With its playgrounds, convenience-store hangouts and a tight-knit community, Atlanta Street and its’ apartments often felt like an island or a city within a city to Gainesville Police.
But when the final bricks came down, Investigator Brad Raper said he hoped the power dynamics in the area would change, allowing him to solve a case that has plagued him for years: the homicide of Phillip Ronald Smith.
Almost four years following Smith’s death, Raper said he has started to identify some people he may want to try to talk to again. One tip from someone who might have seen something on Atlanta Street might open the door for him.
“They weren’t sent to one location. They were dispersed all over town, which kind of broke up the dynamic they had of: everybody lived there, they knew who they were,” Raper said of the former Atlanta Street residents.
Smith, 55, was found unresponsive outside the N building of the apartments June 15, 2015. He died from a gunshot wound to the head.
The slaying shocked the community. At the time, friends and family at the apartment complex and at nearby Pepper's Market said Smith had no enemies and was no stranger to the area:
“He didn’t ever bother nobody,” cousin Mark Carruth said.
In his earlier years, Smith played varsity baseball at Gainesville High School. He pitched a no-hitter during the AA playoffs in Gainesville’s 1978 championship season.
Former Gainesville baseball coach Don Brewer, who worked with Smith at The American Legion, remembered Smith as “always smiling, and he always played hard.”
Willie Stevens, another Pepper's customer, said he considered Smith to be a big brother.
“I can’t believe somebody would do something like that,” Stevens said.
But despite the shock, information from the community on the shooting was sparse.
Raper said there has been no movement on the case since the demolition of the apartments and the construction of Walton Summit, a gated community that hosts a mix of public housing, income-restricted housing and market rate apartments.
Written on the side of a box, Smith’s name hangs above Raper’s desk.
Raper said he would hope to make another full-forced run at the case sometime this month, though his schedule is at the mercy of any new investigations that arise.
“Somebody who may not have felt comfortable, because that’s where they lived before, might feel more comfortable coming forward now with some information,” he said.
Because of the tight-knit nature of the community that existed for decades, the investigator is sure of one thing: “Nothing goes on there that people don’t know.”
“Somebody saw something. I know somebody saw something. I know probably more than one person saw something,” Raper said.
Raper and Cpl. Drew Reed both worked as officers patrolling Atlanta Street before it became Walton Summit. Reports of crime have dropped dramatically since the transition.
“A lot of the stuff that happened there was not from residents. It was from people from all over the place (that would) come there and gather and get in trouble,” Reed said.
Reed reminisced on his times in Atlanta Street, a part of the Gainesville community for more than 60 years that “meant a lot to a lot of people.” Reed worked as a liaison between the Gainesville Housing Authority and the police department.
“You’d ride through there and there’d be a group of people out there hanging out, grilling out and they’d feed you. You just get out and say ‘hey,’ and they’d give you a hamburger, fish fry, whatever they’re doing,” Reed said.
There is still a reward of up to $2,000 for information in Smith’s case through Crime Stoppers.
Though Raper would never turn down anonymous information, he said his case would be stronger if someone would come forward. Little physical evidence and a lack of documented eyewitnesses are just a few of the issues with the homicide investigation.
“I prefer that someone come forward that’s willing to help me go forward with this case. It’s going to be more beneficial if somebody will,” Raper said.