BY Amanda Mims
Citrus County Chronicle
For 37 years, the place where Trooper Ronald Gordon Smith took his last breath remained an almost anonymous piece of earth, its significance lost among the pine needles, palmettos and oak trees.
Now, there’s no mistaking that something tragic happened in that place next to U.S. 19 in Red Level, where Smith, a Florida Highway Patrolman of eight months, was gunned down at the age of 28.
On Saturday, about 130 people — including grandchildren Smith never met and his daughter, Alicia Hayes, who was not yet 2 years old at the time of his death — gathered there for a memorial dedication honoring Smith and his service to FHP.
The crowd included other of Smith’s family members, several dignitaries, dozens of current and former law enforcement officers and members of the National Association of Retired Law Enforcement Officers (NARLEO).
The new memorial, as well as the naming of the barge canal bridge in Smith’s honor, will ensure that Smith’s service and heroism won’t be forgotten, NARLEO members said.
Smith had been patrolling his section of U.S. 19 on Dec. 23, 1973, when he spotted a vehicle parked near the road about a mile south of the barge canal bridge. Smith, only a few hours from the end of his shift, stopped to help the occupants of the vehicle.
Unbeknownst to the young trooper, the two occupants, Ronald Jones and Carl Ray Songer, were two felons who’d fled a work-release program in Oklahoma. Songer shot Smith several times and, though mortally wounded, Smith returned fire. The gunfire attracted the attention of a group of nearby hunters — Johnnie Hamilton, Willie Hamilton, Ralph Morris, Richard Starling and Joseph Young — who rushed to Smith’s aid and prevented Jones and Songer from escaping.
The memorial honored not only Smith but also the hunters, who, by catching Smith’s assailants, may have kept his death from becoming a tragic mystery.
The crowed cheered as the hunters were recognized during the dedication ceremony.
“This would be a 37-year mystery, a 37-year search for justice if it had not been for the four hunters,” NARLEO member Tom Moore said.
It’s possible that Smith’s actions prevented Jones and Songer from harming another person in the future, said NARLEO member Chris Talar.
“His actions that day might have saved somebody’s life,” Talar said. “Somebody could be in the audience right now who owes their life to Trooper Ronald Gordon Smith.”
NARLEO President Andrew Tarpey said Smith will always be remembered.
“This tribute is one way to show ... that we will never forget the actions and deeds of our fallen hero,” Tarpey said. “Let us keep his memory in our minds and hearts. We will never forget.”
During the ceremony, state Rep. Ron Schultz read a letter from Gov. Charlie Crist praising Smith. Schultz’s successor, Jimmie T. Smith, read a proclamation by State Sen. Charlie Dean honoring the slain trooper.
The mayors of Crystal River and Inverness and county officials also read proclamations by their respective governments.