By most accounts, John C. Smith died in June while awaiting sentencing on a drug and weapons conviction.
Or did he?
Federal prosecutors are raising questions about Smith’s death and recently asked the judge in the high-profile drug case for more time to investigate and possibly exhume his body.
Smith, the alleged ring leader of a cocaine operation that had ties to City Hall and included members of the Afro Dogs motorcycle club, had been scheduled to be sentenced earlier this month when prosecutors began asking questions about his death.
“This is a somewhat unusual case," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. “We just want to make sure, before the case is dismissed, that any questions as to his death are answered."
Smith’s defense attorney, angry over what he sees as a frivolous exercise by the government, said there’s no question Smith is dead, and he has a death certificate to prove it.
“This just came up out of the blue," said defense lawyer Joseph J. Terranova. “To bring this up now is completely ridiculous."
Prosecutors aren’t so sure.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas S. Duskiewicz recently asked U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara for time to investigate the reports of Smith’s death, and Arcara gave him until early October.
Hochul declined to comment on whether prosecutors believe Smith is alive, but Arcara, in his order giving the government more time, confirmed as much.
“The government believes that [the] defendant may not be deceased,” the judge said. “The government has a copy of the death certificate, however, has concern with the accuracy of the details surrounding the manner of death and burial and requests additional time to investigate including possibly exhuming the body for verification."
From the day of his arrest in early 2011, Smith was portrayed by federal investigators as the leader of a cocaine ring that had ties to the Afro Dogs and relied on inside information from City Hall.
Smith eventually admitted his guilt – he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm – and was awaiting sentencing when he died June 16 at age 54.
An obituary in The Buffalo News indicated Smith held several leadership positions with the Afro Dogs, including local president and national vice president.
He left behind a wife and four children.
“I’m concerned about the effect on his family," Terranova said of the prosecution’s investigation. “To reopen this is just crazy."
Terranova said Smith died of a heart attack on a Sunday, and his brother called him the following day to tell him Smith was dead. A service was held about a week later at Redeeming Fire Fellowship Church on Lewis Street.
The government was aware of Smith’s death early on because the hospital that treated him – he had been ill for some time – had to break the electronic monitoring device he was wearing at the time, Terranova said.
And yet, he didn’t get word of the investigation until earlier this week.
“The first I became aware of it was an email from the court," he said.
Hochul acknowledged the unique nature of his office’s request but said it was necessary to close the book on the Afro Dogs case.
“I can’t think of another case where we’ve asked the court for a delay to investigate the circumstances of someone’s death," he said.
Smith’s guilty plea in April was one of the last chapters in a two-year prosecution that snared several big names.
Fellow defendants included Dale Lockwood, brother of Deputy Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood, and Ricky M. Allen Sr., former head of the Buffalo Joint Commission to Examine Police Reorganization.
Both pleaded guilty to drug charges.
It was Allen who was accused of passing inside information about police investigations on to Smith. It also was Allen who was the target of an attack earlier this year – his house was shot up – that police believe was tied to his testimony in the drug case.
Allen, his wife and their 11-year-old son were at home but not injured.