It was a rainy January evening in Baton Rouge, a little after
midnight, when Kimen Lee, manager of the Piggly Wiggly
supermarket, and off-duty policewoman Betty Dunn Smothers left
the store in Smothers's squad car to make a night deposit at
Citizens Bank and Trust. It was a 10-minute trip at most.
Smothers, a single mother, often took on off-hours security work
to make ends meet. As the two women passed an A&P that had
recently been robbed, their conversation turned to the rash of
grocery-store stickups in the area. Lee remembers agreeing with
Smothers that their nightly routine could easily make them
They knew the bank's layout wasn't good. Cars coming off the
highway had to follow a one-lane, horseshoe-shaped drive that
curved behind the bank building. There, out of view from the
highway, sat the bank's drive-through teller windows and
night-deposit box. The area wasn't well lit. As a late-night
precaution Smothers always drove in through the exit side--that
way her headlights illuminated the back lot, and all Lee had to
do was roll down her window, reach out and unlock the
That's what Lee had just begun to do when she heard what sounded
like firecrackers. She saw Smothers's arm fly up and her head
slump forward; then she was still. The gunfire lasted perhaps 10
seconds. In all, 12 bullets riddled the car. Five struck
Smothers from behind, and four more hit Lee. Despite her wounds,
Lee pulled the car gearshift into drive from the passenger seat
and careened away, smashing against a lane divider as she sped
out. She hung a left and swerved down Jefferson Highway to a
24-hour convenience store nearly a half mile away.
Less than 15 minutes later, at 12:30 a.m., the phone rang in
Smothers's home, and 18-year-old Warrick Dunn, the eldest of her
six children, picked it up. A policeman said Dunn needed to get
to the hospital. Quick.
Smothers was dead before she or her son arrived at the emergency
room that night. Two and a half years later Warrick Dunn has
made good on the vow he made at the hospital: to keep living and
to keep caring for his younger siblings, who regarded him as a
father figure long before their mother was gunned down. Today
Dunn is also among the leading contenders for the Heisman
Trophy. He's a do-it-all junior tailback at Florida State who
might be the most exciting player in the country.
Dunn and senior quarterback Danny Kanell could lead the
Seminoles to their second national title in three seasons. But
if you ask the soft-spoken Dunn what winning the Heisman would
mean to him, he smiles and says, "Problems, problems, problems."
Excellence is something Dunn craves; publicity he can do
without. As a freshman he roomed with Seminole senior
quarterback Charlie Ward and experienced the Heisman hype
firsthand. "When he won it, I had a sign that read CHARLIE AIN'T
HERE," Dunn says. "I got tired of answering the door."
Dunn also knows that the spotlight that comes with being a
Heisman candidate inevitably leads to questions about his mom.
She was only 36 when she was killed on Jan. 7, 1993. Within days
everyone in Baton Rouge seemed to know the family's story.
Warrick was a hotly recruited star at Catholic High, and Betty
was a community-minded woman, a doting mother, a popular cop who
worked marathon hours because even as a 14-year police veteran,
her corporal's salary wasn't enough to support her family:
Warrick, now 20; Derrick Green, 18; Summer Smothers, 17; Bricson
Smothers, 14; Travis Smothers, 13; and Samantha Smothers, 12.
For the six kids the murder is still an open wound. Initially
Summer avoided reading the local newspaper and watching TV news;
now, as she talks sweetly about the family photographs on a
living-room shelf, she skips past those of her mother. Derrick
has had nightmares and has told everyone, including the police,
that he would like to shoot the murder suspects himself. When
reminded that his mother wouldn't condone that, he says, "Well,
she's not here to tell me that, is she?"
Three men were arrested four days after the shooting and charged
with killing Smothers and wounding Lee. But so far only one of
the men has been convicted; the other two are awaiting trial.
The East Baton Rouge assistant district attorney, Prem Burns,
got the death penalty on the first conviction and plans to seek
it in the other two trials. Burns says, "This was probably the
most notorious murder in Baton Rouge this decade."
The story might have ended with that dark postscript. Shootings
are numbingly common nowadays. This one, though, has led to the
sort of tale you just don't hear much anymore. It's a remarkable
story about a son's love overriding everything and about a city
of 219,000 people closing ranks like a one-stoplight town.
Because Warrick was the first family member to arrive at the
hospital the night of the murder, he had to identify his
mother's body. She was wearing pearl earrings he had given her.
When family friend Greg Brown arrived, Dunn bleakly told him, "I
can't go to college now. I've got to get a job, stay here, take
care of my family."
Brown, through his own tears, said, "Warrick, you're going to
college. You're going to make something of yourself. You can't
quit now. The first child has to set the tone."
Morning came. When Catholic High football coach Dale Weiner
hurried to Smothers's home, "the house was absolutely packed,"
he says. "There was a lot of wailing and sobbing. And there was
Warrick--on the phone. Calling the insurance company. Calling the
funeral home. Calling relatives. The kid was 18 years old, and
it was like he'd shifted gears immediately."
The first child sets the tone. Betty had told him that too.
Looking back now, Warrick says, "My mother prepared me for this
my whole life."
They had seemed like best friends as much as mother and
son--that's the first thing everyone says about Betty and
Warrick. She was feisty, outgoing, opinionated. He was quiet,
To Betty there were two overarching priorities in life: Her
kids, and working enough to take care of them. At Baton Rouge's
nationally known K-Y Track Club, where her six kids have
excelled, Betty's determination was famous. She handled the
club's paperwork, helped with fund-raising, chaperoned team
trips. And if she needed to find her good friend Greg Brown,
K-Y's longtime president, at his day job as an aide to Baton
Rouge mayor Tom Ed McHugh, she blazed past the panicked
secretaries at city hall and burst into Brown's closed-door
meetings, impishly saying, "Sorry, Mayor. But I need to talk to
"That was Betty," Brown says, laughing. "She was the first
female vice president K-Y ever had, and she never hesitated to
tell the rest of us--six guys--when we should get lost."
It was common for Smothers to pull 14- to 16-hour shifts on her
job. But she would still find a way to slip into the stands at
her kids' sports events, often in uniform, before hurrying off
to work a second job. When she was gone, it was understood that
Warrick was in charge.
After Betty's death her mother, Willie D. Wheeler, moved in.
Warrick, though, baby-sat and cooked, did laundry and cleaned
house, supervised homework and decided when everyone went to
bed. Even now, though four of his five siblings are teenagers,
Warrick can freeze them with a skeptical look, a single "No, you
won't" or the bone-chilling warning "You and I will talk about
this later." The first Christmas he came back from Florida
State, Warrick wouldn't let his brothers and sisters open their
presents right away. He was mad about the report cards some of
them had just received.
"I've always had to be the guy who said, 'You can do this,' 'You
can't do this,'" Dunn says. "But we had a lot of fun, too. I was
a good cook. If we didn't have anything to eat, we'd invent
food: macaroni-something casseroles, bread-and-butter
sandwiches, everything from strange tacos to spaghetti. I never
really went anywhere. We'd stay in the house and make up games."
The kids were close then. They're even closer now. As much as
Warrick likes Florida State and Tallahassee, he says he can't
wait to get back home to his family each summer. Slapping the
cushion of his living-room couch, he says, "Friday night,
Saturday night, this is probably where you'll find me. I'm a
And the toughest part of being at school?
Quickly he answers, "I really miss watching them grow."
Often, if Warrick knew his mother would be working especially
late, he would sleep in her room. That way he knew the minute
she was home safely.
When asked if he had worried about his mom's occupation, Dunn
softly says, "No." Then: "I mean, you worry. I'd just always
tell her, you know, 'Be careful.'" And his voice catches on the
last two words.
Betty was so friendly during her police rounds, some of the K-Y
coaches used to kid her that she was a female Barney Fife. And
she would laugh. But during a team trip to St. Louis once, they
all stayed up late one night, just talking, and someone somberly
asked Betty if she worried about getting killed.
"It's just something that could happen," she said. "And if it
happens, I know you'll all look after my kids."
Brown says, "A month and a day later she was dead."
In Baton Rouge, the initial reaction was disbelief at the
brazenness of the attack. A policewoman ambushed in her own
squad car? The media coverage was intense. Betty's kids were
flooded with offers of free health care, paid-for college
educations, donations of food and clothing, and more than
$200,000 in cash.
Betty's funeral was held at the city's Centroplex Exhibition
Hall, and about 2,000 people streamed in. The governor and the
mayor spoke at the wake. The funeral procession was four miles
long and included 300 law enforcement cars. Betty was buried at
Magnolia Baptist Church, in a tiny country cemetery on a
hillside not far from a bend in the Mississippi. Many mourners
had to park a mile away. Betty was right: Her kids have never
left her friends' embrace since.
The folks at Catholic High remain involved with the
family--especially Weiner, dean Joe LeBlanc and athletic director
Pete Boudreaux. A judge appointed Brown to help oversee the
kids' finances. As for those other officials at K-Y, the ones
Betty would always tell to get lost? They all keep after her
children. The most fervent of the group may be Maelen (Choo
Choo) Brooks, a former Grambling football player whom Warrick
calls Pops because "he was my first youth football coach. He
taught me everything. He's been like a father to me."
Brooks helps run a city program called the Sports Academy, and
he says he has seen "too many bitty boys with talent" go astray
to let up on Warrick now. He stays after Warrick to remain
religious, to live "pure." Brooks says, "I want him humble. I
tell Warrick I want him so low he can sit on a dime and swing
his legs off the side."
Says Brown, "See, Betty was smart. She was a single mom. But by
pushing her kids to do something with themselves, look how many
dads they all have. You always hear that African proverb about
how it takes a village to raise a child. Here it is. Coming
true. In real life."
Warrick went ahead with his recruiting visit to Tallahassee two
weeks after Betty's funeral. When he left home to enroll at
Florida State seven months later, there were still worries about
his emotional condition. But by then, Seminole coach Bobby
Bowden had vowed to take Dunn under his wing. And retired NFL
quarterback Doug Williams, a childhood friend of Betty's, had
asked Ward to look after Warrick.
Most schools tried recruiting Dunn as a defensive back because
of his sprinter's speed and slight 5'9", 178-pound build. But
Dunn was adamant: He wanted to play tailback. When coaches from
Penn State, Alabama, LSU and Florida State wore a path to
Catholic High, Weiner told them all, "He'll be great wherever
you play him, but believe me, he's a special, special running
back." The last thing Weiner said to Seminole offensive line
coach and recruiter Jimmy Heggins was, "Coach, you can't catch
this guy in a phone booth."
Florida State's '93 fall preseason drills began. Only three days
had passed when the phone rang in Weiner's office. It was
Heggins, laughing and yelping, "He's a tailback, he's a
tailback! Yes, sir, you were right! He keeps breaking 50-yarders
against the first-team defense. Can't catch him in a phone
booth! Yes sir!"
The games began. Little changed. As a freshman Dunn took a
screen pass 57 yards for a touchdown against Duke. He made a
27-yard run off a direct snap to key a win over archnemesis
Miami. He preserved the Seminoles' national title shot by taking
a short pass against Florida and turning it into a 79-yard
touchdown, high-stepping out of a tackle at the Gator 30. His
sophomore year featured more big-play days: 10 catches in a
breathless come-from-behind tie of Florida; 174 yards on 13
carries against Georgia Tech; and 163 yards on 29 carries
against Notre Dame.
But Bowden had to be convinced that Dunn could handle the
pounding. After Dunn was used sparingly in the Seminoles'
galling loss to Miami last year, he caught up to Bowden on a
walk to practice two weeks later, before the Georgia Tech game,
and asked if Bowden could name Florida State's last 1,000-yard
rusher. Bowden said Sammie Smith, in 1987; why? Dunn quietly
said, "Well, Coach, all I need to average is 125 yards in our
last four games to get 1,000. And I think that can be
Dunn finished with 1,026 yards.
When Dunn finishes mentioning the "problems" created by a
Heisman candidacy, he also says, "It's an honor just to be
mentioned." That's it. Life has left him a fatalist, and he says
he doesn't allow himself to count on anything because "I don't
want to be disappointed.
"I've been through enough in my life now that there is no
pressure to catch a winning touchdown pass or to make plays.
Someone asked me once, 'What do you think of when you're running
the ball?' I told him, 'I'm always thinking I'm running home.'"
When Florida State played in the Sugar Bowl last January, Dunn
was just 80 miles from his home in Baton Rouge, only two hours
from Betty's cemetery near that big bend in the Mississippi. The
Seminoles won, and Dunn ran away with the MVP award, which
immediately started the Heisman talk. Afterward someone asked
Dunn what it meant to be playing back in Louisiana. He mentioned
crawfish etouffee, which he misses. And his family, which he
loves. Then he said he had looked up to the sky before kickoff
and said, "This one's for you."
But that had been clear: On each of the gloves he wore that day,
he had printed the word MOM.
COLOR PHOTO: PHIL SEARS/TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT [Warrick Dunn holding photo of Betty Dunn Smothers]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Warrick rushes home whenever he can to rejoin his grandmother (center) and her brood (from left): Samantha, cousin Donald Freeman, Bricson, Summer, Travis and Derrick. [Warrick Dunn]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN CHIASSON [see caption above--Warrick Dunn, Willie D. Wheeler, Samantha Smothers, Donald Freeman, Bricson Smothers, Summer Smothers, Travis Smothers, and Derrick Green]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN CHIASSON Since Betty's death, Warrick has gladly borne the weight of being a surrogate father. [Warrick Dunn sitting beside barbell]