No matter how tense the situation, his friends say, Bobby “B.J.” Smith kept smiling.
The Tuskegee University senior was the type to stop fights, not start them, which made the news that he had been shot dead Friday night at an off-campus party all the more unsettling.
“He was running away from trouble, just like we taught him,” the South Cobb High School graduate’s mother, Cynthia Smith, said Monday.
But the finance major couldn’t escape an indiscriminate bullet fired from a stranger’s gun.
Rayshawn Dupree, friends with Smith since they were middle schoolers, was the last to see the 21-year-old alive. They had just gotten to the block party, in the parking lot of the Macon County Human Resources Department, about 20 minutes earlier, unaware of the danger that lurked.
“We were having a great Friday night,” Dupree said.
Then, from across the large parking lot, came the sound of gunfire, sending the crowd of an estimated 300 to 400 students scurrying.
“There was no confrontation or anything,” Dupree said. “B.J. didn’t have an enemy.”
As they fled the parking lot, Dupree looked back to check on his friend. “B.J. was right behind me, still smiling,” he said. Moments later he was down, struck in the back by the fatal bullet that lodged in his heart.
Dupree said he watched his friend, who became a father earlier this month, take his last breath. “He rolled over and then he was gone,” he said.
The Tuskegee Police Department is still searching for a suspect, not believed to be a student at the central Alabama private university established in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Police chief Lester Patrick did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Smith’s mother said agents from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, which is assisting in the search for the killer, told her they believe B.J. was simply caught in the crossfire. The shooter’s motive remains a mystery.
“I’m very angry,” said Cynthia Smith, who buried B.J.’s older sister Jermaine, killed in a car accident, just 18 months ago. B.J.’s funeral will be held Saturday. “He didn’t even know the guy who shot them. I want them to find this fool.”
His sister’s death changed Smith, said Ernest Grant, his tennis coach at Tuskegee.
“I saw a whole other side of Bobby,” said Grant, who offered Smith a scholarship after watching him play a pick-up match on campus. “There was a seriousness about him that really started kicking in when his sister died.”
Last week, as the tennis team began conditioning drills in preparation for their season which begins in February, Smith talked to his coach about his newborn son, Dominic.
“He knew he had to succeed to do right by his son,” said Grant, noting that B.J. reported in the best shape of his career. “He was a jokester, but he was also the player on the team I knew I could always count on.”
Dominic’s mother moved home to northern California after his birth, but B.J. was in contact with them every day, Dupree said.
Smith’s friends, a close-knit crew since middle school, said they now feel a responsibility to look after B.J.’s son, knowing he would’ve done the same for them.
“He was a beautiful person,” said Ronan Lee, 23. “I appreciate every moment I had with him because I know he lived life to the fullest.”
Tuskegee will hold a memorial service for Smith on Tuesday. In a statement, university president Gilbert L. Rochon said, “We are all deeply affected by this terrible incident.”