Terry Smith's Mother: 'I've Learned to Cope With the Pain'

Shawna Smith (left) listens to instructions given to search team members on the first day of the...

Shawna Smith (left) listens to instructions given to search team members on the first day of the search for her son Terry Smith Jr. in July, 2013.
Sunday afternoon -- at the end of this week's one-year anniversary of her son's death -- Shawna Smith will once again be surrounded by community members and the media in front of Menifee Market on Scott Road.

As her oldest son sits in a juvenile detention center in French Valley, accused in the murder of his half brother Terry Smith Jr. last July, Shawna Smith continues to deal with a nightmare that won't go away.

On July 10, 2013, the body of 11-year-old Terry Smith Jr. (left) was found buried in a shallow grave in the back yard of the family residence, located directly behind the small neighborhood market where he often visited. It was a sad ending to a three-day search by thousands of area residents throughout the Valley following the boy's disappearance while in the care of his older brother, Skylor Atilano. That same day, Atilano was arrested on suspicion of Terry's death.

In an exclusive interview with Menifee 24/7 today, Smith said her love for Terry and the support from family and friends is what has sustained her throughout the last year. She knows Sunday's 2 p.m. memorial service in front of Menifee Market will bring back troubling memories, but she has found ways to endure the difficult times.

"A lot of therapy," said Shawna Smith, also known as Bekkah. "That, and a great support system from those close to me. My memories of JuJu have been my godsend. I've learned to cope with the pain."

The search for JuJu -- Terry's nickname -- brought the community of Menifee together in ways never before seen. Residents meeting each other for the first time worked hand in hand, searching rugged rural areas as well as downtown shopping centers for any sign of the boy.

"It literally warmed my heart," Smith said about the community support at the time. "It was a pure example of what my son was. To see these people working together, doing what he valued, was so touching."

Although the circumstances surrounding Terry's death remain unclear, Shawna Smith continues to support her oldest son Skylor (right), who recently turned 17. Atilano stands accused of Terry's murder, but he has waited a year while numerous court dates have been postponed. Officials still have not decided whether to try him as a juvenile or adult. In many of the postponements, attorneys have argued for more time to consider evidence in an investigation that is ongoing. His next court date is Aug. 7.

Asked whether she believes Skylor committed the murder and if so whether he acted alone, Smith said she is not allowed to comment because the investigation is ongoing. She did, however, say she believes the boy's body was moved to her back yard some time after the initial search of that area by police, bloodhounds and family members.

If Terry's body was not in that back yard during the initial search, where was he during the three days before he was discovered buried under a pepper tree, just yards from his family's back door?

"That's the million dollar question," Smith said. "We all searched there. The police searched. They had bloodhounds and cadaver dogs right there. I believe he was not there initially."

Smith also has an answer for those who have accused her of being involved in her son's murder.

"To those who think I had something to do with it, news flash -- I didn't," Smith said. "There's a small group of haters out there compared to the large crowd of supporters. I try not to read their comments or listen to them. I have to go on and live my life."

Smith said she visits Skylor in the juvenile detention center once a week. He has been completing his studies while in custody and will soon receive his high school diploma, she said. He also participates in the center's program in which inmates train shelter dogs to prepare them for adoption.

"He is working with a small terrier," she said. "He's taught the dog to sit and stay. Overall, Skylor is in a good state of mind.

"I would rather have them drag out the court procedure and make sure they have all the details to make it a fair trial. They have their reasons; there's still evidence to study. I know Skylor has the right to a speedy trial, but I would rather this happen than they rush it and make a mistake."

Although Shawna had her differences with ex-husband Terry Smith Sr. (left) when the boy's father arrived from West Virginia during the search, she said she respects the elder Smith's rights as the father and tried to make things "as amicable as possible." Little Terry's body was cremated and the remains split between the two parents.

Meanwhile, Shawna Smith often walks the 100 yards or so from her house to the front of Menifee Market, where she spends time in front of a memorial mosaic made up of 350 small tiles painted by community members.

"I clean it, we decorate it ... I talk to the wall as opposed to being able to talk to my son," she said.

Guests attending Sunday's memorial at Menifee Market are asked not to bring candles because of fire regulations. They are urged to bring orange and/or blue balloons to release as a group. Guests are also invited to bring a pet treat or toy for a sheltered animal in memory of Terry Smith Jr.

Hundreds gathered outside Menifee Market during a prayer vigil for Terry Smith Jr. last July.

Residents viewed a tile mosaic in Terry Smith's honor during a ceremony on Aug. 2, 2013.


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