Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Riverview man searches for grave site of father killed in line of duty in 1929


Robert Lee Smithwick Jr. cut a startling figure at the memorial ceremony. While others cried, he smiled.

For Smithwick, it was a happy day.

There are eight names on the Lake County killed-in-the-line-of-duty law enforcement memorial, located in front of the county's historic courthouse in Tavares. Smithwick's father, after whom Smithwick was named, was added on May 2, 82 years and one month after his death.

For Smithwick, who lives in Riverview, it was an important step in a two-year push to honor his slain father.

"It made me proud," Smithwick, 86, said a few days after the memorial. "I was proud of my dad. I'd wanted him to have a monument. Now, he has a really big monument."

At the ceremony, which was replete with speeches, a rose laying and a 21-gun-salute, Smithwick drank it all in. The helicopter flyover. The fallen rider mounted patrol and the solemn sound of taps wafting through the air.

"If my dad was here he would say 'What in the world is going on? What's all the fuss about? This is crazy,' " Smithwick said moments after the ceremony. "He would be pleased. My mom would be really pleased."

Smithwick's father was town marshal of Groveland, a small town in south Lake County, as well as a deputy sheriff. He was shot and killed in 1929 when trying to stop a break-in at a neighbor's house. Ninety-five-year-old Julian Rowe remembers the incident.

"It really shook up the community," said Rowe, who lives in Lakeland. "We couldn't believe that it could happen here. There were all sorts of implications … There was a concern that if it wasn't handled just right, we'd end up with a race riot."

Smithwick's father was white. The burglar was black.

Smithwick was 4 when his father died.

"I remember that they brought my dad in the house after he was shot and put him on the bed," Smithwick said in a recent interview. "I remember being in a tall bed at the hospital, several stories up, looking out the window. I have no memory of the funeral. I have no memory of anyone talking about it."

Smithwick grew up not knowing where his father's body lay. His mother struggled to provide for the family and eventually sent Smithwick to live at the Masons Children's Home in St. Petersburg.

He was a junior in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After completing his junior year, he joined the Navy. He later become an engineer for Tampa Electric, married and raised three daughters with his wife, Barbara, who died in 2010.

Smithwick figures it was 2009 when he decided it really was time to find his father's grave.

"It seems like the good Lord asked me to start and find out about my dad, and get a marker if he didn't have one," he said.

He had searched before, more than a decade ago, but made little progress. This time, he vowed to see the search through to the end.

In late 2009, Smithwick reached out to the Groveland Historical Society and connected with local historian Doris Bloodsworth. She told him about the National Law Enforcement Memorial, and Smithwick decided his father needed to be on it. Prior to contacting Bloodsworth, Smithwick found a newspaper article from the Evening Reporter Star in Orlando that suggested that the Clermont cemetery was his father's resting place. Bloodsworth went searching and quickly realized there was a problem: there was no headstone in that cemetery with the marshal's name on it, and the city of Clermont had no records of him being buried there.

Bloodsworth reached out to local media for help. Inquiries by the media led the Lake County Sheriff's Office Victim Assistance Team to contact Smithwick. The team got Smithwick's father on the Lake County Memorial. They have vowed to continue their efforts to have the slain marshal included in the state and national memorials.

At the memorial service earlier this month, Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders said the department would pay for a monument if the deceased's final resting place is found.

According to a newspaper article about the slain officer's funeral in the 1929 Leesburg Commercial, Smithwick's father is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Clermont. City of Clermont cemetery plot sales records do provide some hints as to where his body may be. But nothing is certain.

Still, Smithwick vows to continue the search.

"It's really on top of the list," he said. "This all started because I wanted to find my dad. No one would ever talk about it, and I wanted to see for myself.

"I talk to my heavenly father a lot. I call him Pop. I talk to my dad too. Lately, I've been talking to him more often. I'm telling him 'Dad, it looks like we're going to find you. It'll just be a little longer.' "

If it turns out that there's an available grave site right next to his father's, Smithwick said he might reserve it for himself.

"That would be awesome."

Linda Charlton can be reached at

Riverview man searches for grave site of father killed in line of duty in 1929 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 4:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. After huge sinkhole opens, residents weigh future with unease

    Public Safety

    LAND O'LAKES — The wood floors creak each time Kendra Denzik dashes inside her darkened home to grab fresh clothes. She can't help but panic when they do.

    Eleven families along Ocean Pines Drive in Land O’Lakes homes are fenced in due to the massive sinkhole from last Friday on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The Doohen’s are among 11 families who had to evacuate from their homes.
  2. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members


    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  3. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion


    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  4. Photo gallery: Minors also a training ground for umpires with big-league dreams


    Taylor Payne, 24, and Tom Fornarola, 23, are two of the 23 first-year umpires scattered around the bottom rungs of minor-league baseball this summer. They never met until they were assigned together but quickly developed a strong rapport. Like the players themselves, the two umpires have dreams of reaching the major …

    Umpire Tom Fornarola, 23, left, and Taylor Payne, 24, head for the locker room after the Gulf Coast League game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla. on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.
  5. Minors also a training ground for umpires with big-league dreams

    The Heater

    Umpire Tom Fornarola, 23, left, and Taylor Payne, 24, facing, talk before the start of the Gulf Coast League game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla. on Wednesday, July 5, 2017.