On Saturday, Norman Smith’s family will hold a funeral service for him in West Philadelphia. The 47-year-old’s body was found almost a month ago in the front bedroom of a Spring Garden home that Smith had been hired to help renovate.
His death showed all the signs of a drug overdose. Smith had battled addiction – mostly to crack cocaine — for the better part of three decades, and his body showed no evidence of trauma such as being beaten, stabbed, or shot.
Still, there were unusual aspects to the discovery. Smith’s corpse was wrapped in a blue plastic tarp; family members said it appeared to have been there for days or longer. They say police acknowledged finding a long, handwritten letter near the body. The building owner told them the letter appeared to have been written by Smith’s boyfriend, and allegedly describes how Smith overdosed on heroin.
But police won’t confirm any of that. And details – at least ones that might help them understand how and when Smith died, and why his body was in a tarp – have been sparse.
“I want it to be investigated, questioned, and if it leads to somebody being prosecuted for actions that they did, let it be so,” his brother, Walter, said this week in the family’s West Philadelphia home. “Don’t push it under the rug. Don’t just say, ‘It’s just another black man, he was on drugs. Don’t worry about him.’ ”
Last year, Philadelphia recorded the highest drug death rate of any major U.S. city, with more than 1,200 unintentional overdoses. There’s little evidence it has subsided, and isn’t still overloading detectives, medical examiners, and toxicologists.
Philadelphia police say the circumstances of Smith’s death are unusual and that they want to talk to his boyfriend. They also say there’s no real evidence of a crime. Toxicology reports can take six to eight weeks.
So investigators, like the Smith family, are waiting.
“It’s not just their case,” Homicide Capt. Jack Ryan said this week. “It’s all these cases.”
Tammi Gabriel, a recovery specialist at Magellan Behavioral Health, said waiting for an explanation to a relative’s death can, at some level, stall a family’s grieving process.
“They can’t say, ‘Our [relative] had this happen, so let’s try to do this,'” she said. “They don’t have any of those answers.”
She also noted that investigators can only do so much each day. “Bodies are piling up,” she said. “They literally are.”
Smith’s family said he was a free spirit and a loving father. He grew up in West Philly, lived in different spots across the city, and had moved into the home along Mount Vernon as part of his arrangement to rehab it.
They said he had multiple skills – he could paint, install flooring, handle carpentry, everything except electrical. When asked if Smith had any hobbies, his relatives laughed: All he did was work, they said, but always with a smile on his face and putting love into every job.
At times they didn’t know where he was living, though Smith typically kept in touch with family members via Facebook and phone calls, they said.
But all were aware of his drug problems. Before she died from cancer in April 2016, Smith’s mother told his siblings she wanted Norman to have the urn holding her ashes. She hoped it would inspire him to find a home and get himself together, his brother said.
“She just wanted her son to be healthy and clean,” his niece Shaniqua Smith said while choking back tears. “And he was just getting it together.”
Smith’s brothers wouldn’t allow him to house the urn until he did exactly that – which is one reason he began working and living in the Spring Garden home, they said.
But his brothers were never able to pass on the urn. The last conversation any had with him was in early June. His body was found July 18.
Five days elapsed before investigators, using his fingerprints, confirmed it was Smith.
On July 24, his family said, the building owner informed them that Smith was dead. (The owner could not be reached for comment.) That authorities didn’t call them – and have had little information to offer since – has added to their anguish, his relatives said.
“I want to know [why], and that’s probably never going to come out,” said Smith’s son, Norman Jr.
Police and the Medical Examiner’s Office gave conflicting answers about which agency is expected to notify next of kin of a death. Still, Ryan, the homicide captain, said: “I’m disappointed that the family is not happy. My heart goes out to them.”
Ryan would not confirm the existence of any letter, name the boyfriend, or elaborate on other details of their investigation.
He did acknowledge that to wrap a body and leave it hidden in a house “is not exactly something that a law-abiding citizen would do.” But he said investigators are not “necessarily certain” that would constitute the crime of abuse of corpse because Smith’s body wasn’t abandoned or transported anywhere.
Finalizing a cause of death could take upward of three months, said Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health.
Saturday’s funeral service will be at May Funeral Home in West Philadelphia.
Though the reason for his death may still be unclear, his family said they are certain of some things — that Norman was a hard-working, caring, and memorable man who always wore his heart on his sleeve.
“One thing is, he’s going to leave an impression,” his son said. “You’re going to remember that man.”