This article originally appeared in the May 10, 2018 issue of The Western News. View clip online.
Friends and family of Don “Donnie” Smith insist he not be remembered for his final acts, even as they struggle to comprehend why he did what he did and what life will be like without him.
Smith, of Happys Inn, driving a surplus military truck the morning of May 2, destroyed several structures and other items associated with Happy’s Roadhouse Inn and fired at least twice at a nearby propane tank before leaving the truck at his home and fleeing on foot. His actions triggered a multi-agency response and a ground and air search that ended that evening when he was found on a hillside, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was a few weeks shy of 63.
While none of thirteen people who spoke with The Western News excused what Smith did — some admitted being angry with him, in fact — none believe he intended to hurt anyone.
That wasn’t the Donnie they knew, they said. That Donnie was a skilled artist, a jack of all trades and someone who put others before himself.
“He was an icon here,” said Marty Collier. “Everybody knew Donnie.”
Driving a reporter around Happys Inn, in search of people who knew Smith, Michael Otte, his friend for 40 years, pointed to most every home he drove by, indicating someone whose life Smith had touched.
One house along Highway 2, he said, belongs to a recent transplant from California. Last winter, her first in Montana, her pipes froze. She didn’t know a soul and didn’t know what to do, Otte said, but Smith found out, showed up with a heater and thawed her pipes.
“That’s how an awful lot of these people got to know Donnie,” Otte said. “Because a lot of them moved here (and) when they get in a jam, people say, ‘Oh, call Don Smith,’ and so they’d call Don Smith. Next thing you know, they’re best buddies. That’s how he was.”
A query about a grill guard is how Collier met Smith about 15 years ago. Collier had moved to the area with his wife, Harriett, and was building a house when one day “he saw a guy with a really nice bumper” that he would learn Smith had built.
Collier sought out Smith, who built him a bumper and became a good friend.
“We’d go hunting together, fishing together, just sit in his garage and bull**** away the afternoon,” Collier said, adding that Smith and his wife Deb frequently celebrated Thanksgiving with him and Harriett.
As Collier spoke, he leaned against a grill guard Smith had built for his late model Jeep Wrangler.
“You better save that bumper, because you’re never getting another one like it,” said his friend Martin Dunbar, who was riding and reminiscing alongside Otte.
“I’ve got four of them,” Collier said. “They’re on all our rigs.”
Smith’s handiwork is legendary — and widely distributed — throughout the community. Some of it is practical, such as Collier’s grill guards or the pot and candle holders that hang from Otte’s kitchen ceiling. Some of it is artistic, such as the dragons and eagle heads that adorn Blaine Morgan’s home. Some of it is both, such as the Damascus steel knives he crafted.
Smith was known for what he did as much as for what he made, his friends said. He plowed and sanded many a driveway in the winter, especially for people housebound by age or injury. He “kept people in tires,” would help out a stranded motorist he didn’t know, and traded more in goodwill than he did in money.
A decade or so ago, Dunbar said, he had Smith transfer a plow from one truck to another. When Smith returned the truck, it was filled with half a cord of split firewood.
The time Otte suffered a heart attack while hunting, Smith got him off the mountain and packed out his deer for him.
“Mostly he was just the kindest person you’d ever meet,” Harriett Collier said. “He wouldn’t say no to anyone. Whenever anyone needed anything he’d be right there. Just have some coffee for him.”
Everyone who spoke with The Western News agreed: Smith wasn’t himself in recent weeks. The already gregarious man, as longtime friend Jack Williams put it, “seemed speeded up … like he was on something.”
Concerned friends flooded Otte with phone calls, not only because he knew Smith well but because of his prior work in the mental health industry, including 30 years as a case manager for the recently shuttered Western Montana Mental Health.
“I would say he had some kind of psychotic break,” Otte said, noting that in 40 years of knowing Smith he hadn’t seen any sign of it coming.
“He never presented to me he’d be a danger to others,” he said.
Otte believes the behavioral changes coincided with Smith quitting smoking on or about April 11, and wonders whether they were caused by either a medication prescribed to help him quit or to an antihistamine he was taking for a bad cough.
A rumor emerged around town wondering whether Smith had become involved in illicit drugs, an activity that those who spoke with The Western News said would have run counter to strong anti-drug feelings he had expressed over the years.
“I would bet everything I have, I know in my heart as deep as it goes, that he was not doing any drugs,” said Joe Nielson, Smith’s son-in-law and the only family member who felt up to an interview.
Going through “every bit of” his father-in-law’s shop after his death, Nielson said he found nothing to suggest substance abuse.
He also suggested that because Smith was such an out-and-about person, “it would have been known very quickly if” drug abuse was behind his recent out-of-character behavior.
Nielson said Smith recently had seen a medical doctor — something he said Smith was typically slow to do — but he didn’t know why or what the result was, only that “he was a lot worse after the appointment.”
Lincoln County Under Sheriff Brian Griffeth said Thursday via email that “a toxicology screen was performed and it will be a couple more weeks until we get the results back on that.”
Attempting to explain what may forever prove inexplicable — why Smith behaved how he did that Wednesday — some of those who knew him best also point to another potential contributing factor: the September 2016 death of his close friend, Gerald “Jerry” Mick, co-owner of Happy’s Roadhouse Inn.
“If there were best friends that were soulmates, it would have been Don and Jerry,” Nielson said. “They had coffee every morning together. They were just really, really close.”
Smith died in a motorcycle accident en route to Oregon, where Smith was due to meet him for a fishing trip, Nielson said.
“I think a lot of (what happened) comes down to the loss of Jerry,” Nielson said. “He tried to be okay, but I think it really floored him.”
Smith wasn’t someone who readily opened up to people about what was going on inside, Nielson said.
“He just kept his feelings really deep, except for loving people and just helping people,” he said. “Those (feelings) he just wore around all the time. If there was depression or anger or anything like that, I didn’t even have a clue to any of that until the last couple weeks.”
Whatever the reason for what Smith did on May 2, it caused law enforcement to consider him armed and dangerous. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office issued a “code red alert,” warning people in the area to stay locked inside their homes, minimize driving and, if possible, stay away from the area.
Following the destruction of property — which included the home Mick once lived in — Smith reportedly drove the 6×6 truck to his house and then fled on foot.
Twice, searchers on the ground found “high caliber” rifle rounds Smith left in the road and messages he wrote nearby in the dirt. Griffeth declined that day to reveal the messages, and said they suspected Smith’s intent may have been to lure deputies from their vehicles to investigate.
Authorities also confiscated a .308-caliber rifle found at Smith’s home.
Acknowledging that the law enforcement response was understandable — “The cops did exactly what they were trained for and what they were supposed to do,” Otte said — those interviewed by The Western News don’t believe Smith intended to harm anyone.
Smith left the bullets in the road because “he was leaving a trail for where they could find him,” Otte said.
As for the property destruction, Nielson said that his father-in-law knew no one would be in the home or in the restaurant at the time.
“(But) there’s no excuse for what he did or anything like that,” he said. “I’m highly upset. I’m not very happy with him right now. One minute I’m crying and the next minute I’m pretty angry because he didn’t need to do that. At all.”
“His mind just wasn’t working right,” Otte said. “And nobody could understand why that was happening and everybody was trying to figure it out and they were all lay people that shouldn’t have been put in that position.”
Nielson thinks of himself as the son Smith never had, and said Smith was “the cool grandpa” to his own sons, Jeren, not yet 2, and Dawson, 12.
“He made sure the kids had fun,” Nielson said, remembering all the Halloweens he showed up “in this crazy Viking costume” that he made himself.
Dawson, as the older son, was his grandpa’s buddy, and together they spent many hours fishing, working in the yard or just hanging out.
“He wasn’t the kind of grandpa who just brought you out there and then told you to go watch TV,” Nielson said.
Saying that Smith “did nothing but better everybody,” Nielson wonders what might have happened had Smith “treated himself a little bit better and put himself first” and perhaps found the help he needed.
“But he was a very proud guy and I don’t think he — whatever was going on, whatever his reasons were — I don’t think he wanted to burden anybody,” he said.
Still, Nielson said he “couldn’t have asked for a better grandpa for my kids.”
“I just wish they could have had more time with him,” he said. “I just wish I could have, too.”