Crime

PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Sheriff: Smith killed Kathleen Briles

MANATEE — Dr. James Briles finally got the chance to focus his rage on someone Thursday, more than six months after finding his wife bound, gagged and beaten to death in a pool of blood in the living room of their Terra Ceia home.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube announced that Delmer Smith III — already charged with beating and raping several women in their Sarasota homes — has been served with a warrant charging him with murder in the death of Kathleen Briles on Aug. 3.

Detectives say Smith, 38, bludgeoned the 49-year-old woman to death with an iron antique sewing machine, before stealing several items from the house. After Steube told a room full of media of Smith’s arrest, Dr. Briles spoke on behalf of his sons, Calvin and Curtis, and daughter Kristen Venema, saying Smith deserves “no quarter.”

“Let me say a little bit about Delmer Smith,” said Briles, who found his wife’s body after returning home from work. “He is a coward, a sociopath and a punk. His sole purpose is to inflict suffering.”

Briles said Smith is not only in jail to protect the public from him, but to “protect him from us.” He spoke of his anger, and the horrifying discovery of his wife.

“Am I angry? Oh yeah,” he said. “You’d understand that if you saw what I saw when I came home.”

Investigators also believe Briles’ death might have been avoided, if not for a backlog in the entry of DNA samples into an FBI database.

The FBI had Smith’s DNA, taken while he was in federal prison on a bank robbery conviction. But since it had not been entered into the database, there was no match when Sarasota detectives last spring submitted evidence from four earlier home invasion attacks.

There wasn’t a match until after Smith was arrested for a bar fight in Venice, and after detectives asked the FBI to enter his DNA into the database.

And after Kathleen Briles was dead.

“The system right now is what it is, and it is a terrible shame that something like this had to happen to get to where things might get better,” Steube said.

At the news conference, the sheriff called Smith a “vicious” killer, outlining a lengthy investigation conducted by his detectives that led to Smith’s arrest. It’s a case based on items found in Smith’s possession that had been stolen from the Briles home.

“It is hard to believe a human being can do something like this to another human being,” Steube said.

When Dr. Briles found his wife on the living room floor, it set off a painstaking combing of the couple’s home for clues, which proved frustrating as no physical evidence could be found.

Concern mounted as the attack appeared similar to as many as 11 prior home invasion attacks in Sarasota and Manatee counties in which women were bound, gagged, beaten and sometimes raped.

Briles’ killing coincided with work being done by a joint task force made up of Manatee and Sarasota law enforcement officials that had already been formed in response to the home invasion attacks, which had begun in February.

During their investigation, Sarasota detectives recovered DNA evidence from four separate crime scenes, and in April they announced that the same person was responsible for two of the attacks.

But when evidence was compared to DNA in local and federal databases, there was not a match.

Smith first hit law enforcement’s radar on Aug. 14, when Venice police say he got into a bar fight in which police say Smith beat two men.

A federal probation officer later determined that Smith had recently gotten out of federal prison, and violated his bank robbery probation because of the fight. Investigators then searched a storage unit under his control in Sarasota and found a mountain of stolen property, according to sheriff’s reports.

That property, Steube said Thursday, turned out to include many of the Briles’ possessions.

Sarasota investigators also found laptop computers stolen during several home invasion attacks there.

They also discovered that Smith’s DNA had been taken while he was an inmate in federal prison. But the FBI had not entered it into federal databases because of a 295,000-sample backlog, a revelation that has led to a congressional inquiry.

Detectives asked that Smith’s DNA be fast-tracked into the system, and it matched samples found in the four Sarasota home invasion attacks. On Oct. 5, Sarasota detectives charged Smith with several counts of home invasion robbery, false imprisonment and sexual battery.

“Right away we started to think he may have something to do with the Briles killing,” said Manatee sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow. A search began of the storage unit and area pawn shops, for anything that may have been taken from the Briles home.

Many of the items taken from the Briles’ home had no street value. It is believed Smith kept some of the items as trophies, Bristow said.

Detectives believe Smith went so far as to carry his car keys on a rare Minnie Mouse key chain Dr. Briles had given his wife as a wedding anniversary gift. Detectives found the key chain in the storage unit, and used the keys to open locks and start the ignition on a Chevrolet Blazer that Smith sold on Aug. 31, four weeks after Dr. Briles found his wife dead.

Detectives say Smith also stole a medical encyclopedia from the home that turned up in the storage unit. One of Smith’s girlfriends later told detectives she saw it on the front seat of Smith’s car nine days after the killing, according to sheriff’s reports.

When asked how she could pinpoint the date, the girlfriend said:

“Because it was on the front seat of his car and it was the first time we had sex,” a sheriff’s report states.

Both Briles and his son, Calvin, who is in medical school, identified the book as being part of the doctor’s collection when detectives showed it to them.

A search of local pawn shops also yielded evidence, as a detective found a necklace that had belonged to Kathleen Briles. The man who sold the piece of jewelry, James Cellecz, later admitted to detectives that Smith had given him the necklace to pawn.

Bristow said Cellecz is a known accomplice of Smith’s who helped him sell stolen goods, but he is not believed to have known about or taken part in any of attacks in which Smith is accused. He has, however, been arrested on charges of dealing in stolen property and defrauding a pawnbroker in the Briles case.

Briles’ daughter identified the necklace as belonging to her mother.

“That’s my mom’s necklace. I wore it four times, to two proms, graduation and my wedding,” Kristin Venema told detectives.

At Thursday’s press conference, when a reporter asked her father if Smith’s arrest brought closure to the family, Venema jumped in. “No,” she said emphatically. “I am sad for my mother, I am sad for my family, and I am sorry we live in a society with people this bad.”

Others who have been following the growing case against Smith also weighed in on his arrest in connection with Briles’ killing.

After Smith’s arrest in October, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan called on the FBI to reduce the backlog in the entry of DNA from federal inmates into its databases.

“It is just unbelievable. My prayers go out to the Briles family,” Buchanan said Thursday. “This backlog needs to be eliminated yesterday. I believe, as do local law enforcement officials, that had his DNA been entered these crimes would have been prevented.”

Both Steube and Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight agreed.

Knight said Smith’s arrest in the Briles case is another step in ensuring Smith goes to prison. Smith is slated to go on trial in November on his home invasion charges in Sarasota. He is being held in the Sarasota County jail without bond.

“This guy truly is a monster. I am glad he is in our jail, and I am confident when we are done he will never see the light of day,” Knight said.

Steube praised his detectives and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office for the joint effort in investigating Smith. Dr. Briles singled out the efforts of Manatee detectives New Foy and Debra Kirkland.

“I want to thank the sheriff’s office. I am glad we have gotten to this place,” Dr. Briles said.

Law enforcement may not be done with Smith.

Bradenton Police Deputy Chief William Tokajer said detectives have evidence that Smith also attacked a female jogger and severely beat and robbed a Bradenton couple in their home last year. Both of the attacks took place off Riverview Boulevard, in Northwest Bradenton.

“We intend to charge Delmer Smith with both those cases,” Tokajer said.

Robert Napper, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024.

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