Curtis J. Smith Jr. threw himself a party Wednesday and invited the whole neighborhood to help him celebrate turning 29.
For eight hours, the Box Avenue playground was turned into an oasis in a hard-pressed urban setting. There were more than 100 partygoers. Music and the aroma of grilled hotdogs filled the air. Children played on the jungle gym after their bedtime. Adults soaked up the festive atmosphere on one of the best weather nights so far this summer.
What could go wrong?
At 11:15 p.m., someone fatally shot Smith, a father of seven daughters who was engaged to be married.
For his mother, who had been at the party earlier in the day, Smith’s death seemed incomprehensible. Eleven years earlier, her then-17-year-old son Carl was shot at a party and died in the arms of his brother, Curtis.
“They targeted Curtis and shot him down like a dog,” Kimberly Barnes said of her oldest son.
Buffalo homicide detectives say the shooting might have been gang-related, though Smith’s family members insist he walked away from street life several years ago to focus on his children and a career as a party promoter. And while there are believed to be many witnesses, police on Thursday said they have received “zero cooperation.”
Barnes said that while she understands people are fearful of retribution, she urged anyone with information to call the Buffalo Police Department’s confidential tip line at 847-2255.
“I pray someone comes forward,” she said. “Everyone saw the person” who shot Smith.
Shortly after Carl M. Smith was shot the night of Oct. 29, 2004, during a party in an abandoned house at 648 E. Utica St., Curtis Smith described his younger brother’s final moments in an interview with The Buffalo News.
“I’m about to die,” Carl had told Curtis, who was 18 at the time. “I had been playing dice when I grabbed Carl and pulled him down. I told him ‘you’re not dying.’ ”
The shooter had entered a side alleyway and fired his gun through a boarded-up window. The house, police said, was filled with about 60 young people who were listening to music and dancing.
Curtis J. Smith Sr. said “devastated” did not begin to describe how he feels about losing a second son to violence.
“They never caught Carl’s killer, and we still hope police charge someone,” the father said, standing outside the Winslow Avenue home he shared with Curtis.
Jessica Smith, the 26-year-old sister of the two brothers, said she has no doubt a plan was hatched to intentionally kill Curtis.
“They came to the party just to shoot him,” the sister said, recalling her last words to Curtis an hour before he was killed. “I was leaving, and I told him ‘I love you’ and that I would be over to wake him at 8 a.m. so that we could go to breakfast.”
Donnella Barnes, Curtis’ cousin, offered another insight into why she believes it was a planned shooting.
“There were more than a hundred people there, and no one else was hurt,” she said.
Jessica Smith said her older brother gave up gang life several years ago.
“He had been in a little crew (gang), but he got out of that. He turned his life around. He was focusing on his children and bettering himself,” she said.
“My son wasn’t perfect,” Barnes said. “He was arrested because he sold drugs. When he got out of jail in 2007, he’s done nothing since then.”
The mother believes the motive for the slaying was jealousy.
“We call them ‘haters,’ people who are jealous of others. They see them dressed in nice clothing and succeeding,” Barnes said of how little it takes to provoke someone into ending another person’s life.
Clutching her Bible in the tiny living room of her Hazelwood Avenue home, she recalled receiving the dreaded news that her surviving son had been shot:
“I woke up out of my sleep at about 11 p.m. My daughter Diamond’s phone started ringing. Diamond was screaming, ‘Mom, they said Duke got shot.’ I said, ‘Is he dead?’ Diamond said, ‘Mom, let’s just get over to Box. They say he’s laying in the middle of the street.’ I grabbed my Bible before we left. When we got there, he was gone and we flew to ECMC. I said, ‘Please let me see him one last time.’ They let me see my baby. He was gone. He looked like he was sleeping. They told me he had been shot multiple times.”
Her son, whose nickname was “Dukey-Racks,” was engaged to Shavone Johnson and the couple had two young daughters, Denver and Summer.
“Now they’ll never get the chance to marry,” Barnes said.
Many gathered at the playground near the victim’s home throughout Thursday to remember Smith.
“He had a dream of owning a couple night clubs,” said Shay, a cousin who would only give her first name.
Latasha Banks, who had attended the party, said, “It’s ridiculous. There were babies out there.”
“Stop the violence,” another mourner kept shouting.
Someone had tied a single bouquet of red flowers to a utility pole near the spot where Smith was gunned down.
“There’s going to be a whole lot more flowers,” yet another mourner said.
The Brian K. Lewis Funeral Home of Buffalo is handling arrangements, which were still being finalized late Thursday.