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Hillsborough detectives check potential link between killer, 1989 cold case

Samuel Smithers is on death row for killing two Tampa prostitutes.
Samuel Smithers is on death row for killing two Tampa prostitutes.
Published Oct. 19, 2014

TAMPA — Last July, inside a makeshift courtroom at Union Correctional Institution, a place where death row inmates wage their final legal clashes, two detectives from Hillsborough County sat across from a killer.

Samuel Smithers, a former Plant City church deacon, sat in a red shirt, wrists shackled. He said his lawyer told him not to talk about the 1996 killings of two Tampa prostitutes, the crimes that put him on death row.

But that wasn't why the detectives had made the 160-mile trek to the prison.

A cold case investigator with the Sheriff's Office and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent wanted to talk about a woman named Marcelle Delano. She, too, was a prostitute from Tampa. In 1989, her body was found in an overgrown swamp not far from the place where Smithers later killed the two other women.

Over the years, investigators noted a number of coincidences pointing to Smithers as a suspect. But there was never enough to say for sure. So it came down to this visit.

"I don't think you wake up one morning and decide, 'I'm going to kill a couple of prostitutes,' " said FDLE agent Sandy Noblitt. "If we did not look at him, even if we fail, we wouldn't be doing our job."

They showed him Delano's photo. Smithers leaned forward. He studied her face. He looked for a long time.

• • •

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 27, 1989, a group of people spotted a woman lying in an overgrown swamp off Lindsey Loop in Dover. She was naked but for a pair of white socks and a pink pullover. Her reddish-blond, shoulder-length curls lay amid weeds. Stab wounds marked her skin. The next day, authorities identified her as Delano.

Amber Starnes, her daughter, remembers her mother as a troubled woman whose upbringing was rife with abuse.

"I don't believe my mother ever got a fair chance," said Starnes, who now lives in Tyler, Texas. "She wasn't the best person, but she wasn't the worst person."

By the late 1980s, Delano had accumulated numerous drug and prostitution arrests. Starnes and other family members pleaded with her to get some help. On the last day she saw her, Starnes threatened to tell the police her mother had drugs in her house if she didn't go to rehab. After an argument, Delano left.

She was last seen the afternoon of Nov. 26 getting into a white pickup driven by a white man with dark hair. Her body was found the next day.

Early leads never panned out. The case went cold.

• • •

In 1996, Samuel Smithers was arrested for the killings of Cristy Cowan and Denise Roach, both Tampa prostitutes. Both were beaten, strangled and stabbed. Their bodies were found in a pond behind a Plant City house where Smithers was a caretaker.

Another prostitute later testified she recognized Smithers as a former customer. Forensic evidence from inside the house also linked him to the murders. He was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to death.

When investigators re-examined Delano's case, they noted a number of coincidences. Among them:

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• The house where Roach and Cowan were killed is about 2½ miles east on U.S. 92 from where Delano's body was found, and not far from where Smithers lived;

• When he was arrested in 1996, Smithers worked for Borrell Electric, an electrical contracting company, at 3601 N Nebraska Ave. The building is within walking distance from the spot on 23rd Avenue where Delano was seen;

• At the time of Delano's death, Smithers drove a white Ford Ranger pickup, similar to the truck Delano was getting into when she was last seen;

• Near Delano's body, investigators found a box for a universal joint. They learned the auto part was purchased at a Discount Auto Parts store at Hillsborough and Nebraska avenues.

Detectives hoped for a forensic link to land a criminal charge. An item found with Delano's body contained a small sample of DNA. But when tested earlier this year, it was deemed insufficient for a definitive comparison.

Short of advancements in DNA technology, they would need to talk to Smithers himself. Maybe, they reasoned, he would let something slip.

"I always say it's a flip of a coin," Noblitt said. "Some will flip and some won't."

• • •

Sheriff's Detective Mitch Messer watched as Smither's examined Delano's picture. When Smithers spoke, he was polite and respectful.

"He did say he knew what we wanted," Messer said. "He knew why we were there."

And he denied knowing her.

It wasn't unexpected. Disappointments and dead ends are the nature of cold case investigations. But so is the constant possibility that a new lead will arise.

"The long shot of it is maybe there is someone out there who may have been a prostitute or may have known Mr. Smithers who remembers something," Messer said. "Or maybe we're way off."

For Starnes, closure could be a phone call away.

"It would be great if I could know and to know that it's the correct person," she said. "The right person needs to be convicted."

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.


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