Slain foster mom wanted to save ‘all the throw-away kids’

Sisters recall happier times, recent family gatherings

Linda Smith, shown here volunteering for The Salvation Army, was an eternal optimist with a compassionate heart, her three sisters say. They now are reeling in the wake of Smith’s stabbing death in February and the arrest of the then-14-year-old foster daughter who had recently been placed in Smith’s home. The girl is charged with murder and is awaiting trial. PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL

Linda Smith wanted to help children.

The 61-year-old Grand Junction woman firmly believed in the good in every child, and for years opened her home to foster children.

“She wanted to save all the throw-away kids,” said sister Jenny Scears, a Clifton resident. “She didn’t like the fact that they were moved from home to home to home to home. … She wanted to keep them all and she wanted them all to have a home.”

Smith, whose sisters described her as an eternal optimist with a compassionate heart, was found dead in February with multiple stab wounds on her body. A then-14-year-old foster child who had been recently placed in Smith’s home was later arrested and charged with murder.

While Scears and sisters Kathy Haack and Midge Phillips are reeling in the wake of Smith’s death, they said in a recent interview they want people to know their who their sister was — a “hopelessly hopeful” woman with an enormous heart.

“She was a good woman,” Haack said.

The four sisters — and their brother, who lives on the Front Range — didn’t grow up together, but still felt a close bond. Smith was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Mesa County as a young child after her biological mother was in a serious accident. The aunt and uncle eventually adopted her.

While older sisters Phillips and Haack grew up in California, the siblings spent a lot of time together in Grand Junction during the summers.

“We just happened … to grow up in different states and different households,” Haack said. “But we were still family.”

Smith as a child was playful and outgoing, her sisters said. She loved church and singing, and she played the piano and tambourine as well. But she had a mischievous side, too. Haack remembered sneaking onto a neighbor’s property across the canal with Smith to steal asparagus.

“We were always getting in trouble over that,” Haack said. “I even got shot in the butt with buckshot and she laughed.”

Haack remembered the sisters sleeping with rubber flip-flops on during storms, a measure they thought would protect them from lightning.

“We would swim, make houses for grasshoppers and play for hours,” she said.

Smith’s biological sisters weren’t always nearby, but she grew up surrounded by the foster children her adopted parents often took in, Haack said.

When Smith herself was grown, she became a foster parent, too. With her foster kids as well as her own biological kids, Smith was “wonderful,” Haack said. “Very involved with their lives.”

Smith’s sisters saw her infrequently as an adult, as she moved to different cities and states. She worked during one period for a youth correctional facility, and at a state home, Scears said.

Last summer, though, Haack got a call from Smith. She was moving back to Grand Junction. It was time to reconnect with her family, Haack said Smith told her.

“She had spent so many years doing things with kids and going around, and she just felt it was a need now that we all be together,” Haack said. “I’m going, ‘Well that’s grand.’ “

Smith moved back to Mesa County, staying briefly with Phillips before moving into an apartment at 547 29½ Road last fall. Her sisters said she loved spending time with her extended family and was building her life in Grand Junction — shopping, playing bingo, attending church.

“We had lots of family dinners and family get-togethers,” Scears said. “I mean, we have a huge family.”

Back in her sisters’ lives, Smith was the cheerful, uplifting presence she had always been.

“I don’t ever remember her being negative, ever, in her entire life,” Scears said.

Strong-willed and opinionated, Smith wasn’t afraid to share her point of view with others, her sisters said. She was funny, and her stories were often punctuated by detours into other subjects.

Talking with Smith, “it was like following the maze and coming out at the end,” Haack said, laughing. “We always got back to the original subject. But it took forever and we covered a lot of details about a lot of things.”

Haack said Smith cried “happy tears” at family gatherings like Halloween and Thanksgiving get-togethers last year.

“It was for the first time, really in a lifetime, that she felt that we as a family were all together,” Haack said.

Smith told her sisters when she came back to Grand Junction that she wanted to get back involved with foster care.

She started going through related training again, but confided in her sisters that she wasn’t sure she would be approved to care for a child, in part because of her age, Haack said.

But then, “all of a sudden, this came up” Haack said of Stephanie Hauck, a then 14-year-old foster child who was placed in Smith’s home days before her death.

Haack, Phillips and Scears said because of the ongoing criminal case they couldn’t talk much about how Hauck came to be placed with their sister.

“(But Smith) did say that she felt that Stephanie deserved a chance, and that she thought maybe she was her last chance,” Haack said.

Haack, Phillips and Scears acknowledge that deaths like Smith’s are rare, and said they have no desire to dissuade people from becoming foster parents.

In fact, they said, Smith would have wanted more than anything to encourage other people in Mesa County to get involved with foster care.

Still, Haack said, “she was a 61-year-old woman and they knew that she had had asthma and some breathing issues. How simple would it have been to give her a Life Alert button?”

Scears said she thinks that would have been a simple safety measure for foster parents dealing with children who have grown up around violence.

“The fact is, Linda would want more people in the community to take in kids and give them a home and be there to help them,” Scears said. “But there has to be a safety measure for these people.”

Mesa County prosecutors are asking for Hauck to be tried as an adult in Smith’s death. Hauck, who turned 15 on Sunday while in custody, is expected to fight the move during a series of hearings before Mesa County District Judge Lance Timbreza.

As Hauck’s prosecution moves forward, Smith’s family has tried to make sure somebody has attended every court hearing. Haack said the family doesn’t want to distract from the prosecution, because they do think Hauck should be tried as an adult.

The court process is difficult for them, however; Scears said the process focuses on Hauck’s background, which she said was “not Linda’s fault.”

“This shouldn’t be about her,” Scears said. “Linda was a person. She was a real live, living, breathing person.”


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