When LaQuinta Smith was found dead in her burning home, the medical examiner couldn't determine how exactly she had died. Would an exhumation provide the answers investigators needed?
It's said that dead men don't talk. But sometimes, in search of justice, victims can speak from beyond the grave.
That's what happens in the Oxygen series "Exhumed: Killer Revealed," which returns for Season 2 on Sunday, May 8 at 7/6c. The series follows cases where exhumations — aka digging up a previously buried body to re-examine it — helped expose a murderer and solve the case. Past episodes revealed antifreeze in victims' bodies, broken bones from strangulation, and other signs of homicide. Sometimes, even just the concept of an exhumation was enough to scare a killer into revealing themselves.
Before the premiere of Season 2, dive into a case that will be featured in the upcoming season of "Exhumed: Killer Revealed."
Who Was LaQuinta Smith?
LaQuinta Smith was a 36-year-old mother of two teenage boys who resided in North Bend, a blue-collar town in Coos County, Oregon, home to loggers and salmon fishermen. LaQuinta, who worked at a local Bi-Mart, was a beloved member of the tight-knight community. She met her husband, Alby, when she was just out of her teens. He was the shy one, while LaQuinta, who was described as fun-loving and vivacious, helped bring him out of his shell.
"She was just funny and I loved her energy," best friend Debbie Rudder told "Exhumed." Her nephew, Travis Douglas, concurred, saying, "My aunt was definitely outgoing. Everyone that met her loved her ... [When I heard she was killed] I thought that cant be right. Because my aunt was pretty amazing."
But in the years before her murder, life hadn't been easy for LaQuinta. Her marriage was failing, with infidelity on both sides. Coworkers said she confided before her death that she was going to get a divorce.
How Was LaQuinta Smith Murdered?
Early in the morning of May 20, 1999, a North Bend police officer spotted smoke billowing from of a home. After notifying the fire department he attempted to get into the home to see if anyone was inside.
There, he found a woman face down and unconscious on a waterbed in her bedroom. She was fully dressed, but barefoot. By the time she was taken to the hospital, it was too late: Identified as LaQuinta Smith, she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Then an autopsy revealed something very strange. It wasn't smoke inhalation that killed her. In fact, there was no soot in her mouth, throat, or lungs, and blood and urine tests were negative for carbon monoxide. That meant she was dead before the fire even began. But what happened to her?
The medical examiner was unsure. A bruise with fingermarks was found on her upper arm, but other than he indicated there was no obvious cause of death either by natural causes or foul play. Her cause of death, he ruled, was undetermined.
Had she been murdered, with the fire set to cover it up? Maybe she had died by suicide and set the fire for a similar reason — sleeping pills had been found near her body. Or could it have been an accident? Investigators were stumped.
Suspects Emerge In LaQuinta Smith Case
LaQuinta's family was notified of her death, and her estranged husband, Alby, seemed to take it very hard. He claimed that while they were indeed separated they had been working on the relationship. He also said LaQuinta had been dealing with depression, which supported the suicide theory.
But LaQuinta's loved ones insisted she would never have taken her own life, and LaQuinta's coworkers claimed she was working on getting a divorce. Was Alby lying?
Alby also fell under suspicion because investigators discovered that in addition to having a girlfriend, he was also the beneficiary of an insurance claim on the house fire. But Alby's son, Todd, who was at his home that night provided him with an alibi.
Another person who fell under suspicion? A man LaQuinta met at a party shortly before her murder. She ended their dalliance quickly. Could that have led to her death?
The man came in for questioning, where he admitted they had spent a night together recently. However, he said he respected her decision not to start a relationship and denied having anything to do with her murder. He took a polygraph and passed.
Another possible lead soon emerged: LaQuinta had two rings she always wore: a Black Hills Gold ring and her mother's ring. But none were recovered during her autopsy. Surveillance footage from her job confirmed she had been wearing them the night she went missing.
A friend then came forward and said she knew where LaQuinta's rings were. She claimed Alby had them days after her death. He told the friend LaQuinta had asked him to get them cleaned before she died. But the surveillance footage clearly showed she had them the night of the murder. How had Alby gotten them?
Worse, the friend alleged Alby had recently visited LaQuinta and made her a glass of iced tea. LaQuinta had told her the tea tasted strange and she felt groggy after. Alby had drugged the drink and had sex with her, the friend claimed.
When brought in again for questioning, Alby again denied having anything to do with her death, but he failed a polygraph test. He also changed his story about the rings (which he had since put in her casket for her to be buried with).
The inconsistencies troubled investigators. But they couldn't make an arrest. After all, the cause of death wasn't homicide, and they had no real evidence tying him to her death.
An Exhumation Brings Answers
Investigators decided to take drastic measures. In June, they got a warrant to exhume LaQuinta's body to see if they could find any evidence of homicide, and examine the rings.
On June 15, less than three weeks after she was buried, LaQuinta's body was exhumed from Ocean View Memory Gardens in Coos Bay.
During the second autopsy, forensic examiners discovered the rings were indeed in the casket, confirming Alby must've had an encounter with LaQuinta that night to get them. And while they find no signs of trauma to her body, tissue samples were sent to the lab to see if there were drugs in her system when she died. A toxicology report confirmed there were indeed sedatives in her system — not enough to kill her but enough to knock her out.
Investigators believed Alby had spiked her tea, put her into the bedroom, and set the fire. In March 2000, after Alby's son admitted he wasn't positive that Alby didn't leave the house the night of LaQuinta's death, Alby was arrested for murder.
Still, the case was mostly circumstantial. Considerable detective work still had to be done to prove Alby was the killer. Learn what else the investigators discovered as they looked into Alby Smith, including the setback that almost destroyed their entire case, and what ultimately happened at the trial in an upcoming episode of "Exhumed: Killer Revealed," which returns for Season 2 on Sunday, May 8 at 7/6c.