Little-noticed killing snuffed out dream

It took Lorena Smith a decade working as a dancer at strip clubs to get to where she was, close to paying off her mortgage on a home in a gated community and only a couple of courses short of earning a nursing degree.

The single mother had raised two sons and only recently started going out, rewarding herself after three years of strictly studying. As she celebrated this new chapter, a gunman took her life.

“That is the ironic thing,” said her older son, Dorian Dégagé, 21. “She always wanted to search for that American dream. Wanted to show her parents she was independent, that she could succeed in this country.”

Smith, 46, and her date were talking in the parking lot of two bars near U.S. 281 and Bitters Road in the small hours of the morning of May 28 when someone drove up near her vehicle and shot her in the neck.

She died shortly afterward at Brooke Army Medical Center. The killing received only cursory notice by news organizations because it came less than two hours after the high-profile slaying of Bexar County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kenneth Vann.

Area, state and federal law enforcement organizations poured manpower into the Vann case and investigators made an arrest slightly more than a week later. Six weeks after Smith’s death, San Antonio police have no firm suspects.

“There’s going to be another family where a kid loses a mother,” Dégagé said. “For it to be forgotten and become a cold case is something that none of us want.”

Smith, born Lorena Larios in Tequila, Mexico, was the youngest of four children and dreamed of escaping a life of poverty, family members said.

“All she ever wanted was for a prince to find her under a tree and take her to America, and live happily ever after,” Dégagé said.

It was never much of a fairy tale. Smith’s relationship with Dégagé’s father was short-lived. Another American got her into the United States, where her son was born. Later, she came to San Antonio with her first husband and father of her second son, Dillon Smith, now 17.

When her husband stopped working and needed money, he brought her to dance at clubs, family members said.

“She was a stripper because he made her do that,” said her sister, Maria Romisch, 52. Divorced, remarried and divorced again, Smith continued to dance at places like the Wild Zebra. It was a steady income for an immigrant without a college degree.

Despite working most nights of the week in that environment, Smith never drank or partied, Romisch said.

“She would get off at 3 a.m. and there was never a day she would not come and pick up her kids from me and take them to school, so they could go to a better district,” her sister said.

Smith was blunt and had a strong sense of self: It is part of family lore that she once refused to bring a former Spurs player a drink because it was not her job.

“Men would drool for her because she was a gem in a pile of coals,” Dégagé said. “She wasn’t there to get the next rock. She had no other alternative because she wanted to have a future for herself, and she kept to that despite things men would offer.”

Looking back, Dégagé said his mother’s occupation, “as terrible as it was as a job, definitely assisted in what we have now.” He and his brother live in a two-story house Smith had designed and built in Shavano Park. “It was her castle,” he said.

Bob Thornburgh, 46, an aviation electronics technician who knew Smith for 14 years and called her “the best friend I ever had,” urged her to go to school after she developed a condition called Bell’s palsy, which temporarily paralyzed half her face.

In the Surgical Technology Program at St. Philip’s College, Smith was reserved and “struggled but was a fighter” who practiced until she mastered techniques, said a classmate and close friend, Christy Hardin.

Hardin, 37, said Smith was casually seeing a few men at the time she was killed. Her date that night was a man she found on the Internet and was meeting for the first time. Dégagé said she left at midnight, a lot later than usual, and he had a bad feeling about it, but she called him chismoso, a gossip, when he asked for details.

It was her date who called police after running from Smith’s car when she was shot, officers told her family. There were others in the large parking lot.

“I just cannot see how so many people witnessing this happening were not able to give information,” Thornburgh said. “It’s very frustrating for us.”

The killer could have been someone Smith knew, or it could have been a random act of violence like a carjacking, which would make the case harder to crack, said Tom McNelly, an SAPD detective.

“The case has some promise of being solved,” McNelly said. “We do have some leads.”

Crime Stoppers is offering up to $5,000 for information leading to an arrest. Tips can be called in anonymously to 210-224-STOP.

Smith’s sons aren’t getting any of her life insurance because she missed the latest premium payment. Thornburgh will finish paying for their house, which is still decorated with her paintings — images that stuck with her that she attempted to put on canvas — and her collection of Betty Boop memorabilia.

“The character seems like everything that a woman would want to be: strong, independent, kind, generous and beautiful,” Dégagé said. “Very symbolic of her, I think.”