Larry Gene Bell
In my opinion there are at least two types of criminals. There are those that progress in their crimes, even when they are caught and there are those that not only learn lessons after serving jail time but actively seek to change. It is hard to tell the difference in the beginning when they are caught for their first crime which sort of criminal they are going to turn out to be. Of course there are the ones who have already progressed in their crimes by the time they are caught for the first time.
Larry Gene Bell was arrested for the first time in February of 1975. He had attempted to abduct a woman in a grocery store parking lot in Rock Hills South Carolina. He had approached her at knife point but her screams alerted people nearby and Bell took off. He was apprehended just a few minutes later after driving away. He bailed out fairly quickly but three months later he pleaded guilty to the crime. In those days victims were not entitled to be notified of any proceedings or things of such so the victim in that case did not know until after Bell's guilty plea what had happened in court. The judge had given him a five year sentence but he suspended it giving him five years of probation and requiring that he seek “mental health counseling for attacking women.”
In June of 1976 Bell's probation was revoked after he had been convicted and sentenced to five years for attacking a female college student in Columbia in October of 1975, just five months after being given probation for his previous attack. He could have been sentenced to between thirty and forty years but he once again agreed to seek treatment, in fact, apparently he had already done so and the judge gave him a break. Many years later records would show that he only went to treatment one time after the February 1975 incident but after attacking the college student he checked into a mental health treatment center and was there for three months. Bell would serve twenty-one months of his five year sentence and was paroled in March of 1978. He was allegedly charged with making obscene phone calls in 1979 but I could not find anything that stated if he had served any time for that or what came of that charge.
It seems that most people believe that Bell did not stay on the right side of the law from 1979 until his arrest in 1985 but there is little to prove differently. He is suspected of being involved in the disappearance of a woman named Sandee Cornett in November of 1984. Sandee was the girlfriend of one of his co-workers. Sandee disappeared from her Charlotte North Carolina home and has not been seen since. Her body has never been found. While later incarcerated Bell allegedly hinted that he knew something about her case and where her body could be found but he never officially admitted anything and as I stated her body has never been found. He has also been named as the man suspect in the disappearance of twenty-one year old Denise Porch in 1975. Like Sandee, nearly a decade later, Denise simply disappeared from her home, showing no sign of struggle but her personal items left behind. She too has never been found. Bell became a suspect because at the time of Denise's disappearance he lived near the apartment complex that Denise lived in and managed in Charlotte. To be fair Bell never admitted being involved or knowing anything about her disappearance and some believe that if he was involved he would have admitted it, as so many serial killers do, for fame and for leverage. Bell was never charged in the cases of Sandee Cornett or Denise Porch.
On May 31, 1985 seventeen year old Sharon “Shari” Faye Smith was returning to her Lexington County South Carolina home after attending a pool party. She was set to graduate high school in just a few days. At the entry to the families long, tree lined driveway was the mailbox and Shari had stopped to grab the mail before heading into the house. Her father had a home office and had seen Shari coming up the drive but had immediately gone on about his business. A few minutes later he realized he had never heard Shari come into the house. He looked outside and saw that her car was still at the mailbox. He then went out and down the 750 feet to the end of the drive to find that Shari's car was still running, her drivers side door was open but Shari was not around. Shari suffered from diabetes and often had the urgent need to urinate so at first her father thought maybe she had run over to the nearby woods to relieve herself but he still did not find her. Within a short period of time the family called the police. At first it seems that the police indicated that they thought this could have been a situation of a young girl running away. In nearly every case in which this is the first theory of the officers the family will dispute that and this case was no different in that aspect. In many cases I will disagree with the family, but this is not one of them. It made so sense for her to run away, leaving everything she had or even leaving her car running at the edge of her property. She had already been gone and away from the home. Why come back to just disappear? It made no sense.
A few days later in the middle of the night the Smith's phone rang. There was a man on the other end of the line. He told them that he had Shari and to prove so he described the clothing that she was wearing and exactly had he had taken her at gunpoint from the end of her own driveway. The caller also informed the family that a letter would be delivered to their home soon and that it was Shari's “Last Will and Testament.” The police had issues with tracing this call but they were able to to trace subsequent calls, but each time they did when they arrived at the scene it would be a different pay phone with the receiver dangling and no one around. The police and Shari's family went to the post office the following morning to find the letter the caller had referred to. It was in deed titled “Last Will and Testament” and according to the family it was in Shari's handwriting. She had even dated and timed the letter. It had been written some twelve hours after she had been taken. Over the next few days the caller continued to call the Smith home, often talking to Shari's sister Dawn. At one point the caller even told Dawn in essence he would be coming for her eventually too. The idea was to keep the caller on the phone for as long as possible to obtain the trace and to catch the person still making the call but it always seemed to fail. On June 5th the caller gave the Smith family directions to an area about sixteen miles away from their home. They were told that they would find Shari there, it is unclear whether they understood in what condition they would find her.
Shari Smith's body was found that night and the coroner believed she likely died shortly after writing the letter. An official cause of death could not be determined based on the decomposition of the body, nor could they tell if she had been sexually assaulted. The best guess the coroner could give was that she had either been suffocated or had died from dehydration due to her diabetes and her lack of medication. The day after Shari's funeral the caller called once more and went into detail as to what he did to Shari. According to the caller he had raped and sodomized her. Then at some point he wrapped her head with duct tape ultimately suffocating her. For the next three weeks officers continued to monitor the Smith's telephone as well as the the family in hopes of finding Shari's killer.
Then on June 14, 1985 in nearby Richland County nine year old Debra May Helmick was playing outside with her brother and sister when a man driving what was described by a neighbor as a silver car first drove by acting suspicious but then stopped just outside Debra's home and grabbed her. The neighbor attempted to chase down the car before running in and informing Debra's dad as to what happened. At the time no one was for certain that Debra's case was in any way related to Shari's case. Investigators were still working on leads in Shari's case and the caller was still tending to call the Smith house from time to time.
On June 22nd the caller called the Smith house once again and talked to Dawn Smith. He brought up Debra's case, confirming that he was the person to kidnap her. Also, just as he had done in Shari's case, he told the Smith's where Debra could be found. Just as had been the case with Shari, the decomposition that had occurred prevented the coroner from determining a cause of death or if she had been sexually assaulted.
In the meantime the only real evidence the investigators had was the “Last Will and Testament” that Shari had written. They had sent it to the FBI to be analyzed. They were able to use what is called electrostatic detection apparatus or ESDA on the letter. What this did was it raised imprints left by previously writings from the same pad. They had been able to raise part of a phone number. They were finally at some point able to figure out the rest of the number and it led them to a man who's parents lived locally in the area. Investigators went to that home. But, what exactly happened next seems a bit hazy.
Some information indicates that investigators sat down with the couple and discussed why they were there and after believing that the couple had been out of town at the time of the kidnappings they informed the couple of a profile of the kidnapper that the FBI had come up with. It was often repeated that the couple dramatically stated at the same time that they must be talking about Larry Gene Bell. However, other information indicates that investigators went to the home and brought the elderly man in for questioning. Once at the station, alone, and hearing that he had allegedly been out of town investigators played a tape of the recordings of the caller's voice for the elderly man. It was said it was then that the man believed the voice to belong to Larry Gene Bell.
No matter how investigators were given Bell's name, they had determined that Bell had house sat for the elderly couple recently, during the time of the murders while they were out of state. The elderly man had written his son's number down on the same legal pad that was later used by Shari Smith. I also found a small, one time, quick, reference that stated investigators had also been sent an anonymous tip that Bell may have been involved in this case. In fact, it seems that it was later believed that Bell himself may have been the caller of that tip. At any rate investigators set things up in order to arrest Larry Gene Bell and that occurred on June 27, 1985, twenty-eight days after he kidnapped Shari Faye Smith.
Due to all of the pre-trial publicity having the trial in Columbia South Carolina was not really an option. Bell would first face trial in the kidnapping and murder of Shari Smith. There had been evidence, including hairs, found in the home he had been house sitting as well as his own home to show that he had been responsible for both murders. Of course his telephone calls to the Smith home did not help. He was convicted in the kidnapping and murder of Shari Smith in February of 1986 and the jury recommended death. The following year in March he was convicted on the same charges related to Debra Helmick and was given the same sentence.
As is accustomed when it comes to death penalty cases oftentimes the defense claims that their client was mentally ill and when that fails at trial they continue to state the mental illness is a defense against the death penalty. This tactic fails more often than it succeeds. At his trial for Shari's murder it was said that Bell testified for six hours and yet rambled and refused to answer questions. It was said that he had later told people that he had done this in an effort to fake mental illness in an attempt at a lighter sentence. A few psychiatrists apparently diagnosed him with schizophrenia but the prosecutors would claim that was not true and all of Bell's attempts were simply an act. Allegedly he claimed to be “Jesus Christ” up until his death.
On October 4, 1996 Larry Gene Bell was electrocuted by the state of South Carolina. He had been given the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. There were apparently no last words recorded. Outside the prison a group of Shari Smith's friends had a quiet candle light vigil in her memory.