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Graduate Student's Fatal Shooting Reveals A Secret Affair, But Who Is The Killer?
Denita Smith believed she had met her "perfect" man, but he was hiding a secret that would cost her life.
When North Carolina graduate student Denita Smith was shot in the back of the head leaving her apartment, it quickly exposed her “perfect” fiance’s double life.
But was it her cheating fiance or his secret girlfriend that was responsible for the budding photographer’s death?
Denita believed her life was falling together perfectly. As a graduate student and photojournalist at the student newspaper at North Carolina Central University, Smith was honing her craft.
“She’s always loved the camera,” her mom Sharon Smith recalled. “The camera was her friend. The camera was her way of expressing herself.”
Denita was also newly engaged to her longtime boyfriend Jermeir Stroud, a police officer who worked in Greensboro. Denita had gushed to best friend Edith Kearns about her “perfect” man.
“They had been dating for a few years and you know, before I even met him, Denita spoke very highly of him,” Kearns remembered. “Like, ‘he’s a gentleman, he’s intelligent, he’s active, involved, well rounded, he’s kind, he respects me, he protects me, he’s loving.’”
But her bright future came to a sudden halt on the morning of January 4, 2007, when Denita was leaving her Campus Crossings apartment. As the 25-year-old was walking down the complex steps, someone came up behind her and shot her in the head, sending her tumbling down the stairs.
Her purse and belongings lay scattered down the steps.
Family and friends were shocked by the brutal killing.
“At that point my life just changed, completely,” her mom Sharon said. “I’m wondering who? Why? Who would want to do this? Why would they want to do this? It just doesn’t make sense.”
But just two hours after the fatal shooting, police got a potential break in the case.
Female Eyewitness Flees the Scene
The apartment’s maintenance manager heard the shot and called 911 to report that he and another young female, whom he described as being “upset and shaking,” had heard the gunfire.
He later told investigators that he first saw the woman, described as being about 5’10” with her hair in a ponytail and some kind of emblems on the sleeves of her shirt, near the scene of the shooting.
“She was covering her face and went and got into her truck and started driving away,” Durham Police Detective Shawn Pate explained. “He said, like, she was distraught, she had her hands over her face and [was] moving quickly.”
The apartment manager pulled his truck up to the woman’s burgundy Ford Explorer and asked if she’d heard the gunfire. She told him she’d heard the shot and gestured to where she thought the sound had come from, but when he told her he was going to call the police, she seemed to get spooked and drove out of the complex.
When police asked Stroud whether he knew anyone that drove a burgundy Ford Explorer he stated that he did know someone.
Jermeir Stroud's Affair Revealed
According to Pate, Stroud had an affair with an attractive single mom named Shannon Crawley, who worked with him as a 911 dispatcher at the Greensboro Police department. "They start having a relationship that at least started kind of like friendly but then turned sexual toward the end of 2004,” Pate said.
During the secret affair, Shannon got pregnant and later had an abortion. According to Stroud’s account, that put an end to the physical aspect of their relationship about a year before Denita’s death.
Investigators didn’t believe the graduate student ever knew about her fiance’s secret double life.
“Shannon knew about Denita but Denita had no clue,” Pate told the show. “Everyone I spoke to about Denita said if she even suspected, she would have been out of that relationship.”
At the time of the murder, Stroud told police he had just finished a night shift on the police beat and was sleeping at his Greensboro home, about 50 miles away from the crime scene.
Police talked to Shannon at her job at the emergency call center in Greensboro. She told police she had been taking one of her children to a doctor’s appointment at the time, but just as police were getting ready to leave, one of her coworkers handed Pate a note telling him someone else wanted to speak to him.
That coworker told Pate that Stroud had been calling to talk to Shannon at work for months.
The revelation complicated the investigation into Denita’s death. Shannon told investigators that sometimes she was “afraid for her life” because Stroud continued to call her and would show up at her house, carrying his gun.
Her coworker admitted to selling Shannon a .38-caliber revolver — the same type of weapon believed to have killed Denita — presumably for her safety.
Stroud denied ever harassing Shannon and told police there was no reason she should be afraid of him.
But just who was telling the truth?
The apartment manager identified a picture of Shannon’s SUV as the vehicle he saw the morning of the shooting, but couldn’t positively identify Shannon herself as the woman he saw.
During a search of her house, however, they did find 911 communications center uniforms with emblems on the sleeves just as the maintenance supervisor had described. While they found the uniform, they were unable to find the gun she had recently purchased.
Meanwhile, cell phone records placed Shannon near the crime scene in Durham the day before the shooting, despite her claims she had never been to the city.
“I’m thinking it’s recon,” Pate suggested. “You have to know when to be there and where to place yourself, where to stand.”
Adding to the evidence against her, investigators also found gunshot residue on the wheel and gearshift of her car.
As for her alibi, her child’s pediatrician told police she never showed up the day of the shooting, strengthening the case against her.
Investigators believe Shannon may have targeted Denita out of jealousy. After Shannon got pregnant, she and Stroud both told police that he had told her that he didn’t want to have a baby with her. Stroud also insisted Shannon had been the one who continued to call him and come around his place, even though he told her he wanted to be with Denita.
But there was also no DNA, murder weapon, or forensics found at the crime scene to link Shannon to the shooting.
And her family stood staunchly in her corner, insisting Stroud had been the one obsessed with her.
“He wanted her to come back to him, and she didn’t,” her mom Anne Crawley told Mankiewicz. “He was so possessive. She just didn’t want that type of relationship.”
Shannon Crawley Arrested for Murder
Yet, police still had enough evidence to make an arrest and they took Shannon into custody just five days after the murder.
But the drama wouldn’t end there.
While out on bail, Shannon and her attorney went to police with a new story about what happened. Shannon now claimed that after she and Stroud broke up, he began stalking her. She said she bought a gun from a coworker because he had threatened her and her children.
She alleged the day before the murder, he forced her to drive with him to Durham to case the apartment, then forced her at gunpoint to return the next day.
“He said I’ll make it real simple, either your children die or you die for your children,” she told authorities.
Fearing for her life, she went with him to the apartment. She alleged that once they got there, he got out, while she waited in the SUV. When she heard arguing, she claimed she got out and heard a gunshot.
According to her account, Stroud allegedly came running back, got in the driver’s seat and then threw himself into the backseat where he hid as she drove from the complex.
The prosecutor in the case, however, was unwilling to throw out the charges against her without proof.
Authorities were surprised when she turned up with recordings of conversations she allegedly had with Stroud on the telephone while out on bail where he seemingly implicated himself.
“You know I already got away with murder once. Think I can’t do it again?” the caller said.
But investigators didn’t believe the caller sounded anything like Stroud and suspected the calls had been staged.
“It just did not sound like him at all,” said David Saaks, then the assistant district attorney. “There was just no way in my mind that that was Jemeir, because when I heard these tapes I knew I had the right person.”
Shannon then alleged that while she was out on bail and living in Charlotte, she had been out taking her dog for a walk around 2 a.m. when Stroud attacked her and raped her with a knife. She suggested police search his trash can for evidence.
Oddly enough, when Stroud was putting his trash outside he noticed a knife in the bottom of the can and called police. Witnesses in the neighborhood also reported seeing a car pull up and someone wearing a hoodie get out and put something into the can, suggesting to authorities that it had been an elaborate hoax and someone was trying to frame Stroud.
Phone records also placed Stroud in Greensboro, not Charlotte, the morning of the alleged attack and a rape kit found no sign of semen on Shannon’s body.
“Everything was pointing to her and the only thing that was pointing to Jermeir was that he was in this affair with Shannon,” Saaks said. “I do not believe he was involved in the murder. I do not think he was involved in the planning or the execution of this murder at all.”
A jury would agree. Although Shannon’s attorneys brought the same story to court, and both Stroud and Shannon faced off on the stand with their differing accounts, jurors convicted her of first-degree murder.
Shannon, who continues to proclaim her innocence from behind bars, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2010.
Stroud declined to be interviewed by Dateline but did provide a statement denying any responsibility in Denita’s death and refuted all the allegations Shannon lodged against him.