CHRISTIANSBURG — Details continued to emerge Thursday in the case of a Hokie linebacker charged with killing a Blacksburg restaurant worker on Memorial Day in a downtown apartment.
At a brief court hearing, a judge appointed an attorney to defend 18-year-old Ismemen David Etute against a charge of second-degree murder.
The state medical examiner’s office said that Jerry Paul Smith, 40, died of a head injury. Court records showed a long string of charges against Smith.
Virginia Tech sources said the Virginia Beach freshman — now suspended from the football team and from the university itself — had easily cleared the vetting process that is a routine part of recruiting.
And Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith rebutted a rumor spreading online that she was the dead man’s aunt.
Etute, who was arrested Wednesday, appeared Thursday in Montgomery County General District Court via a video link from the county jail. Clad in shorts, sandals and an orange shirt, Etute told Judge Gino Williams that he would like to have a lawyer appointed to represent him.
Williams chose Naomi Huntington of Radford, a former prosecutor in Pulaski County and also Radford’s vice mayor.
Etute is being held without bond. The judge set Sept. 23 as the date for his preliminary hearing on the murder charge.
Etute also has a July 22 hearing in Radford, where he faces driving charges that also stem from Memorial Day. On Monday, Etute was driving a 2019 BMW SUV and was pulled over at 4 p.m. for reckless driving and failing to obey a stop sign, according to court records.
It is unclear if Etute was pulled over before or after Smith’s death. Authorities have not said what time they think Smith died, only that they think it was on Memorial Day.
Investigators have said Smith and Etute knew each another, but not what would have brought them together Monday.
Charges and a cause of death
According to a Blacksburg police news release, officers were sent at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to make a wellness check at Smith’s residence in set of small apartments over a store in the 100 block of Blacksburg’s North Main Street. They found Smith dead.
An investigation quickly began. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting Blacksburg police, said Dee Rybiski, a spokeswoman in the agency’s Richmond Office. She had no further comment.
Radford police did not respond to questions about Etute’s traffic stop.
On Thursday, the state medical examiner’s office in Roanoke said an autopsy found that Smith died from a blunt force injury to the head. The medical examiner’s office listed the manner of death as homicide.
Smith had his own history of legal involvement, with years of charges in Montgomery, Loudoun and Fairfax counties, according to court records. Most were misdemeanors or traffic violations and most were dropped.
Court records showed that a Jerry Paul Smith with the same month and day of birth as the man killed in Blacksburg was convicted in 2020 in Loudoun County for petty larceny, and in 2017 in Montgomery County for entering a McDonald’s to cause damage, and for disabling computer software. Other convictions included driving under the influence, reckless driving, public intoxication, and filing a false police report.
Since 2006, at least 16 other charges were dropped.
Listed in court records as 6 feet, 2 inches, 135 pounds, brown-haired and blue-eyed, Smith recently worked at restaurants, gaining a reputation for wild stories.
Cunninghame West, the owner of the Coop restaurant in Blacksburg, called Smith a “sensationalist.”
“He was a fun guy to talk to. He exaggerated I’m sure, but he always had a story every time I talked to him,” West said Thursday.
West recalled that the first time he and Smith talked, Smith told him that his husband was the “district attorney” for a neighboring state. He also told West that his parents owned Carilion Clinic.
“He was eccentric, that’s for sure,” West said. “He would talk about his political connections. He talked a power game.”
Smith was a fixture in Blacksburg over the last few years, working at local establishments that included Centro Taco Bar, Black Hen and D.P. Dough.
West was a former co-owner at Black Hen, but their time at the establishment never overlapped. West said the last time he saw Smith was two weeks ago.
Centro Taco Bar co-owner Saulo Gonzales said Smith was a project manager at the location and was working on the restaurant’s planned expansion. He declined to elaborate on how long Smith had been working in the role or on his job responsibilities.
He also said Smith was a frequent visitor at the location, and that most nights he stopped in, he ordered a single Michelob Ultra and kept to himself.
Gonzales said he was surprised to learn from news coverage that Smith lived right around the corner from his restaurant.
He also was surprised that Smith had been in Blacksburg — Smith had recently told Centro Taco Bar employees that he was going to be out of town visiting Washington, D.C., Gonzales said.
Looking for red flags
Virginia Tech coaches don’t all use the exact same vetting process in recruiting, but they typically spend years building relationships with most recruits before the student athletes step foot on campus.
It’s why the coaching staff was shocked by the accusation against Etute.
The freshman had no discipline issues during his short time on campus and didn’t present any red flags during his recruitment, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.
If Tech’s coaching staff wanted to sign someone with a significant red flag, they would likely seek approval from athletic director Whit Babcock and university administration, according to a source familiar with the process.
A statewide court records search shows that Etute hadn’t been arrested or charged with a driving citation in Virginia prior to May 31.
Absent any criminal history, Tech’s coaching staff also discuss any academic, medical and behavioral issues an incoming student might have, and monitor their progress.
There were no such discussions in the athletic department regarding Etute’s enrollment into the school, nor were any issues brought up internally by the football coaching staff.
The team’s player personnel staff, assistant coaches and head coach Justin Fuente all spend time getting to know recruits, and that goes beyond one-on-one conversations. The staff normally does home visits with the family — those were handled via Zoom during the pandemic — and speak to other contacts familiar with the student-athlete.
Tech had been recruiting Etute for more than a year and a half when he signed with the team on Dec. 16, 2020.
Etute was one of a small number of 2021 signees who were able to interact with coaches on a visit before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person recruiting, making an unofficial visit on March 1, 2020.
After graduating early from Frank W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Etute was one of nine freshmen to enroll at Tech at midyear. He verbally committed on July 11, 2020, from a top three that included West Virginia and North Carolina State.
According to 247 Sports, he had 12 scholarship offers in all.
On Thursday, Frank W. Cox athletic director Jessica Horning said she wasn’t allowed to comment on Etute’s time as a student at the school.
Virginia Beach City Public Schools public relations coordinator Sandra Woodward said no division employees would be allowed to comment on Etute. Woodward would only confirm that he graduated from the school.
The Roanoke Times requested to speak to Virginia Tech football players and coaches about Etute’s time with the team, but the school denied the request.
The university’s board of visitors has a meeting June 7 and 8, when it’s expected that the matter will be discussed in a closed session, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. University legal counsel Kay Heidbreder briefs the board on any pending legal matters at each meeting. Her office declined to comment Thursday.
A strange tangent to the case came from the online rumor that Jerry Smith was the nephew of Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith — a claim that she felt compelled to deny in a Twitter post Wednesday night.
“Some are reporting he was a relative of my family; however this is a falsehood and a distraction,” Hager-Smith wrote.
Hager-Smith’s tweet also condemned the violence that caused Smith’s death and expressed condolences to his friends, family and community members who were hurting.
On Thursday, Hager-Smith said again that while she had four nephews, Smith was not among them.
Apparently Smith himself had started the misinformation in a television interview. WDBJ (Channel 7) reporter Jen Cardone wrote on Twitter on Thursday that Jerry Smith had told her and another reporter repeatedly that he was the nephew of Hager-Smith.
Smith, who had worked for several restaurants in some capacity, was featured in television stories about restaurants operating during the pandemic.
Hager-Smith said that when she heard Smith had worked and lived for some years in downtown Blacksburg, she looked for pictures online to see if he looked familiar. She said she found one of the television stories in which Smith appeared but did not recognize him.
The mayor said that apart from the relationship claim, the only details she knew about the case were those released by town police and reported in local media. She cautioned against getting too wrapped up in possibly unfounded statements being made online or elsewhere about Smith or Etute or whatever led to Smith’s death.
“I think people really need to check themselves. The story is complicated, people are complicated, and there are really way too many convenient tropes to view this with — and I don’t think any of them are helpful for understanding or for healing,” Hager-Smith said.
Staff writers Laurence Hammack, Yann Ranaivo and Alicia Petska contributed information to this report.