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By Kristin Davis
The Virginian-Pilot

SUFFOLK, Va. - Sgt. Stephen Smith never kept count of the cases. There were too many - robberies and burglaries, car accidents and sexual assaults, missing people who made it home and swimmers who never made it out.
Almost 32 years' worth .
But the murders stayed with him.
Weeks before Smith officially retired on Oct. 1 , he sat in an office already stripped of most of his personal effects, next to a wall of unsolved homicide cases.
Smith, 50 , had spent a year with these files, sifting through old evidence, following up on new tips, interviewing potential witnesses. He was forming a unit dedicated solely to cold cases.
"This is the primary function of law enforcement," he said. "This is the most heinous crime that can be done. Yes, selling drugs on the streets is bad. Gangs are bad. Are you gonna forget the damage that's already been done?"
Smith pointed to the blue files. "It wouldn't make any difference if I never went to the crime scene," he said. "Every one of them became mine."
To date, police have made arrests in two murder cases reopened by Smith. The latest came last week, when a man was charged in the 1994 shooting death of 15-year-old Domoniky Mizzelle.
Smith's path to law enforcement began with another murder - this one almost 40 years ago - in Saugus, Mass., where Smith and his six brothers and one sister were born.
Smith was 10 when a police officer was killed in a shootout at a restaurant outside Boston. Augustine Belmonte was popular ; children went door to door raising money for his widow and two teenage sons.
By the time his father, a shipyard worker, moved the family to Chesapeake in the mid-1970s, Smith had decided to be a police officer.
He was still a teenager when he joined the Suffolk Police Department on Feb. 16, 1977 - exactly eight years after Belmonte's death.
Smith rode with officers, pulled files, manned the front desk and ran the radio when Suffolk's single dispatcher was away.
Former police Chief Gilbert Jackson taught him to clip his pen on the inside of his pocket, to keep his shoes dust-free and to store an extra uniform in his locker because public appearance was paramount.
"After a scuffle," said Smith, who still speaks with a Boston accent, "you still look good."
Training officers taught him to be confident without being cocky. They took him, Smith said, from "a young man to a police man."
"He was really kind of like a ball of fire," police Chief William Freeman said.
"He wouldn't take any chances - any crazy chances - but he's going to be out there and he's going to be in the hunt," Freeman said. "Some people just have what I call a nose, an instinct. He's going to smell it out."
Smith worked uniform patrol, in the detective bureau and special investigations.
As a young detective, Smith was part of the department's first police diving teams, formed after two young boys drowned in a lake too full of stumps and debris to drag.
People on the street knew Smith and liked him, said Debbie George, a city spokeswoman and a former police lieutenant. "He was very charismatic. When we would arrive at a call, people would say, 'Here comes Smitty.' He was someone they could trust and talk to."
Smith was strong-willed and intense, George said, characteristics that helped make homicides his speciality.
When the pair worked murder investigations together, George spotted a picture of a slain teenager inside Smith's pocket notebook. When she asked him why he carried it, Smith responded: "To remind me there is work left to do."
For years there had been a growing backlog of unsolved murders in Suffolk, but no one was dedicated to delving into them.
"There was a constant battle with the needs to investigate current crimes as opposed to assigning personnel to go back to other cases," George said.
Some in the department suggested a cold case unit with a part-time investigator, Smith said.
"I've been around," he said. "This is not something you do part-time. You cannot chase leads, get busy for a month and get back to them."
In the spring of 2007, just more than a year before Smith's retirement, he was tasked with starting the cold case unit. He'd have to organize decades-old files, many with barely legible, handwritten reports, into a single format. That work alone was expected to take a year.
"Some thought he might not even get to solving cases," George said.
Smith still thinks about the police officer slain in his hometown nearly four decades ago. Several years back, he visited the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington. He wanted to find Belmonte's name among the more than 18,000, but first, he sat down on a bench by the memorial.
Smith said when he looked up, there it was, engraved on the block in front of him. He took a photograph, and it hung in his office until shortly before his retirement.
He was making room for the cold case unit's new investigator, Detective Gary Myrick.

Wire Service
 
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