Juan Ignacio Blanco  


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A.K.A.: "Deacon of Death"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape - Former Baptist deacon
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: May 12/28, 1996
Date of arrest: May 28, 1996
Date of birth: January 30, 1953
Victims profile: Cristy Cowan / Denise Roach (prostitutes)
Method of murder: Strangulation / Drowning
Location: Hillsborough County, Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 25, 1999

Supreme Court of Florida


opinion SC96690

opinion SC07-2258




DC#  124639
DOB:  01/30/53

Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, Hillsborough County, Case #96-8093
Sentencing Judge: The Honorable William Fuente
Attorney, Trial: Daniel M. Hernandez – Special Public Defender
Attorney, Direct Appeal: Douglas S. Connor – Assistant Public Defender
Attorneys, Collateral Appeals: Richard Kiley – CCRC-M

Date of Offense: 05/12/96, 05/28/96

Date of Sentence: 06/25/99

Circumstances of Offense:

Samuel Smithers was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of Cristy Cowan and Denise Roach.

In 1995, Smithers made an agreement with Marion Whitehurst, who he had met through church, to maintain the lawn at her vacant Plant City house, which sat on 27 acres of land.  Whitehurst gave Smithers a key to the gate but not one to the house.  In 1996, Smithers again agreed to take care of the lawn at the Whitehurst’s vacant property. 

On 05/28/96, Whitehurst stopped by the Plant City house and found Smithers cleaning an axe on the carport, which he said he had been using to cut down tree limbs.  She also noticed a pool of blood on the carport, which Smithers speculated might have been made by someone killing an animal.  Smithers told Whitehurst that he would clean up the blood.

Whitehurst was disturbed by the blood and contacted the local Sheriff’s Department.  Later that evening, a deputy visited the Whitehurst’s property.  The pool of blood was gone, but the deputy noted drag marks that went from the carport to one of the ponds on the property. 

Upon arriving at the pond, the deputy found the body of Cristy Cowan floating in the water.  A dive team was called in and found the body of Denise Roach in the same pond.

Officers searched the Whitehurst residence and accumulated evidence against the defendant.  They found a condom wrapper and a semen stain in one of the bedrooms.  Officers also found Smithers' fingerprint in the kitchen.  Using DNA testing, the blood in the carport was found to match Roach’s DNA. 

Additionally, Smithers and Cowan were seen together on a convenience store security camera tape on the day of Cowan’s murder.  The state also determined that both Cowan and Roach were prostitutes who worked the same area, and Bonnie Kruse, another prostitute who worked that area, recognized Smithers as a previous customer.  Another prostitute claimed that she gave Cowan a condom on the day that she disappeared, which was similar to the condom wrapper found inside the Whitehurst property.

Two detectives visited Smithers’ home.  Smithers agreed to go with them to the sheriff’s office for questioning and requested that his wife join them.  At the conclusion of the interview, Smithers consented to take a polygraph test the next day.  According to the polygraph test results, Smithers was not telling the truth. 

A detective explained this to Smithers and then Smithers made incriminating remarks about his involvement in the murders. Smithers again requested that his wife be present during the questioning.  Smithers subsequently confessed to the killings of both Cristy Cowan and Denise Roach.

According to Smithers, he was mowing the grass on the Whitehurst property on 05/07/96 when Roach approached him.  Roach explained that she had permission to be on the property. 

On 05/13/96, Smithers said that Roach was still there, and he asked her to leave but she refused.  Smithers told the officers that Roach hit him on the arm and that he then hit her in the face.  Roach picked up a planter on the carport and threw it at his truck. 

At this point, Smithers shoved her against a wall causing a piece of wood to fall off of a shelf and hit her on the head knocking her unconscious.  Smithers left the property but returned the following day and moved her body to the pond. 

According to the medical examiner, Roach’s body was very decomposed and had probably been in the water for seven to ten days.  She had 16 puncture wounds to her skull, fractures to her face and skull and injuries consistent with manual strangulation. 

The medical examiner also noted two large slits in Roach’s clothing caused by a sharp instrument.  The medical examiner determined that Roach died from the combination of strangulation, puncture wounds and blunt trauma to the head.

In regard to the Cowan murder, Smithers told police that he stopped to help a car that was pulled off to the side of the road.  The driver was Cowan.  Smithers drove her to a nearby convenience store.  When they were getting back into Smithers’ vehicle, Cowan demanded money or she would accuse him of rape. 

He took Cowan to the Whitehurst residence and gave her all his money, but she was not pleased and threw a drink at him.  Smithers reacted by picking up an axe and hitting Cowan in the head knocking her unconscious.  Smithers dragged her to the pond.  He was cleaning the axe on the carport when Whitehurst arrived.  Smithers claimed that he could hear Cowan making noise while he spoke with Whitehurst. 

After Whitehurst left, Smithers returned to Cowan and hit her in the head again to make her be quiet and threw tree limbs at her.  According to the medical examiner, Cowan had been dead a few hours when her body was found and had probably been alive when put in the water.  She had injuries to her eye and lip. 

In addition, Cowan sustained blunt trauma to her jaw and chop wounds to the top of her head and behind her ear.  Furthermore, Cowan had injuries consistent with manual strangulation.  The medical examiner determined that Cowan died from the combination of strangulation and chop wounds.

During the trial, Smithers offered a different testimony.  Smithers claimed that he lied to detectives because he feared that his family would be harmed.  According to this testimony, a girl by the name of Mimi was performing community service as a requirement of her probation at the church where Smithers was a deacon.  Mimi was not able to complete her hours and offered to have sex with Smithers if he would alter her community service hours, and Smithers agreed. 

Several weeks later, Smithers was approached by an unknown man wanting to use the Whitehurst property as a location for a drug deal in exchange for not revealing the deal that Smithers made with Mimi.  Smithers agreed and allowed the unknown man to use the property.  He further testified that he witnessed the unidentified man kill Cowan and Roach.

Trial Summary:

06/12/96          Smithers was indicted on the following counts:

Count I:           First-Degree Murder

Count II:          First-Degree Murder

12/18/98          Smithers was found guilty on all counts charged in the indictment.

01/24/99          Upon advisory sentencing, the jury, by a 12 to 0 majority, voted for the death penalty for each count of First-Degree Murder.

06/25/99          Smithers was sentenced as follows:

Count I:           First-Degree Murder Death

Count II:          First-Degree Murder Death

Case Information:

Smithers filed his Direct Appeal in the Florida Supreme Court on 10/06/99.  The issues addressed included that the trial court erred in denying a motion to sever the two counts of First-Degree Murder, a motion to suppress his first confession, in finding that the Roach murder was heinous, atrocious and cruel and in finding that the Cowan murder was cold, calculated and premeditated.  

The Florida Supreme Court did not find errors that warranted reversing the conviction or sentence and affirmed the conviction and sentence on 05/16/02.  Rehearing was denied on 09/13/02.  A mandate was issued on 09/13/02.

On 12/11/02, Smithers filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court.  The United States Supreme Court denied the petition on 02/24/03.

Smithers filed a 3.850 Motion in the Circuit Court on 12/20/03.  The motion is currently pending.


'Deacon of Death' loses appeal in murders of Tampa prostitutes

By Dave Nicholson - The Tampa Tribune

July 16, 2009

PLANT CITY - A former Baptist deacon has lost an appeal of his death sentences for the sensational 1996 murders of two Tampa prostitutes.

The Florida Supreme Court refused to overturn lower court rulings to vacate the convictions of 56-year-old Samuel L. Smithers, who was condemned for the brutal killings of Christy Elizabeth Cowan and Denise Elaine Roach. The women, both mothers, were picked up in a seedy area of East Tampa and killed at a Plant City home where Smithers was the caretaker.

Smithers was a deacon and groundskeeper at First Baptist Church of Plant City. The sensational killings and trial inspired a book, "Deacon of Death," by former New York Times columnist Fred Rosen.

The high court denied that Smithers' appeals warranted overturning his first-degree murder convictions. Among other things, he complained that his trial lawyer was ineffective for not challenging a portion of his confession that he beat Roach more severely because she was black. He also claimed his lawyer erred in not adequately investigating claims that he was mentally ill and failed to call an independent medical examiner to refute the possibility that Cowan may have been conscious during much of her horrific attack.

Smithers, an electrician's helper, was convicted in December 1998 of two counts of first-degree murder. In June 1999, Circuit Judge William Fuente accepted the jury's recommendation and sentenced Smithers to death. Fuente said the murders were "extremely torturous" to the victims.

When he was arrested, Smithers confessed to the murders, saying he fought with the women over money. He told Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives he beat Cowan in the head with an ax and hoe, then threw her, still breathing, into a pond where he had earlier dumped Roach's body.

The pond was on property owned by Marian Whitehurst, an elementary school teacher.

Whitehurst alerted law enforcement officers to the crimes. She said that on a visit to the property she came upon a puddle of blood and saw Smithers washing off a long-handled ax. She was skeptical of Smithers' story that the blood might have come from a squirrel and called deputies, who found the bodies.

Smithers changed his story at trial, testifying he was paid to let a mysterious bearded man use the property for drug-related activities. He said he watched as the women were murdered, and was ordered to drag their bodies into the pond.

Smithers told the jury he lied to investigators to protect his then-wife of 23 years and college-age son, whose lives had been threatened by the drug dealer.

Friends and family portrayed Smithers as a deeply religious man who lived quietly in the Walden Lake subdivision.

But prosecutors said there was a dark side to Smithers. They said he drove his pickup truck to a Hillsborough Avenue motel, picked up 24-year-old Roach and took her to Whitehurst's unoccupied property near Plant City. There, he smashed her in the face, choked her and stabbed her repeatedly in the skull with a sharp weapon.

Within two weeks, he murdered again. This time, his victim was Cowan, 31.

Connecticut-born Cowan and Jamaica-born Roach each had two children.

Rosen's book on the Smither's case came a few years after he wrote his best-selling true-crime book, "Lobster Boy." The story is set in Gibsonton, the winter home of many carnival performers.

That book delved into the murder-for-hire of a sideshow performer whose hands and feet were so deformed they looked like lobster claws.


Samuel L. Smithers



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