Cold Case: The assassination of Dennis Smedley

Cold Case Investigations

Dennis Smedley, 28, was murdered in 1983. Today, his family is still seeking closure.

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (WDVM) — Tuesday, September 20, 1983, started like any normal day for Front Royal Police Officer Dennis Smedley.

But had it been a normal day, at 6:30 in the morning, the 28-year-old police sergeant would have exited the ground floor apartment he shared with his fiancee and walked to his truck, parked curbside on Sixth Street.

Had it been a normal day, his sister, Cheryl Cullers, would have driven by at that time, waving to her older brother. She would have been driving to Warren Memorial Hospital, where she worked as an operating room nurse.

Had it been a normal day, Smedley would have waved back, before getting into his truck and driving toward the police department.

But September 20, 1983, wasn’t a normal day. Cullers stayed home with a back injury from chopping wood over the weekend. When Smedley left his building and walked to his truck, someone else was waiting for him.

As he opened the door of the truck, that person crossed the street and shoved a gun into Smedley’s lower back. Then they fired three rounds and ran away.

Cullers remembers getting a call from her mother about the shooting shortly after.

“In my mind, I thought, ‘Well you know somebody’s robbed a store, you know, something like that and he was shot, in the commission of that,'” Cullers said. “It wasn’t until I told my husband, I said, ‘We need to stop and tell his fiance and see if she knows.’ It wasn’t till we got there that we realized whatever happened there.”

Smedley was rushed to Warren Memorial Hospital where he was prepped for surgery. He died of a heart attack before making it into the operating room.

Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis says no amount of training could have protected Smedley that day.

“The person or people that did this were cowards and they assassinated him in cold blood.”

Smedley started his public service career as a corrections officer soon after he graduated from high school. He later joined the Front Royal Volunteer Fire Department, acting as a mentor to many of the young men who volunteered.

“Dennis taught me a great deal about what fire suppression was all about, but he also taught me the value of friendship,” said Marty Zuckerman, a close friend of Smedley’s. “He taught me what it was to take responsibility, and a great deal toward again the person I’ve become.”

Smedley later joined the Front Royal Police Department and was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Magalis was just 9 years old when Smedley was murdered and remembers hearing about the case growing up. He says Smedley was the picture of public service.

“I don’t think there’s much more that exemplifies public service than doing a job in public service and then doing another job in public service when you’re off,” he said, referring to Smedley’s history as a volunteer firefighter. “So clearly, the man was committed to providing service his community.

Cullers remembers Smedley as the ultimate big brother, always letting her tag along on his outdoor excursions.

“He used to always say you know, family honor,” she said. “You look out for each other, you take care of each other. And I think we’ve all tried to do that.”

Cullers endured not only her brother’s murder. She’s also sat through two trials of his alleged killers.

Just a few hours after the shooting, Kenneth Foster, a Front Royal man who had several prior run-ins with Smedley, was arrested at a taxicab stand where, according to news reports from the time, he was calmly playing cards with friends. Prosecutors claimed his history with Smedley was motive for murder, but a jury found Foster not guilty just months later.

Eight years later, prosecutors would try a second man, a Jamaican migrant worker named Locksley Fowler. Fowler was reportedly working in Winchester in 1983 and prosecutors argued he was hired to kill Smedley. He too was acquitted.

“It’s still raw for many of us. It’s just frustration at not being closure there for the community and wishing that something could’ve been done that would’ve issued that closure,” Zuckerman said.

After investigations were conducted by both the Front Royal Police Department and the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, Smedley’s case was turned over to the Virginia State Police, who declined to comment on this story. They say their investigation is still open.

But 36 years and two acquittals later, his sister says she put things in god’s hands a long time ago.

“I have faith that if it’s supposed solved that it will,” Cullers said. “If not, my faith in God is you don’t always get to see punishment for wrongdoing. It’s not always through the judicial system. God works in mysterious ways.”

Anyone with information on the murder of Sgt. Dennis Smedley is asked to contact the Virginia State Police.

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