I can't remember the first time I met Lou Smit, because he was the kind of person that, once acquainted, you felt you'd known him forever.
Gentle, wise, diligent, Smit made his mark on our world by going about his business of capturing what he called "Tiga Gatas," a make-believe creature with a tiger's head and an alligator's tail. The creature had no way to excrete. It was vicious.
"Tiga Gatas" was the term he used to describe the worst of the worst, bad people, people like Robert Browne, who claimed to have murdered 48 individuals, including 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church, who was kidnapped from her Black Forest home in 1991. Smit helped solve that case in 1995, by using a single fingerprint on a screen at the Church home.
In a career spent almost entirely in this area, Smit served as a homicide investigator for the Colorado Springs Police Department, Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Office and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. He died last week of colon cancer at 75.
After he moved to Pikes Peak Hospice in mid-July, his room was often filled with the voices of visitors. John Ramsey, father of slain 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, traveled from Michigan. Actor Kelsey Grammer called from New York and talked with Smit days before he died. Smit had helped solve the 1975 rape and murder of Grammer's sister Karen, and decades later, Grammer wanted to pay for any last-minute tests or treatment, no matter what the cost.
Those closest to him know Smit approached his work with reverence. "Shoes, shoes, who will stand in the dead man's shoes?" was his catchphrase. He stood in those shoes many times, carrying victims' photos in his wallet, visiting their graves, praying for guidance in solving the crimes.
But his humble demeanor belied an aggressive quality that enabled him to take chances. As Smit's friend and cold-case buddy, Charlie Hess, says, "You've got to walk on the edge, because if you don't, you can't see what's down below."
There's no doubt that Smit, a Navy veteran, was gutsy. Once he talked an armed, suicidal man out of his darkest moment. "You're not going to shoot me, are you?" Smit asked while drawing nearer. "Don't kill yourself today. Maybe tomorrow, but today isn't a good day."
Dave Spencer, who worked for Smit at the CSPD homicide unit during the 1970s and 1980s, recalls when a burglar broke into the old City Hall downtown as his unit was ending its shift. Smit ran after the suspect as he was coming out the front door. "Lou pulled his gun and grabbed the guy in the middle of Kiowa Street," Spencer says. "Lou's gun went off in a struggle."
Though Smit would later campaign to provide officers counseling, back then those involved in shootings reported for work the next day as if nothing had happened.
"There was a side to Lou Smit that maybe only the ones who worked for him saw," Spencer adds. "He could be very tough. He may not have been big in stature, but he was very strong. He wasn't afraid to mix it up if he had to. There were several times we arrested people and they resisted. It wasn't us that got hurt, I can tell you that.
"Whatever the case called for," Spencer adds, "that's the Lou Smit you got."
He unfailingly preached professionalism. When executing a search warrant on a homicide case in Florida, temperatures soared to 100 degrees and the humidity hovered at 90 percent. "I wanted to wear shorts," Spencer recalls. "He said, 'We're not wearing shorts. We're wearing suits. We're representing the CSPD.' He made me wear a suit every second we were working there. That's the closest we came to arguing about anything."
Smit made sergeant but later turned in his stripes to return to homicide, and his co-workers loved him for it.
"He was born to be a cop and a homicide detective," Spencer says. "That's what he was meant to be, and, boy, he excelled at it. We just wanted to be half as good as him."
Never give up
After retiring from the CSPD, Smit spent five years in the DA's office before then-Sheriff John Anderson hired him to work investigations. That led to his breaking the Church case.
But what catapulted him into the national spotlight was his stubborn belief that an intruder killed JonBenét Ramsey. Hired by the Boulder DA's office shortly after the murder, he quit months later when the investigation zeroed in on the Ramsey parents. But on his own, Smit worked on the case until a month before his death, say friends Hess and Ollie Gray.
"There were so many uncovered leads in that case," Hess says. "Lou had categorized all those and ended up with his top 20 and was working his way down the list on those 20 and interacting with different people and agencies, and so on. Every so often we would meet with someone who thought they might have something and go explore it."
Which illustrates one of the biggest lessons Smit imparted: "No matter what, you never, never let go, as long as there's anything to explore," Hess says. "You probe as deeply as you can, and when you're through, you start all over again."
Anderson, considered Smit's best friend, says Smit's attention to detail was unparalleled. Looking over a car, he'd check everything: the odometer, fuel, ashtray.
Gray, a private investigator and retired California sheriff's captain, worked with Smit to build a 600-page PowerPoint presentation on the Ramsey case. When the DA, focused on the Ramsey parents, wanted to prevent Smit from telling the grand jury about the intruder theory, Smit fought it and won.
"As you can see," Gray says, "there was no indictment."
Smit also embraced the changing technology, learning to use computers to organize files. At the end of his life, he read books only on Kindle.
Smit and his family lived in a small, unpretentious westside duplex from the late 1960s until he entered hospice care. He helped his wife, Barb, battle cancer for more than a decade, cleaning house, cooking and doing laundry. After she died in 2004, he traveled overseas and one winter worked investigations for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department. He could often be found having coffee or lunch with his detective buddies at the now-closed Old Heidelberg restaurant, Denny's on Bijou Street or Detz Cafe, his favorite meal a hamburger with a fried egg on top. His aversion to vegetables was legendary.
Before he moved to hospice care, I visited Smit at his home. He was chipper and chatty about a number of cases he had worked on in his life. Before I left, he made a point to tell me, "I have no regrets. I've had a wonderful life doing what I love to do."
Several days later, he moved to hospice care. He enjoyed the company there, acknowledging every visitor, holding their hands, blowing kisses.
His son, Mark, says he lived a deeply held Christian faith, cemented while working in the tree business in Denver as a young man.
"Things weren't clicking," Mark says. "He just got down on his knees and said, 'God, I want to give this over to you.' Two weeks later he got a call from a cousin on the Colorado Springs Police Department, asking him if he wanted to apply."
Discipline in the household of four children was rare, because it simply wasn't necessary. "Mainly with him, you never wanted to disappoint him," Mark says. "If you thought you disappointed him, that was more punishment than anything, because we respected him so much."
Smit is remembered as always ready to help a friend or someone in need. You could call him with an emergency at 3 a.m. and he'd be on his way within five minutes. "We had people at the house all the time," Mark says. "They would come over unannounced just to talk to him, or to borrow some money, to borrow our car, or whatever. He loaned our car out once and never got it back. The people who borrowed it were in much greater need than we were, so he didn't pursue it. He didn't turn anyone away."
A week or so before Smit died, John Ramsey flew in and went with Gray to see him.
"We talked about the situation he was in," Gray says. "He knew where he was. He said he was prepared to go. I kind of needled him and said, 'You've got three girls waiting for you: Barb, JonBenét and Patsy [JonBenét's mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006]. You gotta figure out some way to get the information back to us who was involved in that. He said, 'I guess we're just going to have to work with that.'"
Even at the end, Lou Smit was on the case.
"It wasn't what he did," his son says. "It was who he was."