Crime & Courts

Woman who left Alaska while under investigation now accused in Massachusetts killing of 95-year-old

BETHEL – A woman who disappeared from Alaska while under investigation for theft in Bethel emerged on the East Coast this month accused in a violent home invasion in Massachusetts that left a 95-year-old man dead and put his wife in the hospital.

Brittany E. Smith, 27, and Joshua Hart, 23, are due in Orange District Court in Northwestern Massachusetts on Friday morning to face charges of murder, attempted murder, home invasion, armed robbery, larceny and conspiracy, according to the Northwestern District Attorney's Office.

Smith recently was living in Bethel where she worked as a customer service agent for Ryan Air, according to Robert Lucas, Ryan's Anchorage-based director of stations. Her father lives in Bethel, authorities said. Efforts to reach him Thursday were unsuccessful.

Her great-grandmother, 93-year-old Rita Laframboise of Orange, Massachusetts, told the Boston Herald the family was devastated. She said she was so sorry for the family of Thomas Harty and his wife, Joanna Fisher, 77, who was hospitalized with throat wounds.

Her grandmother told police Brittany Smith was addicted to heroin, the news organization reported in a story posted Tuesday.

When asked by the Boston Herald what she would say to her great-granddaughter, Laframboise expressed her loss and dismay.

"Why, why, why, why," she responded. "Everybody loved you, why?"

Bethel police in November 2015 received a complaint from Mark Cline, Bethel station manager for Ryan Air, that Smith had stolen money orders made out to the company and was cashing them at the Alaska Commercial Co. store in town, according to a Bethel Police Department report.

When Cline tried to get her into the office to talk about what had happened, Smith refused, police said.

Seth Madole, AC store branch manager in Bethel, found 18 money orders totaling $6,268.91 that she had cashed, the police report by Sgt. Gwen Drake said. A few months after the initial report, Madole also produced video surveillance he told police showed Smith cashing money orders that matched the time-stamp on them.

Drake wrote she was unable to find Smith.

"She bolted town," Madole told Alaska Dispatch News.

In late June, Drake referred a case to the Bethel District Attorney's Office seeking prosecution for "multiple theft charges against Brittany Smith."

Months after the investigative file was sent to prosecutors, it was still awaiting screening, District Attorney Michael Gray said Thursday.

Under a criminal justice reform measure that took effect July 1 — Senate Bill 91 — defendants convicted of this level of theft would not serve time but would rather get a suspended jail sentence, Gray said.

Such a case "cannot be given anything other than a low-priority status when it is competing for prosecution resources with arsons, rapes, murders and domestic violence assaults, which as you know are never in short supply on the YK Delta," Gray wrote in an emailed response to questions about the status of the theft investigation.

Even if Smith had been charged, she would have been released at her first court appearance on felony charges, he said.

"Now that it appears that Ms. Smith has returned to her home state of Massachusetts and is dealing with far more serious events there, it is almost certain that her theft case here will never be prosecuted," Gray said. "My heart goes out to the family of her victim in Massachusetts."

The chain of events leading to the killing began Oct. 2 when Smith went to her great-grandmother's home for tea. The younger couple was later accused of stealing the older woman's car. She and Hart then are suspected of driving the car to buy heroin, according to Mary Carey, spokesperson for the Northwest Massachusetts district attorney's office. They were charged with car theft but by Oct. 4, they were reunited on the streets again.

The night of Oct. 5, authorities say, they broke into the home of Harty and Fisher.

Acting Orange Police Chief Craig Lundgren said no one could have foreseen the home invasion attack. "This was so random and so out of the blue," he told the Boston Herald.

The attacks weren't discovered until the next morning when home health aides came to the house as usual, Carey said.

In the home invasion, the older couple's Toyota Corolla was stolen and authorities issued word to "be on the look out." Massachusetts State Police tracked the suspects to Virginia and eventually to Rockbridge County there, according to the Rockbridge Sheriff's Office.

Early Saturday morning, a sergeant found the suspects in a U-Haul truck parked at the Rockbridge County Wal-Mart and took them into custody on fugitive warrants. The older couple's car was found in a nearby county, a Massachusetts television station reported.

Harty's obituary describes him as a "hiker, traveler, salesman, foundry man, reader, Boy Scout Scoutmaster, caregiver, house builder."

Until the day of his death, he worked for a tool company he founded.

Twice a year, he hiked with a group of friends and family to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, last making the trip at age 94. He continued to run trips even in his last year, staying at the canyon rim.