This is no Halloween tale, it is very real! I was born in Phoenix, Arizona and have memories of this beautiful Valley before all the freeways and urban sprawl. Most of my memories growing up are good, but a few haunt me to this day.
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona During the Fifties and Sixties
I grew up in a middle class family. My parents, older sister and younger brother shared a 900 square foot home that was located in a modest Southwest Phoenix neighborhood which was pretty average and culturally diverse. We had a few Italian families in our cul-de-sac to the West, two Mexican families across the street to the East, a retired Polish couple next door, a Catholic family of seven a few houses away, one male neighbor who watered his yard in his underwear, a bi-racial couple (French woman and an African American man), and several white families dotted in between.
We kids grew up together, playing softball or volleyball in each other’s huge, grassy backyards until dark every night. We rode our bikes all over the community, and hid in dark, shadowy areas in between homes playing hide and seek. We attended each other’s birthday parties and at Christmas time, our parents exchanged plates of goodies in a gesture of neighborly goodwill.
My closest girlfriend and I walked around the neighborhood in the hot, summer evenings, Fudgsicles in hand from the ice cream truck, not waving goodbye to each other until around ten at night. Every Halloween, we trick-or-treated for blocks and blocks, filling up pillow cases with our candy loot. I walked to and from school each day pretty much with the same friends for twelve years, and in high school, I walked home many times from Pom Pom practice after dark. On Friday nights I’d meet friends at Pete’s Fish and Chips or Taco Bell after football games. This is how it was in the Fifties and Sixties in Phoenix, Arizona.
Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona
From 1964 – 1968, I attended Carl Hayden High School, which is located in what is now considered a rough part of Phoenix, but, as I mentioned, back in those days it was just your average neighborhood. It definitely would not have been considered upscale, but it certainly wasn’t scary either. My high school years were fun ones. In four short years my friends and I grew up, graduated, and many of us married our high school sweethearts. In fact, Jim and I married the summer after my high school graduation.
I Was Married to a Phoenix Cop
Jim became a Phoenix Cop, and he came home every night and shared all kinds of interesting stories about burglaries, domestic fights and other typical cop calls. We used money Jim had saved for a down payment on a home in Northwest Phoenix, and soon had two daughters running around in it.
My parents still lived in the old neighborhood and I visited them often, especially when Jim worked the night shift. It was fairly often that I’d pack up our baby girls and take them for a visit to their Grandparents, where we’d visit out on the patio or go for a walk with the girls in their stroller. This is how it was in the old neighborhood in Phoenix in the early Seventies.
The “Desert Rapist” Hits Phoenix
In August 1973, Jim told me that two girls had been raped out in the Phoenix desert, and then it happened again in February and July 1975. The local news covered the story, warning the community that we had a serial rapist in our midst who became known as the “Desert Rapist”. Jim bought me a gun and we added dead-bolt locks.
For months afterward, the local Phoenix news covered the “Desert Rapist” crime case, and Jim brought home the tidbits of investigative information he could tell me about the case. Nightly, he reminded me to keep the doors locked and the gun handy as he kissed me goodbye before he left for work. It was a frightening time for me.
The big news came on New Year’s Day 1976, when Jim came home from work with serious news written all over his face. Right then the local newscaster came on the television and announced that a 18 year old girl’s body had been found in the desert Northwest of Phoenix. She had been raped, asphyxiated by dirt stuffed in her mouth and nostrils, and stabbed numerous times with a two inch knitting needle, which was left embedded in her breast. We curled up together on the couch and he told me all the horrifying details.
On February 2, 1976, another news blast came on the television. A 14 year old’s body was found in the desert, her mouth filled with dirt and taped shut, stabbed several times and knitting needles jabbed into her breasts. Panic ensued as everyone in Phoenix knew then that we had a serial predator in our city. Jim was privvy to police records and kept me up to date, but he also had to leave me alone as he worked the midnight shift. I stayed at home with our two young daughters, scared to death, knowing way too much.
Desert Rapist Caught!
For several months, the city remained on edge as police pursued leads, discouraged young girls from hitchhiking, and warned everyone to keep doors locked. Finally, one night, Jim came home and told me the good news; they had caught a man they believed to be the “Desert Rapist”. I was ecstatic, but then he dropped the bombshell. He said, “you’ll never guess who it is.” And before I could even guess, he told me, “Joe Smith”. Joe Smith? My mouth dropped to the floor. That diminuative 5’8″ Joe Smith we both knew from school, who had lived just six houses down the alley from me when I was growing up? The tennis player who ranked 3rd on Carl Hayden’s Varsity tennis ladder? That timid kid whose mother was on my Mom’s bowling team? I was in shock!
Joe Smith, Phoenix Desert Rapist and Murderer Convicted!
According to the Arizona Department of Correction’s website, Joe C. Smith was locked up in prison September 9th, 1976, under suspicion of picking up both Neva Lee and Sandy Spencer as hitchhikers, then raping and murdering them. He was convicted and sentenced to death August 31, 1977 for both murders.
Interestingly, between April 1962 and April 1992 in Arizona, executions were not performed. The DOC site explains that in 1972, the United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty as administered (lethal gas) violated personal rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. However, in 1979 the Arizona Legislature revised Arizona’s Death Penalty Statute and sentences again became effective May 1, 1979 and in November 1992, Arizona voters approved execution by lethal injection.
Even though Joe and I were never close friends, I still remember several birthday parties in the sixties that we both went to. I remember Joe watching his Mom bowl at Aero Bowling Alley, just as I watched my Mom. And, I’m sure that if my car had broken down on the way to my parents’ home back in the mid-seventies and Joe Smith had stopped and offered me a ride, I would have felt comfortable enough to have accepted.
It gives me chills knowing that I rode my bike on streets that Joe Smith did, and that my family slept some spring nights with our windows open and just our screen door locked, as evil slept down the street. I guess we never really know what depraved thoughts creep around in our friends’ or neighbors’ heads, do we?
Joe C. Smith sits on death row in Arizona’s maximum security prison in Florence, Arizona but no execution date has been set yet. Times are different thirty years later in Phoenix, Arizona.
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona ADC Inmate Datasearch
(File for Inmate # 036085 – Joe C. Smith)