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Officials drop charges in alleged murder plot

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published September 19, 2003

In 1990, Janet Smith's seventh husband, a Largo plumber, drowned in the Suwannee River. She collected $230,000 in insurance and although his children were suspicious, no charges were filed.

Last year, Smith's son secretly taped conversations in which he and his mother talked about killing an ex-husband in Arkansas for more insurance money. Police arrested her and charged her with solicitation for murder.

This week, authorities in Arkansas dropped the charges that had been filed against Smith, 61. She was scheduled to stand trial Monday in the Ozark town of Mountain Home. Prosecutors said they were unable to subpoena the alleged victim, Cecil Griffin, to make sure he testified.

But Smith's attorney said prosecutors also could not authenticate the tape recordings in which Smith allegedly discussed Griffin's demise. Her son said he made the tapes because he didn't want to commit murder.

"I said all along (the tapes) were fake, because that wasn't my conversation," Smith said Thursday.

She also said Griffin was not a victim, but a perpetrator who set her up to steal her possessions and cover up the 13-year-old Florida death. Smith said the dismissal of the charges is likely to reignite the interest of Florida investigators in the death of Randall Smith, who allegedly slipped off a makeshift raft while fishing with Griffin on the Suwannee River.

"This case is far from over," she said. "I'm expecting the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) to knock on my door any day. If they had any sense, they would. I can't afford to go to Florida with the evidence I'm sitting on, and I think they ought to come here and get it."

Smith has had a long and volatile history with men, which the St. Petersburg Times examined in a story last month as Arkansas prosecutors prepared for trial.

Griffin was Janet's sixth husband, but had stuck around after they divorced. A year ago May, he signed a confession saying he had drowned Randall Smith in a jealous rage, Janet Smith alleges. She shows a copy of the alleged confession as proof. Griffin confessed because he thought she was dying and figured he could retrieve the confession, Smith says. When she didn't die, he got her arrested on the murder-for-hire charge to keep her quiet.

Baxter County, Ark., prosecutors did not return phone calls. But Assistant District Attorney Kerry Chism told the Baxter Bulletin the charges were dropped because his office could not find Griffin.

Griffin, who occasionally communicates with the St. Petersburg Times via e-mail, has denied killing Randall Smith or signing any confession. On Thursday, he expressed dismay that the charges were dropped.

"Nobody has tried to contact me," he wrote. "Every time I tried to find out anything, no one would talk to me. The prosecutor's office always told me that she had a private attorney and they didn't know anything. The sheriff's office wouldn't talk to me."

The convoluted case has its roots in Pinellas County 13 years ago, when Janet Smith married Randall Smith, a plumber earning $20,000 a year. During their five-month marriage, he took out several life insurance policies.

After Smith's drowning, his children sued their stepmother, alleging that she murdered him. He was afraid of water, they said, and would not have gone fishing on a homemade raft. FDLE agents concluded that Randall Smith's name was forged on two insurance applications but could not prove who had forged them.

One of Janet Smith's daughters testified that her mother arranged the drowning, but the daughter had serious drug and mental problems and couldn't even remember being flown to Florida for an FDLE interview.

Cecil Griffin, the key witness to the drowning, could not be subpoenaed to testify.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge George Greer dismissed the lawsuit and awarded Janet Smith about $230,000 in insurance proceeds.

She and Griffin moved to Ohio, then to Arkansas.

Last year, Janet Smith's long-estranged son, Matthew Paxton, came for a visit. He and a friend said she began discussing ways to kill Griffin to collect on life insurance. Eventually, Paxton said, she told him to drown Griffin in a swimming pool and she would buy him a car.

Paxton said he secretly taped these conversation and turned the tapes over to authorities. The tapes are full of gaps and incomprehensible conversation, but contain a few sections where Janet Smith appears to discuss ways to kill Griffin.

Smith said Paxton led her on. He watched true crime television shows and always wanted to discuss how to murder someone. They just used Griffin as an example, she said.

When Smith was arrested, her purse contained checks totally about $70,000, which stemmed from Randall Smith's insurance payout. Griffin unsuccessfully filed suit trying to claim the money. He and Paxton also removed valuables from her home, Janet Smith said.

Her lawyer, Norman Wilbur, said her defense would have centered on Paxton and Griffin's behavior. "This was nothing more than a scheme for Cecil to get her assets," Wilbur said. "If he's not there to respond, the jury is going to wonder why."

Randall Smith's children, Randall Smith Jr. and Kathryn Riddlebarger, expressed disappointment that their former stepmother would not be going to prison.

"All along we somehow knew it wasn't going to work out," Riddlebarger said. "But it doesn't make it any easier to accept."

Janet Smith said legal fees have drained her assets and she has serious medical problems.

"The Smith family ought to ask themselves, "Do they want Randy's killer or do they want vengeance?"' she said. "If they want justice for Randy, they better get up here and talk to me."

[Last modified September 19, 2003, 01:48:06]


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