Police have no suspects in death of La Crosse boy, 16
By ED HOSKIN/Of the Tribune staff
A 16-year-old La Crosse boy found dead in the Mississippi River Monday seemed moody and upset at Riverside Park the night before, two friends said.
Jeffrey M. Smulick, also known as Jeffrey M. Rhodes, suffered multiple blunt trauma head injuries before his body was found in the river by two walkers. Police are investigating the death as a homicide but said they have no suspects at this time.
"He looked like he was in a mood, upset about something," said a 13-year-old Onalaska girl. The friends said they saw Jeff and another male friend about 11 p.m. He approached when they called out his name, they said, but then walked away without saying anything.
The friends also said Jeff had mentioned in the past about having gang connections. "He said he was supposedly in a gang," the 13-year-old said. "But I think he didn't want to talk about it much."
Police Lt. Mitch Brohmer said that is just one angle detectives are pursuing. "We have heard that, but we can't confirm that" Brohmer said. "It just can't be done at this time. A lot of information we're getting is third-hand."
Police are working to pinpoint Jeff's last movements and contacts. According to his friends, he spent Saturday and Sunday at Riverfest in Riverside Park. He stayed there late Sunday after the event had ended, the friends said.
Jeff lived with his mother, Patricia Rhodes, and stepfather at 522 Jackson St. His father, Michael Smulick, lives in Orlando, Fla.
He was identified after the family filed a missing person report Tuesday evening, police said. The mother told the Tribune she was aware a body had been found in the river near the west end of Division Street, "but I couldn't believe someone would do this to Jeff." She declined to say when she last saw her son, or whether it was unusual for him to stay out overnight.
The mother answered a few more questions in a written note provided to the Tribune. She said her son liked "to hang out with girls" and he loved his friends. Of his plans for the future, "it surely wasn't to die at 16," she said.
"We miss you Jeff. You are deeply missed," she continued. "And you that killed my baby, you might get by for now, but some day God will punish you. God is true and just, and you reap what you sow. You might not go to jail now. But you will go to hell later. God sees you even when I don't."
A bicycle and a football lay in the back yard of the family home Wednesday afternoon. Jeff has a half-sister who lives in Florida with their father, said the Rev. LeRoy Bell of Calvary Apostolic Church in La Crosse, who was helping family members deal with their grief.
"They're absolutely devastated," Bell said. "It comes in waves. They seem to be doing fine, but then all of a sudden it all comes rushing back."
Asked if the family had any idea what might have happened, Bell declined to comment. "At this point, I don't really want to say a lot. The police haven't made an arrest."
Jeff was enrolled at Central High School, although he recently attended the Leadership School run by the Family and Children's Center of La Crosse, a school official said. The alternative school provides a residential treatment program for students with severe behavioral problems.
Several teens who said they knew Jeff remarked that he tended to hang with "the wrong crowd." But a 41-year-old neighbor had nothing but kind words about him.
"He was a nice guy, a good guy," Paul Bezzone said. "I knew him since he was young. He was friendly. He'd talk to people nicely."
Police said many people in the community have contacted them about the homicide. Anyone with information should contact the La Crosse Police Department at (608) 785-5962 or CrimeStoppers at (608) 784-8477 or 1-800-947-3577.