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Former police chief and fingerprint expert overcame personal tragedy

Long after he became Dunedin's police chief, Edward M. Smith kept getting calls from law enforcement agencies harking back to his old job, as head of the Identification and Records Bureau of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"If there was a robbery or a body found floating in the bay, they would call him up at all hours of the night," said his son, Ted Smith.

Mr. Smith was considered by many to be a top fingerprint expert in the southeastern United States. In 1963, he was hand-picked by J. Edgar Hoover to attend a class at the FBI National Academy in Washington, D.C., and tour its famous crime lab.

Some of the middle-of-the-night calls he fielded became bitterly personal after June 9, 1977, the day his daughter, 24-year-old Stephanie Lee Smith, disappeared in New Orleans.

His daughter's body was never found. But Mr. Smith tried not to let his grief show. "When you asked him how he was doing, things were always 'fantastic,' " said Ted Smith, 62. "He could be in pain or not feeling well, but everything was always fantastic."

Mr. Smith, who spent 38 years in law enforcement, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 93.

Born in Elyria, Ohio, he came to St. Petersburg with his family at age 1. His first goal was to be a priest. But he needed to make a living, so he started a roofing business.

He married the former Ann Kenny in 1939. The Navy put him to work with the Seabees in Saipan and Okinawa.

He joined the St. Petersburg Police Department in 1946, one of 13 veterans hired to beef up the 45-officer force.

"Right after World War II, when I joined the St. Petersburg police, the men were not really too sharp," Mr. Smith said in 1967. "Law enforcement was almost like a pastime or hobby. But I can only say that since then, the work policemen have done has steadily been upgraded."

Lionel Blakeney was one of the veterans who joined the force around the time Mr. Smith started. They called themselves the Original 13.

"They gave us a badge," said Blakeney, one of the few Original 13 members still alive. "We bought our own uniforms, our own guns, our own clothing."

Blakeney, 91, remembered Mr. Smith as "a first-class police officer" who was very good at fingerprints.

He was also confident, able to articulate his point of view smoothly but with a naturalness that appealed to others. The Police Department promoted him to detective in 1951, to sergeant in 1957, and in 1959, to lieutenant in charge of the identification bureau. There, a staff of 12 tried to contend with more than 600,000 "unindexed pieces of information," according to news accounts at the time.

Mr. Smith helped overhaul those records while largely teaching himself the art of fingerprint identification.

"He always had a jar of fingers in the windowsill in formaldehyde," his son said. "Instead of bringing in a whole body, they would take a finger or two."

Once, Mr. Smith was able to identify two brothers — from a fingertip — after their plane crashed in the Everglades. Another time, he helped free a man wrongly accused of killing.

"Everyone was sure he was guilty and it looked like he didn't have a chance," Mr. Smith later said. "But I proved through finger-and-blood prints that he wasn't the murderer."

That expertise made him unique, even after he was promoted to captain of the 120-officer uniformed division. It followed him into the police chief's job he assumed in Dunedin, and to his subsequent role as director of public safety.

When Stephanie Smith disappeared in 1977 after a job interview, the calls to his office at least helped alleviate a gnawing feeling of helplessness.

"Every time somebody would turn up a skeleton or some remains, he would have been able to give his opinion as to whether what they had could have been linked to his daughter," said David Milchan, a former St. Pete Beach and Pinellas Park police chief who once served as an aide to Mr. Smith on the St. Petersburg police force. "It was a tough position."

In 1983, the Pinellas County chapter of the National Safety Council gave Mr. Smith its highest honor, the Torch Award. Later that year, Mr. Smith had to resign as part of a new city manager's plan to trim the budget.

Mr. Smith sued, charging age discrimination, but lost. For eight years, he served as an administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.

His death has left family members and former colleagues in admiration for an officer and father who experienced tragedy but stayed focused on the good.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Edward Martin Smith

Born: Feb. 8, 1918.

Died: March 22, 2011.

Survivors: Wife Ann Marie Kenny Smith; sons Edward Smith Jr. and his wife Nancy, and Theodore "Ted" Smith and his wife Kathy; and two granddaughters.

Service: 1 p.m. today; Our Lady of Lourdes Church; 750 San Salvador Drive, Dunedin.

Former police chief and fingerprint expert overcame personal tragedy 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 10:08pm]

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