Media Life: Sickle slayer shattered peace of summer of 1971

By: Gus Thomson/Media Life
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Let’s set the Media Life time machine back 40 years ago to the summer of 1971 in Auburn and examine one of the most disturbing murder cases in the annals of area crime history. Looking back, summer four decades ago in Auburn was supposed to be a pleasurable time, a kind of Golden Age for some, before all those Bay Area people moved in. But peer past those misty memories and you’ll turn up a story that had many people in the foothills back then shocked and living in fear. The subject of that fear was an Auburn garbage truck driver from Weimar named Clarence Otis Smith. Smith, who it was later learned had talked about demons infesting his house, took a sickle-shaped,18-inch knife and went on a rampage at the Dog Bar campground on the banks of the Bear River, hacking and stabbing two people to death, injuring two others and then disappearing into the darkness. The attacker – described by survivors as a heavyset man about 6 feet tall with a receding hairline – left behind a bloodied pair of tinted prescription glasses. With a description and the glasses, investigators were able to search Smith’s home about two miles from the campground and found more evidence linking him to the murders – including blood-soaked clothing, the sickle-shaped knife and a .41 caliber Ruger pistol that one of the victims had fired at his attacker before being fatally stabbed in the stomach. The unprovoked, seemingly random murders at the isolated campground sent a chill through the area population. Smith was questioned by investigators but explained cuts and abrasions as the result of walking into a glass door. “An aura of terror hovered over much of Placer and Nevada counties yesterday in the wake of a maniacal attack by a slashing killer which left the weather-washed stones at Dog Bar beach on the Bear River red with the blood of its victims,” the Journal reported. On July 22, 10 days after the attack, Smith quit his job, had Auburn Placer Disposal cut him a final paycheck, and left his home without a trace. Now authorities not only had a gruesome double murder to investigate – but a suspect on the loose and possibly ready to kill again. In the summer of 1971, the sickle slayings at a rural California campground became a national story. Associated Press reported that the suspect was being called “the Mad Slasher of Bear River.” Reports were quick to point out that suspect Smith was said to have been laughing as he killed and made grunting, animal noises during the attack. “Hi there,” was his bizarre greeting to a couple inside a tent before the assaults started. An all-points bulleting was issued nationally and Smith eventually was located in Mexico. He was turned over to the FBI by Mexican authorities Aug. 6, 1971. Jailed in Brownsville, Texas before being flown back to California, Smith was unwilling or unable to admit culpability in the deaths of John Simmons, 29, of Weimar and Donna Fitzhugh, 28, of Los Angeles County. But Placer County Sheriff Bill Scott and Nevada County Sheriff Wayne Brown were confident enough to issue a joint statement advising the fearful they could put their guns “back in their cabinets.” The ensuing Nevada County court case revealed Smith to be a deeply disturbed man in the days and weeks leading up the killings. He had prayed and fasted with his wife and children to exorcize the imagined demons from his house but was alone at the time of the killings after threatening his family. They had moved to a Sacramento motel and an ordained preacher who had been living with the Smith household had returned – unbeknownst to Smith – to remove tools to sell when they ran out of money. Smith began to plan his assault at the campground and even invited an acquaintance to join him, complaining about “hippies and longhairs” who had recently stolen tools from him. Smith’s defense attorneys attempted to prove he was insane at the time of the attacks off Dog Bar Road but the jury convicted “the Dog Bar Killer” of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to a life term. Smith would die in prison in 2008 at the age of 80, a passing that went relatively unnoticed in the foothills. But for almost a month, a bizarre attack in an isolated campground near Auburn shattered the calm of the summer of 1971 and turned a nondescript garbage collector into one of the most feared men in the nation.