The Washington Post
Suspect arrested in 1971 slaying of Md. deputy
Fresh eyes and an old tape recording helped lead Montgomery County police to a 70-year-old in N.Y.
For five decades, the slaying of a Maryland sheriff ’s deputy remained a mystery. Last year, two detectives dove into the case of James Tappen Hall with fresh eyes. Inside a box of evidence they found an old reel-to-reel tape.
And after they listened to that recording, things began to take a turn.
The long-forgotten audio, police say, was among a string of clues that led them to a 70-yearold living in a high-rise apartment building in Upstate New York.
“He appears to have been living a quiet life,” said Sgt. Chris Homrock, head of the Montgomery County Police Department’s coldcase unit.
Officials identified the suspect Wednesday as Larry David Smith of Little Falls, N.Y. In court papers, police accused him of shooting Hall the night of Oct. 23, 1971, in a parking lot of the Manor Country Club in Rockville. At the time, Hall was working a parttime security job and, according to investigators, came upon Smith — 19 at the time — who had just broken into a nearby home and was trying to get to his getaway car parked in the dark lot.
Hall was taken to a hospital and died three days later, leaving behind a wife and two children.
“Daddy was a great man,” Hall’s daughter, Carolyn Philo, 79, said this week. “When he put on his sheriff ’s uniform, he shined.”
In the early 1970s, detectives thought Smith was someone who might have known what happened to Hall, but they did not suspect him of being the actual perpetrator, according to court records.
Investigators who revived the case last year dug through case boxes, turned up references to Smith, and found the old reel-toreel tape of him talking to investigators in 1973. They sent the recording to the FBI, where technicians converted it to digital form.
“Clear as a bell,” Detective Katie Leggett said.
It captured Smith discussing details about the shooting that police had never released to the public, including how many times Hall was fired upon, according to court records.
Other things about Smith stood out.
He grew up near the country club. He had a criminal history, they now assert, of burglary, assault, shoplifting and escape. And he had changed his name — from Larry David Becker in the 1970s to his current name of Larry David Smith.
“Investigators believe that this was done purposefully to avoid any further investigation into his involvement in this offense,” detectives wrote in court papers.
Investigators tracked him down in Upstate New York, in part via Facebook comments from a resident there who wrote about going to high school in Aspen Hill. Last week, Leggett and another detective, Lisa Killen, drove to Little Falls and interviewed Smith. He “admitted to accidentally shooting Sheriff [Deputy] Hall after Hall confronted him as he was taking property from the burglary on Beverly Road back to an awaiting getaway vehicle,” detectives asserted.
“He was just out there doing his job,” Leggett said, noting that Hall wasn’t even supposed to be working that night. “He was filling in for another guy who couldn’t come in.”
Officials discounted Smith’s explanation of an accident and charged him with premeditated first-degree murder, punishable by up to life in prison in Maryland. “Jim was ambushed,” Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin said Wednesday.
Smith remained held in the Herkimer County jail Wednesday, according to jail officials. He is expected to be moved to Montgomery County within a week to face court proceedings.
It is not clear if Smith has retained an attorney in the case. Members of his family declined to comment or could not be reached Wednesday.
He had recently been living in a nine-story public housing highrise for older or disabled residents. Two residents of the building reached Wednesday were stunned to hear him accused of murder.
“To me, that’s not Larry,” said June Jones, 85, who lived on the same floor as Smith.
Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones, in praising cold-case detectives Wednesday, said they had gotten the right man.
“To obtain a confession for someone who committed a crime 51 years ago is a tremendous, tremendous accomplishment,” Jones said.
Hall, known as JT, had grown up in a large family in Virginia, according to his daughter, Philo, and his granddaughter, Carrie Crutcher.
Many of Hall’s family members have worked as police officers or firefighters, Philo and Crutcher said. Hall chose a job as a deputy with the Montgomery County Sheriff ’s Office in Maryland. Hall and his wife, Anna Louise, had two children, Carolyn and Melvin.
Philo remembers that her dad wasn’t just an attentive father and grandfather; he was also one who would show up with gallons of milk during snowstorms.
On Oct. 23, 1971, a Saturday, Philo, then 28, and her young family went to her parents’ home in Wheaton for a spaghetti dinner. After they arrived, the phone rang. It was a co-worker of her dad’s saying he couldn’t make a part-time security guard job that evening at the Manor Country Club. He asked Hall if he could fill in for him.
“Oh, sure. Oh, sure,” Hall said, Philo remembers hearing.
Hall went to work. The spaghetti dinner went on. Philo and her husband returned to their home in Damascus. Their children, Carrie and Eddie, stayed behind for a planned sleepover at their grandparents’ home.
Later that night, Philo and her husband received a phone call. Her dad had been shot and was at a hospital. They raced there. The prognosis they heard was grim. When they came back the next morning, it was worse.
“There isn’t anything we can do,” Philo remembers one of the doctors telling them. Her father died days later.
Immediately after Hall died, Philo and her family received lots of calls, visitors and help. But as time went on, the attention from others waned.
“The second year was just terrible,” Philo said, remembering always asking herself: “Where is everyone?”
At the Montgomery County Police Department, which was handling the case, progress stalled.
Philo and her family moved to Texas. She would call into the investigations division of the Montgomery department every six months or so — checking to see if there had been any progress.
Beyond that, Philo tried to remember her dad in life. Every morning, when she passed his photograph in her front hall, she would kiss her fingers and touch his picture. “Good morning, dad,” she’d say with a smile. “I’m still here.”
In time, Philo’s greetings to her dad’s photo were joined by similar greetings to her mom, who died in 2005, and her son, who died in 2007.
She held on to hope that investigators would learn who killed her father. And she hoped the suspect was still alive, so he could be arrested and face at least some measure of justice before his own death.
“I kept thinking, if I’m still alive at 79, maybe he is, too,” Philo said.
About a year ago, the sergeant leading the department’s coldcase squad, Homrock, told her he had assigned the case to two detectives with instructions for them to take a serious dive back into the investigation. Philo started receiving monthly updates. It was that clear the detectives held back certain details even as they seemed to have active pursuits going. Philo’s hopes grew.
Last week, Philo was at her Del Webb adult community in Mckinney, Tex., playing a dice game — Bunco — with her friends when she received a call from Homrock. “Can you talk?” he asked. Philo went into a hallway. Homrock told her they had arrested a suspect.
“I can’t believe it,” she told him. “Thank you, thank you.”
Philo started crying, a reaction her friends could see through the glass. They came out to check on her.
“These are happy tears!” she told them.
Crutcher, Hall’s granddaughter, said she wonders what the suspect’s life has been like for the past five decades. She said her feelings don’t quite add up to complete sympathy. But her Christian faith, Crutcher said, has driven her to at least some level of understanding.
“I can’t imagine his life has been easy,” she said.