A story for every victim

Man shot on Labor Day was set to move from L.A. within the week

Ethel Gladden was catching up with her sister on her drive home from work on a recent evening when she saw a person lying motionless in the street.

“Oh my God -- somebody got hit,” she said to her sister, then hung up the phone. She stopped her car near West Adams Boulevard and Dalton Avenue, jumped out and rushed toward the man, who was wearing a white shirt, black basketball shorts and white Adidas sneakers. 

“Who hit him?” she asked a bystander.

He hadn't been hit by a car, the person responded. He was shot.

Her mind flashed to her nephews, then she leaned over the man and prayed until authorities arrived.

The body was that of 20-year-old James Jay Smith, who, moments earlier, was standing with his back to the street talking to friends. A car pulled up and a person got out and said, “What’s up?” to the men.

The person then fired a gun, striking Smith multiple times, according to a witness. Smith was one of four people shot and killed in South Los Angeles in a series of unrelated shootings on Labor Day.

Smith built his own bicycles and loved to cook. He liked listening to 2-Pac and old R&B music.

His mother, Leah Smith, said he was a “Mr. Fix-It,” a handyman who never really stayed in one place.

“He was like a gypsy,” she said.

Weeks later, Gladden found herself at Smith’s funeral, sharing her experience. Smith’s godfather, Tiaunte Kelly, shook his head as he heard the account shortly before the services started. It was a breaking point for the man, who raised Smith on and off since he was 8 years old.

Others at Smith’s funeral spoke of him helping with groceries, and of the many ways that he touched their lives. A friend of Smith who witnessed the shooting walked up to the microphone, his face sullen.

“That could have been me,” he said.

Skipp Townsend, a gang intervention worker, told the crowd what he sees in the streets.

“This is unnatural,” he said, referring to the killing of Smith. What hurts most, he said, are the people who condone it.

“The truth is, our children are killing our children,” he said.

Reginald Zachery, a manager with the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development team, met James Jay Smith at an anti-gang function at Harvard Park six years ago.

Smith approached Zachery, who was preparing food, and said he was hungry.

“'If you could just slide me one of those hot dogs, that would be great,'” Zachery recalled Smith saying.

Recently, Zachery ran into Smith.

“And he said, 'Man, I’m a little different now,'” Zachery recalled. “'You’re going to be proud of me.'”

Smith was due to go to Pittsburgh to live with Kelly the week he was killed. Kelly met Smith more than a decade ago.

An 8-year-old Smith, who was friends with Kelly’s nephew, walked up to his doorstep and asked for a tool to fix his roller skates.

“He took them apart and fixed them, and I went and got mine and said, 'Fix mine,'” Kelly said.

Kelly started helping Smith, whose father had recently been shot and killed, with his homework and paid Smith to run errands. Eventually, Smith and his siblings began staying with Kelly, who had a studio space that he let the children live in with their mother’s permission.

Kelly, who was abandoned by his mother at a young age, said others had helped him out.

“I had a savior in my life,” he said. “You have to pay it forward.”

When Smith was 16, Kelly took him and his younger brother to Pennsylvania. He stayed until he was 18, when he told Kelly he wanted to reconnect with his family in L.A.

“He wanted to know who he was,” Kelly said. 

Anyone with information is asked to call LAPD’s Criminal Gang Homicide Division at (213) 485-4341. Those who wish to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo, above: James Jay Smith. Courtesy of the Smith family.

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