In the last years of her life, Lilius Landrum was making her way as an aspiring actress in Los Angeles when she returned to her hometown of Akron to care for her ailing mother.
Kamelah Hartwell, Landrum’s niece, said that’s the kind of person she was.
“She didn’t have to come back to Akron. She could have stayed in L.A. and probably would have been famous right now. But she came back to help her mother. That’s how big of a heart she had,” Hartwell said.
Landrum, 43, was here for only about two years when her life was taken in one of the most hideous crimes of the past two decades, authorities said.
Now the man who was convicted of her 1998 decapitation slaying, Tony Rahmel Smith, 38, of Akron, is up for parole after serving 14 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence.
Smith’s first parole hearing, which is closed to the public, tentatively has been scheduled for Feb. 4 by the Ohio Parole Board, state prison officials said.
But Hartwell, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., her father, David Hartwell, 63, of Akron, and Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh have been working closely in a joint effort to ensure Smith never gets freed.
“It’s very important for me and my family that we do our part to let people know you can’t do those types of things and think you can just walk away from it,” David Hartwell said.
Walsh’s staff in Victim Services had been monitoring Smith’s parole status and opposed Smith’s release in a letter to Parole Board Chairman Cynthia Mausser last month.
“Our position is that we don’t think he should ever get out,” Walsh said. “This was way too gruesome of a crime, and I think he’s a very unstable individual who would be a danger to our community if he ever gets released.”
Horrific crime scene
Her Dec. 22 letter informed Mausser that the murder weapon was a “serrated kitchen knife” found in the Fern Street duplex that Landrum and Smith had shared.
Beacon Journal archives from 1998 quote police as saying it was one of the most horrific crimes they had ever seen. Landrum’s body was found lying on the basement floor with her head in a bucket nearby.
After killing Landrum, Smith fled Akron to Columbus, stole a vehicle and finally was caught by police after a high-speed, 40-minute chase, Walsh’s parole board letter said.
David Hartwell and his daughter, Kamelah, said they try not to dwell on the searing pains that Smith left, to this day, on their family.
They prefer to remember the love, great heart and kindness of the woman who was known by the family as “Friggy,” because she always seemed to be looking in the refrigerator when she was a kid.
When Landrum was pursuing her acting career in Los Angeles, she rode the bus, David Hartwell said. On one of her trips, she sat next to an older woman who had several sacks of groceries with her.
Landrum insisted that she accompany the woman to help her unload the groceries at her stop, even though it was miles out of Landrum’s way.
“I don’t know if it was 15 going and 15 coming back, but it’s something she would always do. She wouldn’t think anything about it. She was a very loving person,” David Hartwell said.
In Los Angeles, Landrum worked on 1970s and 1980s TV sitcoms such as Gimme A Break and Family Matters. On Good Times, she was the understudy and double for Bern Nadette Stanis, who played quick-witted, sassy Thelma Evans.
Landrum gave up her career to return to Akron to help her mother, Betty Jean Brown, who had become ill. Brown died in February 2006.
Kamelah Hartwell said her aunt worked in a community agency in Akron and got to know Smith by writing letters to him when he was in jail.
Smith told the family he was an ordained minister, and Landrum, a woman of deep faith, began going to church with him, Kamelah Hartwell said.
“That’s the kind of loving person she was,” she said. “She always tried to help people and bring them closer to God.”
At the time of the slaying, Akron detectives said that Smith, a former juvenile delinquent who was born in Columbus, told friends he had turned his life around by starting his own youth ministry and promoting Christian rap music.
Crime-scene investigators told the Beacon Journal they found rambling, unorganized notes and biblical quotations by Smith, who repeatedly used the phrase “off tha head.”
Smith told detectives he went to Columbus because he felt he was “being poisoned by a relative and he had had a fight with his wife,” according to an April 1998 Beacon Journal news story.
When he was shown crime-scene photos and was asked what happened, “he said we wouldn’t understand,” now-retired Akron Detective Rod Smith told the newspaper.
Kamelah Hartwell said she began writing the parole board in Columbus in January 2011 and, soon after, started an Internet petition drive on Causes.com, calling it “Stop The Release of Tony Rahmel Smith.”
As of Friday afternoon, there were 2,570 signatures on the petition.
“We got support from people in Germany, Sweden and Russia,” Kamelah Hartwell said. “That’s how many people loved my aunt.”
Supporters from Canada and India added their names to the petition Friday, with four weeks remaining before Smith’s tentative hearing.
A first hearing, under parole board rules, is closed to the public, but Hartwell is scheduled for a conference call with parole board members on Wednesday.
State prison spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said anyone wishing to write a letter about Smith’s parole hearing should send it to: Ohio Parole Board, 770 W. Broad St., Columbus, OH 43222.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.