Eric Smith spent 28 years behind bars for the 1993 murder of a 4-year-old boy. He was released from prison in February. Is he a changed man?
The parents of the murdered child speak with “48 Hours” and CBS News chief investigative and senior national correspondent Jim Axelrod in their first extensive interview since Smith was released in “Eric Smith: Gambling on a Killer” airing today Saturday, March 19, at 10/9c on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.
August 2, 1993, marked a horrific day for small town Savona, New York, when local teenager Eric Smith murdered a 4-year-old boy, Derrick Robie, who lived across town.
Early that morning, Smith, 13, had spotted the child walking alone to a summer camp at the park.
“It’s the first time I ever let [Derrick] go anywhere alone,” Derrick’s grieving mother, Doreen Robie, told “48 Hours.” “And it was one block down, same side of the street. … He gave me a kiss and I said, ‘I love you.’ He says, ‘I love you, Mom.’ And he went hopping off the sidewalk.”
Smith lured the child into a wooded area, promising to show him a shortcut. When they were alone, he strangled Derrick and beat him to death with rocks.
Robie reported her son missing after being told he never arrived at the park. Hours later, searchers found Derrick’s body just yards away from the park, in the woods.
With the killer at large, Savona residents feared for their own children. They couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to kill the popular little T-ball player they called “the unofficial mayor of Savona,” the happy kid who would sit at the corner greeting people. They assumed the killer was a stranger, from out of town.
In the days that followed, a family friend of the Smiths grew concerned about Eric’s behavior. Marlene Heskell told “48 Hours” that on the night of the murder, “[Eric] asked me what would happen if it turned out to be a kid. I said, ‘I think they seriously need some psychiatric help.’ And he– ‘Oh, OK,’ you know. And he walked away.” She remembered that Eric had gone to the same park near the crime scene. “And that’s when it all kind of come to together for me that, OK, he might really know something or have seen something.”
Heskell called Smith’s mother and they took Eric to the police command post to meet with investigators. Investigator John Hibsch said Eric seemed to enjoy speaking about the murder. “Totally enjoyed it. Didn’t want it to end.”
Eric denied seeing the little boy at first, but later confessed to the crime.
His grandfather was there and recalled Eric saying, “‘I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry. I killed that little boy.'”
In August 1994, Smith, now 14, was tried as an adult and sentenced to nine years to life in prison. Smith was held in a juvenile detention center and transferred to a prison for adults after he turned 21.
Almost nine years after his crime, Smith had his first parole hearing. His parole was denied.
But Smith would have more opportunities for parole every two years for nearly two decades. It was a recurring nightmare for the Robie family.
“It upsets me, the fact that we have to beg to keep this killer behind bars,” Doreen Robie said. “They could decide that well, now he’s done his time and we’re going to let him go … It scares the hell out of me.”
Over the years, Smith spoke out about his experience. In 2004, Smith, then 24 years old, told “48 Hours” that he had killed Derrick Robie after years of being relentlessly bullied by other kids.
John Tunney, who prosecuted Smith, told “48 Hours” contributor Jim Axelrod, “What I do believe is that Eric was tired of being the victim in his mind … and he wanted to see what it felt like to be the victimizer.”
In his 2004 parole board hearing, Smith admitted to the board that he got a good feeling from strangling Derrick at the time “because — instead of me being hurt, I was hurting somebody else.” He also admitted if he hadn’t been charged back in 1993, that he probably would have killed again, confirming John Tunney’s belief that at age 13, Smith was a budding serial killer. Smith’s parole was denied in 2004.
Smith was interviewed a few years later by CBS News affiliate WENY-TV. In 2009, he said he hoped to become a counselor so he could help other kids who were bullied like he was.
“My anger wasn’t directed at Derrick at all,” Smith explained. “It was directed at … all the other guys that used to pick on me. And when I was torturing and killing Derrick … that was what I saw in my head.”
He understood why the Robies didn’t want him released. “I did kill Derrick,” Smith said. “And for that, you know, I am sorry … if I could switch places with him and take the grave for him to live, I’d do it in a second…”
Smith said after years of therapy, he was a changed man. “You can label me a monster, a cold-blooded killer, a demon child, Satan incarnate. … Doesn’t mean that’s who I am.”
He also believed he would be released someday. “I want to, you know, get married and raise a family. You know, hold down, you know, a job. Pursue the American dream.”
Dream though he might, his parole would be denied again and again — until October 2021. Smith, now 41, went before the board for the 11th time.
During this parole hearing, Smith revealed his future plans, and said he even had a fiancée. He said she had written to him with questions about the juvenile justice system, he said, since she was studying to be a lawyer. They started getting to know each other and eventually, he says, they fell in love.
He felt God was calling on him to do ministry and said that while incarcerated, he was working on getting his college degree in crusade evangelism. He was also looking forward to working in electrical installation or carpentry.
“I’m not a threat,” Smith said to the board. “The 13-year-old kid that took [Derrick’s] life… is not the man sitting in front of you talking … if you were to give me the chance, I would not only prove that I’m not a threat. I would definitely be an asset to society.”
The board decided to give Smith that chance. After news broke that Smith would be released, in November 2021, the Savona community held a peaceful protest to make it clear they didn’t want Eric back.
“I wasn’t so much worried about us as I was everybody else,” Doreen Robie said.
“I just knew where a lot of people in town in the village stood,” Dale Robie added.
Smith’s release was delayed for months until he had secured approved housing. In February, after serving 28 years, the now 42-year-old was released. He is now a free man living in Queens, New York.
“I don’t let him take space in my head,” Doreen Robie said. “I do not focus on where he is, what he’s doing. … ’cause I don’t care. As long as he’s not near friends and family.”
Axelrod spoke with John Tunney after Smith’s release. “Will Eric Smith be a success story?” he asked. “Or somebody we’re pointing to and saying, ‘The system blew it with that one’?”
“That’s exactly right,” Tunney said. “I keep going back to my hope … Time will tell.”