JACKSON, Miss. – It wasn't a secret that Dr. Ralph Arnold Smith Jr. was still angry at the attorney who represented his ex-wife during their divorce in the mid-1990s. Now authorities in the small Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood are investigating whether the well-known oncologist was so filled with rage that he hired men to kill the lawyer.
The 70-year-old doctor was charged with conspiring to kill Lee Abraham following a bizarre weekend incident in which two men suspected of planning to murder the lawyer showed up at his office, according to authorities and court documents. State agents who'd been tipped off to a possible murder-for-hire plot were waiting and gunfire broke out.
Investigators killed a masked man and shot another man at the lawyer's office on Saturday, according to police reports in the case. An investigator from the Mississippi attorney general's office was wounded in the exchange.
Abraham, who was present but was not hurt in the shooting, called it a "real tragedy," but wouldn't comment further because he'll be a witness in the case.
It's not clear why Smith and Sara McAdory Smith filed for divorce in 1996 because those records were sealed by a judge in Leflore County Chancery Court in 2005, but docket entries show they fought for money long after the divorce was granted in 1998, a court clerk said.
Whatever the reason for the split, police are trying to determine what link it may have to the shooting in Abraham's law office in Greenwood, a city of about 15,000 people that sprung up years ago around the cotton industry and is home to Viking Range Corp., the upscale appliance manufacturer.
It's also clear that tensions between Smith and Abraham have grown increasingly bizarre — and public — in recent weeks. The doctor alleged that he was stabbed on April 12 after being lured to a trap by a man offering to sell him compromising pictures of the lawyer. Abraham recently took out an advertisement offering an award for information about someone he claimed was slandering his family.
Smith's lawyer, William Bell of Ridgeland, declined to discuss the case, saying, "Anything we have to say, we'll say in court."
Attempts to reach Smith's ex-wife were not successful, but her father told The Associated Press that she doesn't want to talk about it.
Greenwood police haven't responded to numerous messages from the AP. Most of what is known about the case comes from a Greenwood police affidavit and search warrant. This is how those documents describe the shooting.
Abraham, a 64-year-old member of an established and politically connected family, called the Mississippi attorney general's office to say that someone had offered to sell him a gun that could implicate the doctor in a murder-for-hire plot. The attorney general's office had already been looking into allegations of a plot against Abraham and sent three investigators to his office, where he'd arranged for the supposed deal to happen Saturday evening.
Investigators were in place when 23-year-old Keaira Byrd and 25-year-old Derrick Lacy arrived. Byrd has criminal convictions for burglary and armed robbery and was released from prison last September, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Lacy had completed a burglary sentence in October 2010.
"The apparent intent of Byrd and Lacy was to kill Abraham," a Greenwood detective wrote in the affidavit on April 29.
The police affidavit said an "exchange of gunfire took place after Byrd fired at the officers." A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood has said Byrd was killed when he entered Abraham's office wearing a ski mask and "pointed an assault weapon" at one of the investigators.
Lacy was shot several times and taken to a hospital, where he told detectives that "Byrd forced him to participate" after he overheard a phone conversation in which the doctor offered Byrd $20,000 to kill Abraham, according to the police documents.
One of the investigators suffered a bullet graze to his leg during the shootout and was treated at a hospital and released, Hood's office said.
The doctor was arrested Sunday morning. He and Lacy have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the alleged plot against Abraham and capital murder related to Byrd's death. The doctor was not at the scene when Byrd died, but he's charged with murder because investigators contend that a chain of events he started led to Byrd's death.
Capital murder carries the possibility of a death sentence or life without the possibility of parole. It's defined in Mississippi as a murder that happens during the commission of another felony. The underlying charge in this case in burglary.
A judge on Monday denied bond for Smith.
Tension between the doctor and the lawyer was well-known. Smith claimed in an interview with the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper in April that he was stabbed after he was lured to a remote area by someone claiming to have compromising pictures of Abraham.
Smith told the newspaper he found a butcher knife in the grass after the attack, but it wasn't the same one used to stab him.
"What was the butcher knife in the grass for? To threaten me in case he lost his other weapons? To lighten his load? Or to cut me up after he killed me in my car and throw my parts to the fishes before burning the car?" the newspaper quoted Smith as saying. "In the context of what I know, I suspect the latter. The billfold theft was a front for an intended assassination that almost succeeded."
The same article quoted Abraham as saying, "Obviously Dr. Smith has an intense personal dislike for me. In my opinion, it may stem from a handling of a divorce against him many years ago. However, in light of this personal, intense hatred, I must weigh my legal options at this time."
Arnold also took out an advertisement in the newspaper that offered $2,500 for information leading to the "successful prosecution" of the person who distributed what he calls slanderous allegations claiming to have recordings of Abraham and his siblings plotting to unseat a community college president.
Follow Mohr at http://www.twitter.com/holbrookmohr
Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com