Ralph Smith’s family didn’t think they would have justice.
They weren’t sure the police cared. And after 43 years, they’d long given up hope when a detective unexpectedly appeared in their front yard in July.
A gunman laid Smith out dead on a Raleigh street one October night in 1971, bleeding by the cab he drove. By the end of that fall, the family says, investigators had stopped calling.
Yet Smith’s widow kept waiting for her husband, hoping to see some apparition of his middle-age, middleweight figure, maybe behind the wheel of the old green Lincoln parked in front of her home.
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“I used to go out to look at the cab, see, could I see him out there?” recalled Effie Lee Smith, 95 years old now, surrounded by family in her dimmed living room. “People would say his spirit would come back.”
For decades, Smith’s memory and his gravestone at Poplar Springs Christian Church, were the most closure his family had. But grief doesn’t work the same when a suspect’s never found.
“We just lived one day at a time, hoping that one day they would find (the killer),” said Dorothy Smith, one of the Smiths’ three children.
She wondered – were investigators doing their jobs? “We just thought they didn’t care.”
In July, the family got what they had long hoped for: a suspect’s name. He is Sinatra Dunn, also a former Raleigh cabbie.
When missionary Sherdenia Thompson met Dunn in Orange County in 1986, he quickly became part of her mission.
“He was so down physically,” she recalled in a recent interview.
He was 41 or 42 years old – just about a year older than her – and by then diabetic and an abuser of recreational drugs and alcohol, she said. He was just one of a group she and her fellow missionaries were trying to connect with God.
“At that time, he was wanting to get his life turned around – to get help, real help, physically and emotionally and spiritually – and he was willing,” she recalled.
“I could tell he had a conscience. He wanted to be different.”
Ultimately, he had a chance to help her, too.
Sherdenia Thompson suffered a stroke in 2008. She was working at a charter school and living with her mother in Carrboro.
Sinatra Dunn knew his one-time missionary wouldn’t be able to care for her mother as she had before. He had started driving cabs again, and he was making a living – so he proposed marriage.
“He was willing to help me take care of my mom. He was willing to live with her, help her,” Sherdenia Thompson Dunn said.
“And he was doing that, up until he was arrested.”
‘Just one more gone’
Ralph Smith died with $29 in his wallet and his pistol on the seat of his cab, both apparently untouched when police arrived. He’d been shot in the chest.
The guys from the cabstand were the first to call the family. His wife was first to know; his daughters had gone to the State Fair that evening. Dorothy, then in her late 20s, ran barefoot through the cold to her parents’ house when she heard.
“I was a torn wreck,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. Most nights, all I could see was my daddy.”
Police detectives came by dutifully, she said, but never offered much hope. Newspaper accounts said that people heard the shots on East Bragg Street, south of downtown, but mentioned no eyewitnesses.
Within a month, the family recalls, they’d heard the last of the investigation. There were, as far as they knew, no suspects. They considered the possibility that his race – Ralph Smith was black – made his case lower priority, if unintentionally.
“We took for granted that ... they just forgot all about the case,” Dorothy said. “Just one more gone.”
The detective assigned to the case – Oliff Pratt, now retired in his late 80s – cannot recall Smith’s case, which came in the 11th of Pratt’s 31 years on the force.
“I arrested so many people since then, I can’t remember,” he said. But Pratt knows, he said, that he and his fellow detectives searched for truth on every case they worked.
“Back then, if I worked on this case, I tried as hard as I could to solve it,” he said. “And if I didn’t solve it, and somebody else solves it, then that’s fine.”
In the decades after the shooting, the Smiths made peace in their own ways. Ralph Smith’s wife and children believe the patriarch’s morals – his hard-driving personality, his allergy to excuses – helped them survive the aftermath of his death.
She raised their three children herself, and her son took up driving a taxi. The family moved a few miles, to southeastern Raleigh, but Smith’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren largely have stayed in Raleigh, according to granddaughter Monica Taylor.
“When we’ve had family reunions, the other sisters and brothers always remembered him. His picture’s up on the shelf,” Taylor said. “It’s been 40 years. It’s been a long time.”
‘A good memory’
Sinatra and Sherdenia Dunn visited Atlanta in July to celebrate his 70th birthday. He was stressed and busy, unsure he wanted to go.
“I said, ‘We need a good memory. We need to get away,’
” his wife said. So they spent a couple of days in Georgia.
They returned to Carrboro on a Wednesday. A Raleigh police detective called the same day, saying he just wanted to talk to Sinatra, according to Sherdenia Dunn.
Two days later, back in Raleigh, Effie and Carolyn Smith came home from the store to find a strange man holding a small notebook out front of their ranch house.
Mother and daughter drove past, thinking he had something to sell.
The man was still there when they brought the car back around.
“You’re Effie Smith?”
“Your husband was Ralph Smith?”
“Your husband drove a cab?”
Effie Lee Smith, who looks decades younger than her age, nodded to each.
“This is going to be on the news,” the officer said. “We’ve got the man that killed your husband.”
Within an hour, it seemed like half the Triangle knew the story. Sinatra Dunn, age 70, had been charged with the murder of Ralph Smith in 1971.
Neither the suspect’s family nor the victim’s knew about the apparent break in the investigation before that week.
Since then, authorities have given little indication of what changed in this 43-year-old cold case.
The Raleigh Police Department has said only that its work “continued during the years,” with detectives recently finding probable cause for Dunn’s arrest.
Dunn himself was a taxi driver in Raleigh at the time of the killing, though the Smith family isn’t aware of any connection.
Dunn’s wife knows little of him from that time he called the “bad years.” He was imprisoned in North Carolina from 1974 to 1975 on a larceny-related charge.
Sinatra Dunn has spent the last seven weeks at the Wake County Detention Center, where he is being held without bail. He can call home and write letters, and he hears from family, friends and his church.
“People are rallying around him, to let them know how much he has made the effort to be a changed man. If it comes out that he can be cleared somehow ...” his wife said, trailing off.
For Ralph Smith’s family, the revived investigation has brought a rush of attention from friends and family. They’d already planned a family dinner for the week the case broke – a fish fry for a birthday – and it felt that weekend, when they were all together, as if they’d let out a sigh of relief.
Monica Taylor was tempted to visit the block where her grandfather died. She didn’t, but much of the family – except Effie Lee Smith – attended one of Dunn’s early court appearances.
There, they met Dunn’s family, including his wife. They talked, one side offering forgiveness and the other condolence.
“I feel sorry for his family, and I don’t hate him, either,” Effie Lee Smith said. “You’re not supposed to hate for what he did. But what he did, he’s got to pay for it, too, not me.
The second chapter
Dunn’s wife believes that he has gone through a change, perhaps the kind that can alter the divine judgment of a man.
“We should never be ashamed of people who want to make that change,” she said. “Their past should be blotted out, just like God wanted it to be.”
She wants her husband to tell his story, and she wants to hold the hand of the woman her husband is accused of widowing.
The Smiths aren’t ready for that kind of contact, and each of his descendants has different thoughts on the trial ahead.
Monica Taylor thinks Dunn has been punished over the 40 years. Knowing that he was arrested and “that he has to confess for his sins” is enough, she said.
Carolyn Williams, Ralph Smith’s daughter, said the process is out of the family’s hands. “We know justice is going to be done,” she said.
On Aug. 4, a grand jury indicted Dunn on a charge of second-degree murder. A hearing is planned for Dec. 18, by which date prosecutors are expected to complete their initial collection and exchange of evidence.
The county has found Dunn to be indigent and appointed a public defender for him. Both families plan to watch each step of the legal process, through the second chapter no one expected.