Crimes of the Cape Fear: Body found after 24 years, man charged with murder
BOILING SPRING LAKES, N.C. (WECT) - Investigators call it a once-in-a-lifetime case. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, they found the body of a murder victim and put his killer behind bars - 24 years after the crime.
The case dates back to 1995, when 25-year-old Tim Smart drove from North Dakota to North Carolina for his job as a truck driver. Once here, he got arrested for Driving While Impaired, and wound up in the Brunswick County jail. His cell mate was 21-year-old Bryan O’Daniels. The men became friends, and when O’Daniels got out of jail a short time later, he bailed Smart out, too, and offered him a place to live.
O’Daniels held frequent parties at his house, and Smart got to know O’Daniels’ circle of friends. But within a couple of weeks, their friendship had soured. Investigators believe O’Daniels got upset Smart was hitting on his live-in girlfriend, and a short time later, Smart disappeared.
“When he didn’t arrive at his job interview, [Smart’s mother] was concerned by that because she had talked to him and he seemed hopeful and looking forward to this next chapter in his life, and no one knew where he was,” District Attorney Jon David said of Smart’s mother, Gail, reaching out to the Boiling Spring Lakes Police Department to file a missing persons report.
Police went looking for Tim at O’Daniel’s house, where his mother said he was the last time she talked to him. O’Daniels was there when investigators arrived, and told detectives the last time he’d seen Tim, he’d been hitchhiking to catch a ride to his job interview in Camden, SC.
From the very beginning, Gail Smart was suspicious of O’Daniel’s story. She noticed inconsistencies, and let police know about it. After six months passed and there was still no sign of Tim, investigators conducted a polygraph test on O’Daniels, and he failed. But that alone was not enough to arrest him for murder.
Several years passed before someone’s conscience got the best of them. An anonymous caller reached out to the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, to report that O’Daniels had killed Tim Smart, and his body was buried in a wooded area in Boiling Spring Lakes. The Sheriff’s department put together a search crew, but despite an extensive effort, they couldn’t find Smart.
Many more years passed. Tim’s mother continued to write letters to the Boiling Spring Lakes Police Department, pleading with them not to give up on the investigation into her son’s disappearance. And then, in 2018, a local television station did a cold case story about Tim’s disappearance.
A break in the case
“What got the ball rolling on our end was a media story that aired,” SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) Agent Hunter Whitt recalled. “I was actually in the office the day that we got an anonymous phone call. So I took the call, jotted down some notes. And at the time I hadn’t had a chance to look at Boiling Spring Lakes’ original case file. After I got the call, got up with Detective Smith, and we met up, looked at the case file, looked at the notes I had taken from the anonymous caller, and realized a lot of stuff was matching up. And during that call we were given one name of interest that we should sit down and talk to.”
That name: O’Daniels’ friend, Randy Pickert. In 2018, Pickert was an inmate at a prison in Florida, and was quite surprised when he got a visit from Agent Whitt and Boiling Spring Lakes Police Detective Kevin Smith.
“He was very caught off guard obviously that we were there, and we were questioning him about an incident from 1995. He denied everything. And ultimately after lots of conversation, he came out with the fact that he had helped Brian O’Daniels bury Tim Smart, and gave us a good description of what he remembered 20 some years later of the area that he went to,” Whitt said. In addition to giving investigators a general idea of where the body was buried, Pickert mentioned that they pushed an old blue car over the grave to better conceal the body.
With new information to narrow down the search field, search crews went back to the same wooded area where they’d looked for Smart a few years after he’d disappeared. Once again, they came up empty handed. But with a witness now admitting to investigators he’d helped bury the body, the District Attorney decided to ask a grand jury to indict O’Daniels for murder.
The jury agreed, and in 2019, O’Daniels was formally charged. Knowing how difficult it would be to try the case without a body, Detective Smith took it upon himself to go out to the woods one more time and see if he could find any trace of the blue car Pickert had mentioned. This time, he found it: a rusted piece of metal painted blue, and an old car part with a serial number on it. Smith Googled the number, and the search results showed it matched the description of the car they were looking for.
Finding the body
Det. Smith’s find gave authorities renewed hope they might find a body after all. The owner of the land gave detectives permission to clear the land surrounding the spot where the car parts were found, two miles deep into the woods. The forestry service came out to clear the land, and brought a backhoe in to help with the dig. Anthropologists helped with a geological survey that showed areas most likely to be Smart’s shallow grave. [CONFIRM]
“Of course it’s still somewhat of a needle in a haystack, because we are still out in the middle of a swampy, wooded area, and we have some car parts but we don’t know where exactly he’s going to be underground,” Agent Whitt said of their mindset leading up to the final search. “Once we’re a couple of digs in, and we uncover the skull cap, that was truly a remarkable moment.”
While badly decomposed, Tim’s dental records that Gail Smart had given to investigators years earlier matched with the jaw bone crews recovered at the dig. Finding his body was the moment they’d been waiting for, unsure if it would ever come to pass, but investigators couldn’t help but feel sorry Gail Smart had passed away just a few years before her son would finally be found.
“Gail, the pain that she went through. There’s no words,” Gail’s close friend Juanita Verdin said of the many years she spent searching for Tim. “And the strength that she gathered every day to keep going. I don’t know how she did it. As a mother, I don’t know if I could be half as strong as she was.”
“One of the primary motivations for never giving up and working as hard as we all did was there was a mother out there who never got to see her son again before she passed away. There were family members out there that we wanted to give closure to and we wanted to get justice for Tim,” Detective Smith said of his tenacious work on the case. “Looking at Tim’s circumstances, Tim showed up here, you know somewhere that was foreign to him. He had no friends, no family, he was alone. Then whatever happened between him and Mr. O’Daniels led to his death.... He was discarded like trash. And I felt a sense, we all felt a sense that we need to put this into gear, we need to find justice for Tim. To make sure we give it 100% for him.”
A guilty plea
It was a stunning turn of events in a case that a short time before had been a no body homicide that had been cold for 24 years. But District Attorney Jon David said the things were suddenly coming together.
Quite a few of O’Daniels’ friends seemed to have some knowledge of Smart’s death, but had previously been reluctant to cooperate.
“Part of it was they had held onto the secret for so long, and everybody in the circle of friends did not want to be the first to come forward,” Agent Whitt explained.
“If we believe the best about the circle of friends, we can say that they’d been lying to us,” David added. “They’ve certainly been living with secrets for over 20 years. Many of the circle of friends was trying to thread a needle between cooperating on the one hand, and not implicating themselves for any wrongdoing. So, we were dealing half truths, it was just very difficult to get them into the courtroom to testify in this matter.”
But as the evidence against O’Daniels mounted, and the guilt they’d been living with for decades came back to the surface, some of O’Daniels friends agreed to testify about what he’d done all those years ago. Rather than take the case to trial, O’Daniels agreed to plead guilty as charged to Second-Degree Murder on November 29, 2021. He is serving a 12-18 year sentence, dictated by the sentencing guidelines at the time he murdered Smart in 1995.
“As I sit here today, we don’t know the manner of death. That is we don’t know if he was stabbed or shot or strangled. We don’t know where he was killed, whether it be at Brian O’Daniels house, or in the woods, what we can say with certainty is that he was buried in a shallow grave in Boiling Spring Lakes and that Brian O’Daniels is the one responsible,” David said of the questions that still surround this case.
“It was an emotional roller coaster. We are filled with gratitude to everyone that never gave up. They fought and they… There’s no words to express the gratitude. And I know Gail is… Now [she and Tim] are together,” Verdin said as she held containers with their ashes, which she keeps side by side in the home she shares with Roy Durado, who was like a son to Gail and a brother to Tim. “Now he’s at peace next to his mom.”
Copyright 2022 WECT. All rights reserved.