Ron Smith can't remember exactly how old he was when he overheard the conversation, but it was before he started drinking, so it was before he was 11. He doesn't recall exactly what was said, either. When his aunts were finished talking, though, he was certain: He was a mistake from which his father could never recover.
Nelson Smith's temper was a constant presence in the Smith home. He worked in the oil fields of central Alberta and was away from his wife, Dolores, his two daughters and his son, Ron, for months at a time. When he was home, he drank himself into volatile stupors, often beating Dolores. Smith would intervene, but his efforts only redirected his father's rage. Documents filed in U. S. District Court in 1995 recount one such instance, when Dolores went to check on her son in the wake Nelson's latest tantrum. Ron's blood was splattered on the bedroom wall.
Today, at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Smith talks about that conversation between his aunts, about his father and about the seed of anger planted in him as a young boy. Smith, now 54, has a barrel chest and forearms made thick by the hour of weightlifting he's allowed each day. He has a gray handlebar mustache that sometimes does the smiling his mouth refuses. He talks unsentimentally about his life and the double murder that landed him in prison. Perhaps this is to be expected of a man who has spent the last 30 years thinking about his life in the imminence of his date with an executioner.
Next week, Smith, who senselessly killed two young men in 1982, and his attorneys will plead his case before the Montana Board of Paroles and Pardons. The board will make a recommendation, and then it will be up to Gov. Brian Schweitzer alone to decide Smith's fate: lethal injection or life in prison.
Smith has a dagger tattooed on his forearm, a remnant from his days as an occultist. He says he was never drawn to organized religion, but in his youth he thought about the world and the possibility of a higher power, an all-connecting energy, an afterlife. "I've never really been able to figure all that out. Recently, various people have been trying to encourage me to develop a closer relationship with God," he says, emphasizing the capital G, "but if He's all knowing, then He's pretty much got me figured out."
The urge to kill
Ronald Allen Smith was born in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, in 1957. He says his early years were typical: He listened to music (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty), he liked reading (Treasure Island, Ivanhoe) and, as is custom in Alberta, he loved hockey. But life at home eventually became too much to bear. By 14, he'd made a habit of getting drunk and was out of school and living on his own, drifting between the houses and couches of friends and extended family. He spoke to his mother sporadically. He wasn't sure his father even knew he was gone. When he was 16, he was arrested for theft. By 18, he'd been arrested for theft and drug possession four more times. He drank and used drugs constantly. "Partying was pretty much the whole scene," he recalls. "I had no aspiring hopes."
In January of 1982, after being released from jail for breaking-and-entering, Smith discovered he had a daughter, Carmen. He hadn't spoken to the girl's mother in years. Carmen was four. Smith wanted to be a part of her life. The mother resisted. This was the first time Smith became aware of the "serious slide" he was on, he says. He wanted to be a father, but he knew he didn't deserve it.
Later that year, he ran into a police officer outside a bar. He'd first encountered the officer five years before, when he stole his patrol car. Smith says the man had been embarrassed by the incident and launched a vendetta against him. He says the officer pulled him over numerous times without cause and once shined a spotlight through Smith's bedroom window in the middle of the night.
Outside the bar, Smith was drunk and taunted the officer. "I did everything in my power to get him to take a swing at me, because then I could do whatever I wanted to him," Smith recalls. "But the fact that he wouldn't give me the opportunity to deal with him physically, that's when I snapped. I wanted to kill him."
The urge to kill supplanted an aspect of his humanity. He knew he had to change, he says. A month and a half later, he headed south.
On the night of Aug. 2, 1982, Smith, then 24, walked across the Canadian border north of Babb. He carried a backpack, a few changes of clothes, a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and a handful of bullets in his pocket. He traveled with two other men, Rodney Munro and Andre Fontaine. Smith was headed for Mexico. The journey, he had convinced himself, would correct the trajectory of his life. It would clear his mind, set him straight and one day return him to Canada a different man, ready for fatherhood.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Prison guards escort Ron Smith back to his death row cell.
Munro and Fontaine wanted to join, insisting they'd only tag along so long as it took to score some drugs, Smith says. Then they'd leave Smith and return home.
"I should have gone with my original plan, there wasn't gonna be anybody but me," Smith says. "I thought I needed to get away from my crazy life and then come back and be a good dad. Now I know I just needed to quit drinking."
The men spent a night in a grain silo near the border. The next day, they walked and thumbed to East Glacier, where, on Aug. 4, they posted up in a bar on the south side of town.