Prosecutors didn’t have a recording of the call, but they had a recording of Allen later describing the call to a detective.

“I’ve got something that I’ve got to tell you,” Smith had said, according to a recording of Allen’s recollections played to jurors. “You’re going to be really disappointed in me. I’ve been holding this in for 50 years.”

Allen recalled her response to her dad, according to the recording, and described their exchange: “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So then he’s like, ‘I guess I killed someone.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s you did or you didn’t. There’s no guess. It’s not a game. We’re not guessing.’”

Her dad told her what he’d just told investigators.

“I’m going to go to prison,” Smith told his daughter. “I just needed to get everything off my chest.”