I unearthed one of my unpublished articles recently. A piece that chronicled a moment in time that profoundly impacted my views on parenting, philanthropy, social responsibility, compassion and mortality to name just a few.
At the time I wrote it, it seemed almost too personal to publish. I was wrong—it is a story that needs to be told.
I owe it to Erica.
In 2002, I was a cash-strapped, start-up business owner and the parent of a 13-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl.
In 2009, I answered an unexpected phone call relating to another phone call I received in 2002 that turned out to be of great importance. I was now on the verge of being served a subpoena to appear in court to testify in a criminal fraud case. My only exposure to the inside of a courtroom, other than television shows, was a speeding violation in 1998. But this was real.
My staff and I enjoyed tossing around the requisite jokes about my upcoming testimony:
“Are you going to break down and cry on the stand?”
“Will you stand up and scream: ‘That’s him—he did it—I’ll never forget that face.’”
“Don’t say anything stupid or you’ll end up in the BIG HOUSE.”
However, I had never even heard of the man on trial.
To make matters worse, I didn’t recall my alleged actions, back in 2002, which were now leading me toward the witness stand. Making jokes was simply covering my real emotions—I was embarrassed that I didn’t remember the specific events that linked me to this case.
On July 29, 2002, a 14-year-old Ashburn, Virginia girl, Erica Heather Smith, went missing. Her body was ultimately discovered in a shallow grave a little over a week later.
Her killer has never been found.
At some point in 2002, a persuasive telemarketer convinced me to donate money to Loudoun Crime Solvers for the purpose of establishing a Reward Fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Erica Heather Smith’s murderer.
With obvious gratitude for the health and safety of my own children, I subsequently wrote a $25 check, mailed it to Loudoun Crime Solvers and moved on with my life.
Seven years later, I was being served a subpoena to appear in court as a direct result of this 2002 donation.
A friend of the Smith family, a man who had volunteered to manage the Reward Fund, had allegedly embezzled the unused money. My role was simply to tell the court that I had intended for my donation to be used for the specific purpose of “crime solving.”
Kind of a “duh” but apparently a necessary part of the proceedings.
As instructed, I appeared in court on Thursday, April 1, 2009 and learned from the Prosecuting Attorney I was actually not needed—they planned to settle out-of-court that morning and I was the only witness they had neglected to call.
This was no “April Fool’s Day” joke either.
He graciously apologized for wasting my time though I had literally only walked across the street from my office. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side as I was the only witness actually there, the Prosecuting Attorney requested that I wait a few minutes and offered to seat me inside the courtroom.
Of course, I agreed to remain but declined his offer to enter the courtroom. Frankly, I didn’t know this man and, more than that, I had no interest in being in the same room with a “family friend” who would pilfer funds meant to avenge the death of an innocent teenage girl. The mere thought of being in his presence sickened me.
Just minutes later, the Prosecuting Attorney and three other people exited the courtroom. I was immediately aware of the quartet’s sense of relief:
“It’s finally over.”
“We can get back to more important things now.”
“It’s been seven long years…”
The Prosecuting Attorney spotted me waiting where he had left me—quietly sitting on the bench outside the courtroom door. He turned to me, extended his hand, thanked me for my time, shared that I was free to go and briefly walked away only to return just moments later:
“Mr. Jones…I want you to meet Mr. Smith, Erica’s Father.”
Despite my limited memory of the events that brought me to the courthouse that day, I knew I was now face-to-face with the intended benefactor of my modest contribution. A man, and father, who had suffered more in the past seven years than I could possibly ever imagine.
I was polite but also embarrassed by Mr. Smith’s unexpected gratitude—“I’m not sure I deserve all this attention—all I did was write a check” I stuttered.
Standing on the steps outside the courthouse, I was suddenly able to comprehend the attention paid to my presence that day. I realized that, to the Smith Family, I must have represented every unknown, faceless stranger who, upon hearing the story of their daughter’s tragic death, had picked up a checkbook or reached into their wallet in hopes of bringing a child’s murderer to justice.
As I was about to turn and walk away, Mr. Smith reached toward me once again. I extended my hand for a second time but moments later Erica Heather Smith’s father bypassed my hand and hugged me on the steps of the Loudoun County, Virginia Courthouse.
I am aware that the emotions that lead to active charitable giving are often based on being “touched” by a tragedy in a personal way. Yes, I was touched that day, both literally and figuratively, in ways too numerous to adequately express here.
That embrace from Erica’s father was one of the most profoundly meaningful moments of my life. And I assure you, I have never hugged my own children in quite the same way ever since.
It has taken me several years to share this story publicly. As deeply moved as I was by Mr. Smith’s actions that day, paramount in my mind has been the need to be respectful to his family and to the memory of his beautiful daughter Erica.
But isn’t my goal with these essays to share “the good, the bad, the ugly and the bunny?”
Well, this is the bad.
This is the ugly.
Part of me will always ache for Erica but all of me is honored to have briefly crossed paths with her extraordinarily brave family.
I reflect upon Erica and the Smith Family often and I always find myself thinking:
I am so grateful I answered that telemarketing call in 2002.
Though the act of philanthropic giving is supposed to be entirely selfless, seems to me I got quite a lot for my $25 donation.