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Crime News Snapped

'Polar Opposite' Twin Sisters Team Up To Kill One's Ex-Husband Over Custody Dispute

When Aaron Smith won full custody of his kids, his ex-wife, Denice, turned to murder to get her way.

By Benjamin H. Smith

Denice and Deborah Graham are twin sisters, but that doesn’t mean they always got along. Still, when Denice wanted her ex-husband dead, Deborah was there to help. 

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The Grahams twins were born in 1962 and moved with their family to Cleveland, Tennessee in the early 1970s. 

“They had a good upbringing. The girls never wanted for anything,” Brittany Smith, Denice’s daughter, told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen. 

Denice and “Debi” were “polar opposites," according to Brittany. Denice was the good student, while Deborah ran "with the wrong crowd."

“The girls would get into fistfights in high school and they would have to be broken up by teachers. They absolutely hated each other,” said Brittany.

In 1981, Denice was working at a video rental store when she met her future husband. Jonathan Aaron Smith was born in 1960 and was a native Clevelander. 

“He was very fun-loving and very adventurous and he was the class clown. He just had that happy, bubbly personality. He never met a stranger,” said Brittany.

Aaron and Denice married after dating for a year. Soon after, Denice’s mother died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The incident drove the Graham sisters further apart, with Debi moving to New York. 

Over the next several years, Aaron and Denice had two children. Then in 1991, Aaron’s parents, Harry and Cleta Smith, bought a commercial campsite in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Aaron and his family lived in the caretaker’s property and his parents built their own home.  Aaron became an ordained minister and ran a small church at the campsite.  Meanwhile, Denice worked as a dental assistant 30 miles away in Sevierville. 

But by 1995, the Smiths’ marriage was on the rocks. Aaron filed for divorce and moved in with his parents while Denice and the kids stayed in their home. 

Then, at 6:05 p.m. on July 23, 1997,Harry Smith contacted 911. He said he had just found Aaron dead from a gunshot wound outside his home. 

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A medical examiner determined Smith had been shot three times; in the ear, in the back lower torso, and fatally in the back of the head, according to court documents.   

“We figured this happened somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock because he was found at 6 o’clock by his father,” former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent David Davenport told “Snapped.”

Aaron’s wounds and the location where he was found led investigators to believe a confrontation had started inside the home. Aaron was shot in the back as he ran for safety. 

The inside of the home had been ransacked and items had been removed, including watches and jewelry. On a chair were a pair of handcuffs. 

Witnesses saw a white sedan cruising around the campground around 5 p.m. with two passengers inside. The campsite was protected by a front gate which was only accessible with a passcode. Whoever was in the car knew how to get in.

Investigators learned of Aaron and Denice’s marital problems. Denice was unhappy living at the campsite and her job exacerbated the problem. 

“That job in Sevierville was not a good thing for her. There were several women that worked there that were having affairs with patients and Denice was right there with them,” said Brittany.

When Aaron learned Denice was having an affair, he filed for divorce. Denice countersued, claiming Aaron was physically abusive to her and the children. After filing suit, she called the police on Aaron and had him escorted out of the house. 

Though Aaron was afforded visitation with his children every other weekend, Denice often refused to turn over the children. In court, Denice presented drawings she claimed proved his abuse.   

“There were some drawings presented at the divorce trial. Denice said I drew them. It allegedly depicted abuse ... The judge determined they were drawn by Denice, not by me,” said Brittany. 

The offenders featured in Snappe

A week before his murder, Aaron won full custody of his children. But when he went to pick them up, he saw Denice speeding away with them in a car. 

“His wife had left the state with his children. He didn’t know where they were. It was suggested that they take out an arrest warrant for custodial interference,” Deputy District Attorney Brownlow Marsh told “Snapped.”

While investigators were speaking with Harry Smith, Denice called the home and said she was in Florida. She was told to return to Tennessee immediately.  

“When the investigator told her that [Aaron] was dead, he said he got no response out of her, she just listened,” said Brittany.

Several days later, Denice Smith turned herself in to face charges of custodial interference. She claimed she had nothing to do with Aaron’s murder — being in Florida was her alibi — but refused to divulge her children’s location.  

“She held out for a couple days but they wouldn’t let her post bond until she turned us in. She called her aunt and uncle, where we were staying, and told her to bring us back,” said Brittany.

Authorities learned that a week before Aaron’s murder, the U.S. Postal Service was tipped off that he was receiving drugs through the mail. The package was located and showed a fictitious return address in Atlanta but was postmarked in Miami, Florida.

Postal Inspectors delivered the package to Aaron and asked him to open it. Inside was a small amount of cocaine and a note that read, "To Aaron Smith, next time the price goes up," according to court documents. 

“Aaron Smith immediately said, ‘I’ve been set up,’ which seemed reasonable at that point. He was very cooperative,” former U.S. Postal Inspector Russell Fallis told “Snapped.”

No charges were filed against Aaron. Believing the sender was connected to Aaron's murder, the package was examined and fingerprints were found on it. 

“The fingerprints  belonged to Deborah Graham,” said Fallis. 

Investigators were subsequently contacted by Aaron’s parents, who had temporary custody of the Smiths’ two children. They said Brittany had made statements to them which were connected to the murder. 

Brittany told investigators that two days after their father was awarded custody, she and her brother were taken away by her mother and her grandfather, Don Graham. After driving all night, they arrived in Miami. In Miami, they met up with Debi and a boyfriend, Alejandro “Alex” Rivera, who lived in Miami.

After a couple days, the couple borrowed Denice’s rental car for an overnight trip. The following night, Debi and Rivera returned to the hotel where Denice and the kids were staying. Brittany was asleep but Rivera accidentally woke her up and she overheard their conversation with her mother and grandfather. 

“Alex looked like he had sort of been in a fight. They walked over to the little table that Don and Denice were sitting at and Debi said, ‘Well, it’s done. We hurt him pretty bad,’ and Alex said, ‘We killed him,'” said Brittany. 

Before they left, Brittany had seen Rivera carrying a pair of handcuffs. When he returned he was wearing one of Harry Smith’s watches and Debi was wearing a ring which belonged to Cleta Smith, according to court documents.     

Investigators learned that Denice had rented a white sedan for her trip to Florida. Rivera was driving the car in Gatlinburg following the murder when he received a ticket for speeding.  

In August 1997, investigators obtained arrest warrants for Denice Smith, Deborah Graham, and Alejandro Rivera. Denice was apprehended in Cosby, Tennessee, and Deborah was arrested at her apartment in New York. 

“A lot of our information came from her new boyfriend who was living with her … He told us that she had discussed the burglary and that Aaron had died. She showed him jewelry that had come from the break-in,” Marsh told "Snapped."

Alex Rivera was arrested a year later in New York City. When confronted with the evidence against him, including the ticket placing him in the area at the time of the murder, he claimed he just went to scare Aaron and that he was alive when he left the campsite. 

Denice Smith and Deborah Graham were tried together in June 1999. 12-year-old Brittany Smith agreed to testify against her mother and aunt. The twins were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, according to court documents.

The sisters will be eligible for parole in 2048 when they are 84 years old. 

Brittany would also testify at Alejandro Rivera’s trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, according to court documents. He will be eligible for parole in 2049 when he is 86 years old.

For more on this case and others like it, watch "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen, or stream episodes here.

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