Nine years after homicide, friends, family remember Kirby Smith, gifted mechanic, father

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 9, 2013 

It seemed Kirby Smith could see inside an engine and instantly understand how to fix it, improve it, make it run faster than before.

His oldest son, Dustin, inherited that insight but lost his father nearly a decade ago, on March 8, 2004, the morning Kirby Smith was found shot to death inside Kirby's Speed Shop off Morris Road at 1438 Jacqueline Drive.

The homicide remains unsolved, though cold case investigators with the Columbus Police Department haven't given up on it.

Nine years later, the family's loss and the lingering mystery still weigh on those who knew and loved Kirby Smith -- particularly Dustin, whose father pushed him to focus first on his education before other interests such as racing but never saw the success his son achieved.

Dustin's sister Heather Brooks said the pain of losing her father is deepened by wishing he could see his grandsons now. Her son Parker was only 10 months old when someone killed his grandfather, six years before 3-year-old Paxton was born.

And Kirby Smith Jr.'s death left his youngest son, Kirby Smith III, without a father at age 7. Today he is 16, a student at Harris County High School and a member of its champion skeet-shooting shotgun team. Relatives say he looks just like his dad. He says he wants to be just like him, to become an engineer and go into racing.

Still, it was Dustin whom Kirby Jr.'s death most keenly affected, the family says.

"He took it the hardest, I think," said Heather, now 35. "It's easier for me, I think, because I have the boys, you know…. It's just times when I'm by myself when I get sad. Having kids and having a husband keeps me occupied, and keeps my mind off things, but Dustin is by himself, so he has more time to think about it."

Dustin today is 31, an engineer for Southern Grind, an Atlanta knife manufacturer founded by country music star Zac Brown. Dustin builds the machines that mass-produce the blades.

After his father's death, Dustin briefly tried to keep the speed shop going, relying heavily on Lee Shepherd, who worked with his dad. But that was not the life his father wanted for him, so he continued with college, earning an engineering degree from Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta.

He first moved to North Carolina to work in NASCAR, an endeavor his dad would have loved. The two had spent a lot to time together at Russell County's East Alabama Motor Speedway, where both raced.

Priorities

But school always came first. In 1998, Kirby Smith told a Ledger-Enquirer reporter covering the speedway about giving Dustin a car to race: "The car's been sitting in the shop for a couple of years and I told Dustin that if he got good grades I'd put it back together and let him run it."

Dustin last week said he didn't just have to get good grades; he had to fix the car himself: "I built my own car when I was 16, and he bought a wrecked truck, and I had to fix it. It just made me appreciate things more."

Kirby also told the newspaper reporter years ago that Dustin was never allowed to skip classes at Shaw High School to run practice laps at the track: "He's got a perfect attendance record and he's on the honor roll. That's the deal. If he doesn't do well in school, he doesn't race."

Said Dustin last week: "School always came before hobbies. You don't just screw off just because you can screw off. We had our priorities straight."

After Dustin graduated and went off to college, his dad asked him the same question every weekend he came home: "What did you learn in school?" The answer initiated discussions of engineering principles and applications, and memories of work they'd done together.

"To me it was a grade-school kind of question," Dustin recalled. "You don't ask your college kid, 'What'd you learn in school?' But he was interested, and he wanted me to have a good education, so I could have a good job, and not have to work backbreaking jobs like he did growing up."

Dustin was 21 when his father died. He could have left school and come home to run Kirby's Speed Shop. But that's not what his father would have wanted.

The murder

It was Lee Shepherd, Kirby's coworker, who found the body about 7:45 a.m. that Monday in March 2004.

He could tell things were awry as soon as he pulled up outside the shop: Kirby had a brand new Corvette convertible that was parked outside. He never left it outside.

Perhaps, like Shepherd, he'd just arrived.

"So when I walked by the car, I felt the hood, and it was cold," Shepherd recalled. Assuming Kirby wasn't there, he returned to his truck to get keys to the shop.

"When I went to open the door, it was unlocked," he said. That also was odd: Though he was living in an RV behind the shop back then, Kirby never left the door unlocked overnight.

Shepherd went in, and on the floor beside a computer lay Kirby Smith, with blood on his face. At first Shepherd thought he'd somehow knocked himself unconscious, and tried to shake him. The body was stiff.

The coroner said Kirby likely was shot between midnight and 2 a.m., possibly around 1 a.m.. It was apparent to Shepherd that Kirby had been working on the computer when someone with a 9 mm handgun shot him first in the left side, at the heart, and then shot him through the back of the neck, the bullet exiting at the bridge of his nose.

Though a couple of his personal effects were missing -- a gold chain and some credit cards -- robbery clearly was not the motive, Shepherd said. Kirby had $900 cash in his pocket. An undisturbed money box was on a table. The keys to the new Corvette were there, too.

The bullet through the head showed the killer wanted to be sure the job was done.

"Whoever it was, he knew, because he never would have opened the door for them," Shepherd said.

The case turned cold quickly: Two years later, billboards advertised a $10,000 reward for information leading to a suspect. Nothing panned out.

Suspicious minds

In the years that followed, reports on Kirby's death sometimes mentioned the divorce in which he was embroiled when he died.

He was on his second marriage. With his first wife Carolyn, now Carolyn Ratliff, he had Dustin and Heather. They were married for 16 years, she said, from 1971 through 1986, divorcing in '87.

With his second wife Becky, now Becky Haynie, he had Kirby Smith III. They married in 1996. She remarried in June 2004, she said.

The homicide spawned rumors his divorce may have played a role, but Becky Haynie last week said they had worked out their differences and come to an agreement.

"People rushed to judgment because we were going through a divorce, but some of the people close to him knew that we had already reached an agreement with our divorce. It just had to be finalized," she said. "We had come to a good place. We had reconciled all our issues…. We had gotten past being bitter."

The loss had lingering effects on her, too: "It was two years after Kirby's death before I stopped picking up the phone to call him," she said. "Things would happen in little Kirby's life and I would pick up the phone and start to dial his number, and realize he was gone."

Memorial

His funeral packed Cascade Hills Church, said ex-wife Carolyn, who remained close to Kirby after their divorce.

The massive turnout showed not just how many friends he had, but how many he'd made out of his customers.

"Kirby's business was based on personal friendships, relationships," said Steve Garrett, who'd known Kirby since high school. "In a lot of his work, there was no written contract. There was a trust."

Kirby was generous to a fault, said friends and family: He would give parts to people interested in racing, and "Pay me later" was a common response to customers picking up cars.

Garrett said that as soon as he and Kirby met on the street outside Hardaway High School, the two teenagers saw a mutual interest: Fast cars.

Kirby grew up in Edgewood and graduated from Hardaway in 1971, said Garrett, himself a Columbus High grad.

Unlike other students whose parents gave them cars to drive, Kirby built his own: "A '63 Galaxie -- the first time I saw it, it didn't even have a motor in it," Garrett said.

They regularly raced together at East Alabama Motor Speedway. "He was a real gearhead," Garrett said, and automotives consumed them: "We spent about every dime we could get our hands on when we were teenagers to have our race cars for Saturday night."

Not long before Kirby's death, he and Garrett had started racing trucks. Dustin was into it, too, and he and Garrett remain friends.

"He is so much like his father that it's almost like looking back in time," Garrett said: both tall and skinny, "and always pulling their pants up" at the waist.

Then there's that mechanical insight they share.

"He could have been an engineer," Garrett said of Kirby. "He could look at something and figure out a better way to do it. He could make anything that you wanted made…. And Dustin his son is just like him."

Except Dustin became an engineer: "Many times I've said, 'You know, your dad was very proud of you for going on to school,'" Garrett said of Dustin.

Family tradition

To Dustin, college was learning equations and theory. The practical applications he'd learned from his dad.

"I understood the concepts from what he had taught me, but when I went to college I pretty much learned the theory behind it, and the reasons why," Dustin said.

He went from the ability to look at something and say, "That's not going to work," to doing the calculations to prove what he could see.

With their father gone, he has become a model for his little brother.

"I want to be a mechanical engineer, and get my degree at Southern Polytech, probably -- just like Dustin," Kirby Smith III said Friday.

Then he wants to race trucks, just like his father.

"Everybody tells me, 'You look just like your daddy,'" he said. "That's a good feeling. I want to be just like him. He's a good guy."

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