The younger of two Pine Bluff teens accused of kidnapping a Wooster woman from the Conway Commons shopping center last year was questioned about being involved in a “murder gang” the day Elvia Fragstein’s body was recovered.
The questioning was unrelated to her body’s discovery at the time, according to the assistant chief juvenile officer of Jefferson and Lincoln counties’ testimony.
Robert Smith III, 17, was 16 years old when he and his cousin, Tacori D. Mackrell, reportedly kidnapped 71-year-old Elvia Fragstein from the Conway Commons shopping center on July 7. Her body was later recovered in a wooded area along Gibb Anderson Road in Jefferson County on July 11.
The 17-year-old suspect was found fit to proceed with trial earlier this year and a juvenile transfer hearing is currently underway. The hearing began Wednesday morning and is expected to run through Friday afternoon.
Defense attorney Garfield W. Bloodman argued during the transfer hearing that just because his client was seen in a Murder Gang “MG” music video, that did not peg young Smith as a gang member.
Unrelated to the Fragstein case, on July 11, 2018, Sixth Judicial District Assistant Chief Juvenile Officer Eric Walden said he cautioned Smith to stay away from gang members.
Smith was drug tested at least once a month per court order following a FINS (Family In Need of Services) case that was adjudicated in April 2018. Pine Bluff School District administrators requested a FINS case because he had been suspended three times, almost back-to-back due to too many tardies and absences.
Smith was questioned about being involved in the gang because Walden saw him in a MG music video while investigating the gang. While reviewing the video “23’s,” the young teen was seen wearing red with long braids.
When he confronted Smith about being involved with Murder Gang, the Pine Bluff teen denied any involvement or ties to the group. However, Walden testified that when he showed Smith a screenshot of the video, the boy “just looked down.”
Latasha Smith, who is Robert’s mother, testified her son “has never been in any sort of [trouble].” However, she was soon confronted by deputy prosecutor John Hout regarding her son’s FINS cases and why he was not in school regularly.
Prior to Robert being charged with capital murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and theft of property, the Pine Bluff teen’s mother said he was “a great child.”
“He’s respectful,” she said. “He’s just a kid.”
However, Walden also testified that a separate FINS case was opened in November 2013 after Smith hit one of his teachers.
The teen’s mother said he worked a lot and was usually home if not at work. Robert worked alongside his father and grandfather at their mechanic shop CJ’s Garage in Pine Bluff immediately after returning home from school each day.
His mother said he would be picked up from school at 3:15 p.m. and head to the shop by 4:15 p.m. every day.
Regarding her son’s many absences that led to multiple suspensions, Latasha said she was unsure why he would miss school because either she or her husband took him to school and picked him up each day.
Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell Jr. asked Latasha what she said to her son after learning he was missing so much school. She recalled telling her son “he was supposed to be in school” each time he was suspended.
Latasha was the first witness to take the stand Wednesday morning. While on the witness stand, she recalled driving to Conway from Pine Bluff to participate in Bingo at the Bingo Hall on Jim’s Lane.
At one point, during a Bingo break, Latasha said she went out into the parking lot and noticed her phone was gone. Since her son did not have a phone, she texted Tacori and told him to have Robert bring her car back.
Eventually, she said, Robert walked into the hall and set down her keys. He didn’t say a word, according to her testimony.
“I asked if he was going to leave me [in Conway] and he just left. He didn’t say anything,” Latasha said, adding that she ended up following another woman back to Pine Bluff because she didn’t know how to get back on her own.
Hout questioned Latasha about a previous statement she reportedly made to authorities regarding Mackrell being the one who brought her the keys. Upon being confronted about the differing statements, Latasha said she knew Robert was the one who brought the keys back after the two left in her blue PT Cruiser.
Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Andy Cook testified that he was alerted July 8 that Elvia was missing. Her husband, Helmut, first tried to report she was missing at the Conway Police Department but was told to contact county authorities.
“That was a little bit of a time delay,” he said.
Helmut provided authorities with time-stamped data of credit card transactions his wife made while out shopping. The missing woman’s husband told police he knew something was wrong because she was always prompt and on-time. However, she did not return home July 7 when she said she would.
Cook began to trace Elvia’s steps using her last credit card transactions, he said.
First, he went to Kroger on Salem Road.
Upon reviewing surveillance footage, he saw Elvia was wearing jean capris and a dark-colored shirt with pink stripes. He also noticed she drove “cautiously” away from the business. This was noteworthy, he said, because when her vehicle later was seen via security footage leaving the Conway Commons shopping center, it was moving “erratically.”
Authorities reviewed footage from Target, the Children’s Place, Belk the UPS Store and TJ Maxx & HomeGoods. While watching the footage, Cook said he and other investigators watched the two Pine Bluff teens walk past the Children’s Place toward TJ Maxx. As the two walked toward TJ Maxx, Mackrell was seen walking up to the front window of the children’s clothing store and peeking inside. The two were also seen walking past the front doors of TJ Maxx moments before she walked out of the store.
As Elvia’s gray 2017 Honda CR-V was watched while in the Conway Commons parking lot, it drove erratically behind Target, where it abruptly stopped. While the vehicle was stopped, it appeared an altercation of some sort had occurred just before the vehicle drove off at a high rate of speed, Cook said.
The FCSO investigator also said he noticed her CR-V almost hit another car when leaving the Target parking lot.
With help from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Conway Police Department, Cook said investigators pinpointed Robert and Mackrell as the suspects in the case.
While conducting a search warrant at Robert’s Pine Bluff home, Cook said he immediately recognized a pair of shoes as the ones Robert was wearing on the day in question. He knew this because he had reviewed the surveillance videos multiple times, he said.
Rachel Ganley, a criminalist with the Arkansas State Crime Lab, testified as an expert witness in the case.
While examining Robert’s shoes that were collected as evidence, Ganley said she found four locations with Elvia’s blood on them.
CPD Detective Brian Williams also testified briefly Wednesday.
Prosecuting Attorney Carol Crews began to ask him about a text message that Mackrell reportedly sent to his girlfriend, Eriya Evans, where he admitted that “Cuz snatched the purse … shied it had $60.” Tacori reportedly told his girlfriend he and Robert split the money.
Tacori said in a subsequent text message that this happened “when we were in Conway.”
Among others who testified were John Smith, Robert’s uncle, and Bradley Bateman of the Pine Bluff School District.
Bateman worked at the alternative school that Robert attended in both the seventh and ninth grades. The first time Robert was enrolled into the alternative-learning program, Bateman said the young teen was “one of the top students when he applied himself.”
“We didn’t notice any major behavior issues” the first time Robert was in alternative school. However, the PBSD administrator testified that Robert had an emotional outburst the second time he was enrolled in the program. While at the school as a ninth grader, Robert was involved in a physical altercation that also involved several other students.
Given local crime sprees and recent shootings, school administrators were concerned the fight in question possibly was gang-related, Bateman said.
“There were several shootings in Pine Bluff at the time. [Director Eric Elders told students] if you go down that path [gang involvement], you could get death or the penitentiary,” Bateman said of a warning administrators gave the alternative-learning center’s students.
According to Walden’s testimony, two of the teens seen in the MG video played before the court are now dead. Many of the others are currently facing “serious charges” and are charged as adults.
At one point during a break in Monday’s hearing, a man walked up to Helmut and introduced himself as Robert’s uncle.
Robert’s uncle apologized to Helmut and to the Fragstein family for the pain he and the family has endured through Elvia’s death. After Helmut explained he and his wife “moved to this country to get away from the violence,” he began to cry. As Helmut wept at the front of the courtroom, Robert’s uncle hugged him.
Helmut then looked up and told the man he respected him for walking up to talk with him.
The transfer hearing is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Along with testimony that will be given this week, the Arkansas Medical Examiner also will testify on July 3 regarding the transfer request.