BELLINGHAM — The saddest story Steve Sanger ever wrote took more than a decade to complete, and arrived more than two decades after its origin.
In fits and starts, the veteran journalist researched the 1992 murder of Ann Smith Patrick, 36, of Cashmere by her ex-husband William Douglas “Bill” Smith, and the bloodshed that followed as Smith sought out and shot three of her friends in the dead of night. The brutal outburst shocked the Wenatchee Valley, sent those who’d had dealing with Smith into hiding, and ended only with his capture by Chelan County sheriff’s deputies two days later.
It left Ann Smith Patrick’s four daughters bereft of their mother; their father — vocally unashamed of his deeds — in prison for the rest of his life; and three Cashmere residents recovering from gunshot wounds that came within inches of killing them all.
“It’s a depressing case,” Sanger, 76, said from his home in Bellingham. “And one of the more interesting things about it, frankly, was that Smith has never changed his attitude about what he did. Absolutely no remorse, no regrets — and he doesn’t mind saying that.”
In part, the bizarre leaps Smith used to justify his actions yielded the title of Sanger’s new book. “A Terrible Logic,” self-published through Amazon as a print edition or Kindle e-book, delves into court transcripts, police reports and correspondence, plus interviews with the surviving victims and the murderer himself.
On March 6, 1992, Smith, then a 38-year-old postal clerk, stabbed to death his ex-wife in her rented Cashmere home. She had remarried just a month earlier, after divorcing Smith in 1989. Then, convinced Ann’s friends and the legal system had conspired to wreck his marriage and possibly revoke his custody of his four young daughters, he attacked Ann’s friends Rebecca Hovda and Duane and Jane LaVigne in their Cashmere homes.
He broke into Hovda’s house late that night, and shot her in the stomach with a sawed-off 20-gauge shotgun when she stepped from her bedroom to the hallway to investigate the noise. From there, he went to the LaVignes’ place, and shot them both in their bed.
The attacks sparked a two-day manhunt that ended when Smith was found hiding in a brushy canyon with a knife, shotgun, handgun and rifle, as well as the addresses of various Chelan County judges and lawyers. Five months later, he pleaded an insanity defense and was sentenced to 125 years in prison.
Sanger, a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, lived briefly in Cashmere while the Smith trial was underway, writing for Good Fruit Grower magazine. He’d covered military affairs for the P-I, including issues surrounding nuclear weapons and waste. Much of his research wound up in his 1989 book, “Hanford and the Bomb,” and a subsequent volume, “Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II,” in 1995. He’s also written a memoir, “Cedar County,” and published articles in magazines including American Heritage and the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine.
He moved often in the next several years, from Cashmere to Bellingham to California, working on freelance projects, before becoming interested in the Smith case during a second stay in Cashmere in 2000.
But after a year of work, he ran into several dead ends trying to convince people involved in the case to be interviewed. “There tended to be a certain reticence about it,” he said. “The only person who would talk to me, really, in any detail, was the killer, Smith, which seemed a little out of balance. So I actually just let it go at that point, although I’d done a lot of work on it.”
Smith talked to Sanger at length, just as he had at his own trial, defending his actions as somehow necessary to spare or save his daughters. The divorce and child custody case between Bill and Ann Smith had been perhaps the longest and most contentious in Chelan County history.
Born and raised in England, Ann lived an isolated life up Brisky Canyon with Smith and her daughters until her divorce in 1989. She left Smith with support from several Cashmere friends, including Rebecca Hovda and Jane LaVigne. In court, Ann called her husband domineering and threatening through the course of their marriage, and produced a note he wrote that voiced hatred for her and threatened her with violence.
Of the murder, Smith said at his trial, “Finally I made sure that fighting between the kids and their mom and me was over with.”
Sanger got a second wind for the project in 2009, from an unlikely source: actress Annette Bening. Interviewed about her part in a production of “Medea,” Bening referred to the character’s “terrible logic” in plotting the torment of her husband.
A line from the play itself also rang in tune with the Smith case: “A wicked man who is also eloquent seems like the most guilty of them all. He’ll cut your throat as bold as brass, because he knows he can dress up murder in handsome words.”
After a final push of interviews and research, Sanger published the book in January under his sometime newspaper byline, “S.L. Sanger.” His is not the first book about the Smith case: surviving victim Rebecca Hovda self-published her own memoir of the rampage, “One Shot — A Thousand Holes,” in 2002. It became something of a local best-seller.
Ann and Bill’s daughters were fostered and adopted by another Cashmere-area family. The eldest is now 33, the youngest 27. Largely at Smith’s request, Sanger did not attempt to interview them.
“Also I didn’t feel like harassing them, dragging them into it,” he said. “It would’ve been interesting to have talked to them, and maybe that can happen later. Maybe they’ll write their own book. You never know.”
Smith, now incarcerated at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, has become something of a jailhouse lawyer, most recently carrying on a federal case against Washington prisons concerning the adequacy of the prescribed shoes he wears for arthritis.
“One thing I learned is just how unpredictable, or really, incomprehensible people can be, including Smith,” Sanger said. “I think most convicts or people in prison that long usually express some remorse that they think will help them maybe get released. But in this case, there’s no way that he’ll ever get out.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123