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Former Raider Anthony Smith goes from football field to criminal court

By Ann M. Simmons and Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Anthony Wayne Smith was a top draft pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1990, a barrel-chested rising star.

He excelled as a defensive end. He amassed cash and bought a plush Playa del Rey pad. He found love.

(PHOTO: Anthony Wayne Smith, a former top draft pick of the Los Angeles Raiders as a defensive end, is charged with four murders. Smith, right, appears in a Lancaster, California, court on July 17, 2012. )

But only months after his football career ended, prosecutors allege, Smith killed two men — and two more in the years that followed. A jury deadlocked on one murder charge against the North Carolina native in April; charges against him in three other cold-case murders were filed as he awaited retrial. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Smith’s attorney denies that Smith was involved in any of the crimes. Smith pleaded not guilty to the slayings Wednesday.

The path that led Smith from a pro football career to a criminal courtroom in Lancaster is studded with contradictions. Friends and family describe him as a loving and generous father of three, happily married for 14 years to a San Bernardino County prosecutor.

But there are also jarring notes in his past — suggestions of personal inconsistencies and struggles with fame. And apart from the murder charges, he has had other legal troubles. In the years since his last season on the football field in 1997, Smith faced charges of arson — later dismissed — and prosecutors suggested he was involved in a bank-wire scam, though no charges were filed.

Smith’s mother died when he was very young, said a relative, Sharon Davis, 44. Davis’ father, who was Smith’s older half-brother, raised Smith with Davis. Technically Smith’s niece, although the two are nearly the same age, Davis described Smith as a compassionate “people person” who never lusted after money or celebrity.

Smith played football in his senior year at Northeastern High in Elizabeth City, N.C. His college football career began at the University of Alabama. While there, said Brian McNamara, 32, Smith was a student of his father. Smith was “always the nicest, kindest and gentlest person,” McNamara wrote in an email.

In 1989, Smith transferred to the University of Arizona, where he was named to the All-Pac-10 team. Selected 11th overall by the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1990 NFL draft, he had an impact early in his career, signing a four-year, $7.6 million contract extension after his third season.

As his NFL profile rose, Smith donated generously to charity. He served as “mentor ambassador” to children in a Los Angeles city housing authority youth program. He treated youngsters to trips to amusement parks and would sometimes take kids to Raiders events or home for a meal.

Smith once volunteered to speak to the flag football team of the son of a former Los Angeles Times sports reporter. He “said all the right things,” recalled the reporter, Steve Springer. “Those kids were wide-eyed.”

In 1995, Smith made headlines when he married former singer Denise Matthews, stage name Vanity, of “Nasty Girl” fame. Matthews was 10 years older, by then a staunch evangelist, and had proposed three days after meeting him, according to news reports.

But Smith’s days of fame and football also included some off-key notes. In an early interview, he spun colorful tales of a delinquent childhood in New York City, saying he had crashed a stolen car when he was 8, killing two friends, and had served time in jail and rehab.

A year or two later, talking to another reporter, he recanted it all. Smith never said why he had lied.

“I’m doing things that are positive, and if you guys can’t deal with that, I’m sorry,” he said at the time. “I don’t want my name to be connected with things that aren’t productive.”

As time went on, former players and acquaintances noticed Smith becoming suspicious of people around him. “I have grown to despise it,” Smith told the Times in 1994. “Someone’s desire to trick me or cheat me out of what I have, that makes me sick.”

His marriage to Matthews lasted only a few months. By the 1996 season, a year after the Raiders had relocated to Oakland, it was clear that Smith’s desire to play had waned. He inexplicably failed to show up at the airport for the fifth game of the season and was suspended for a month.

When he returned, he got a lukewarm reception from his teammates and declined to speak with reporters for the rest of the season.

Smith “had some volatility,” said Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, also a former Raider. “As talented as he was, he was a very emotionally complex young guy.”

The Raiders finished poorly in 1997. Smith opted out of his contract but did not sign with another team.

After that, Smith receded from the spotlight. He married his current wife, Teresa Obello White, without fanfare.

In 2003, when he was charged with arson in the firebombing of a furniture store in Santa Monica, only minor mention was made in the news media. Smith reportedly had a falling-out with the store’s owner over money and an item left on consignment. Two juries deadlocked on a verdict. A judge dismissed the case in December 2004. Smith unsuccessfully sued police, alleging false arrest.

Then, last year, Smith’s name was in the news again: Los Angeles County prosecutors announced they had filed murder charges against him in the death of Lancaster mechanic Maurilio Ponce on Oct. 7, 2008. Ponce’s body was found along a desert highway. He had been beaten, stomped and shot — essentially “executed,” prosecutors allege.

Prosecutors said Smith told police that he, Ponce and two accomplices were smuggling stolen cargo and that Ponce had promised Smith $10,000 to move goods that night. Prosecutors also have said Smith owed Charles Eric Honest, one of his alleged accomplices, $40,000 from a bank wire scheme that had gone wrong shortly before.

Cellphone records traced by Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators placed the trio near the scene of the crime, prosecutors said. Investigators found Ponce’s car, cellphone and other belongings in the parking garage of Smith’s Marina del Rey condo. Honest has been found guilty of second-degree murder. The other alleged accomplice, Dewann Wesley White, is being tried.

Smith’s attorney, Michael S. Evans, told jurors that Smith had previously arranged with Ponce to pick up his car at a tire shop. The closest that prosecutors could place Smith to the slaying was 45 miles away, he said. And a call Smith made to Ponce’s cellphone after his death shows he didn’t know about the killing, Evans said.

After the mistrial, Smith was held without bail at Men’s Central Jail. Prosecutors then charged him in the additional cases.

They allege that in November 1999, Smith took part in a scheme to kidnap Ricky and Kevin Nettles from a Los Angeles carwash. Two of the abductors posed as police officers. The next day the brothers, ages 39 and 34, were found dead. They had been tortured and shot.

A year and a half later, in June 2001, prosecutors allege, Smith took part in a similar crime against Dennis Henderson, 33, the brother of one of Smith’s Marina del Rey neighbors. Henderson’s body was found in a rental car in Watts.

Robbery may have been the motive, but “that’s just a guess at this point,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Martin Mojarro.

Police have been tight-lipped about how they connected Smith to the long-unsolved killings, citing interviews and search warrants. They would not say whether DNA evidence implicated him.

Family members are left to grapple with allegations they say are at odds with the Smith they know.

“We knew him as someone who couldn’t physically hurt someone outside the football field,” said Sebrenna Graves, a longtime friend.

Said Davis, Smith’s niece: “This doesn’t make sense.”

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