Death of a Social Worker: The Day After : He's described as a troubled man : The Suspect

Times Staff Writers

David Scott Smith, the 26-year-old transient accused of stabbing a psychiatric social worker to death in a frenzied attack in Santa Monica, was portrayed by relatives and others Wednesday as a man on a downward spiral, tormented by suspicion and prone to fits of fury.

As Smith's condition worsened, those who came into contact with him in recent years saw increasing evidence of his inner turmoil.

"He was running around on the loose, just getting worse and worse," said Smith's mother, Phyllis Newman. "Nothing we did seemed to be of any help at all."

Odd visions and obsessions gave way to full-blown incidents of anger and violence: At the 1987 funeral of his stepfather, who had died of cancer, Smith horrified mourners by accusing his mother of murder. Several months later, Smith stormed into his mother's apartment, kicking at her television and a video recorder. He shattered glasses and smashed lamps. His fists were bloody when police arrived to arrest him.

Smith was in custody at the Santa Monica City Jail Wednesday, booked on suspicion of homicide in the stabbing death of 36-year-old Robbyn Panitch, who had counseled him at the county's Santa Monica West Mental Health Clinic.

Panitch was attacked in her office. Her screams attracted help, but, according to witnesses, by the time aid arrived, Panitch had been stabbed 31 times. She died a short time later at Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center.

Smith was scheduled to be arraigned today in Santa Monica Municipal Court.

In interviews with Smith's relatives, former co-workers, acquaintances and individuals who met him on the streets and during a period of recent counseling sessions with Panitch, the accused assailant was described as a loner searching for friends in whom he could confide.

Escape the Streets

To some who listened, Smith told of being rejected by his mother and yearning to rejoin the Air Force to escape the streets. To others, Smith described the dark visions that obsessed him. He told a Santa Monica woman who works with the homeless about visions of Christ being snatched from the cross, and he told bizarre tales to his doctors and case workers.

"He believed (Panitch) was the Antichrist, and he had killed her," said Michael E. Roback, a senior clinician at the mental health facility where the attack occurred early Tuesday.

"He was clearly mentally ill," Roback said. "It was clear . . . he was a tremendous risk . . . This man was potentially explosive."

On Wednesday, Smith's mother said her son's repeated threats and occasional fits of violence had so frightened her over the past three years that she was forced to move to an oceanfront condominium protected by 24-hour security.

"I was terrified of him," Newman said. "Absolutely terrified. I was afraid he was going to get me. It was like he was someone else. Our relationship had changed from a normal mother-son relationship to total chaos."

Newman, 50, sat wearily by a marble-paneled fireplace in her Palisades Park condominium as she spoke of her son. Divorced from Smith's father, David Smith Sr., who now lives in Minnesota, Newman said she raised her son and two daughters with her second husband, Russell Newman, a wealthy real estate broker.

Newman said Smith was a boy of "average IQ" and considerable charm, brought up in an atmosphere of comfort.

"We gave him swimming lessons, tennis lessons," she said. "He had everything a kid could want."

Joined Air Force

But after graduating from Santa Monica High School, Smith enlisted in the Air Force in the mid-1970s, joining the military police in Sacramento. During Smith's two-year stint, he married, Newman said. But the marriage was quickly annulled.

During his Air Force service, Newman said, her son was accused of beating a woman, however no charges were filed and he received an honorable discharge.

In June, 1984, Smith, a compact, wiry man with dark brown hair, took a job as a plant guard at the Hughes Aircraft Co. in El Segundo. Company spokesman Mike Murphy said Smith worked at the electronics plant until March 6, 1987.

A security guard at the plant, who asked for anonymity, described Smith as "a 'wanna-be' police officer."

"We used to just stay away from him. He used to keep his hand on his gun all the time," he said.

The security guard said Smith simply walked out on his job.

Newman traces her son's troubles to early 1986. After a heated argument with him, she said, she "began to lose touch with him." In June, 1986, Russell Newman was hospitalized for stomach cancer. Without explanation, Smith began murmuring that his stepfather was "being murdered," Phyllis Newman said.

'Wild and Strange'

In January, 1987, Newman succumbed to the disease. During a graveside funeral service at Holy Cross Cemetery, Phyllis Newman said, her son appeared, "his eyes all wild and strange." Smith loudly accused his mother of killing his stepfather.

"Murderer! Murderer!" he yelled before abruptly fleeing.

Smith lived briefly in an apartment house in Hollywood, leading a solitary existence in a third-floor, one-room efficiency unit. A desk clerk recalled that Smith "was something of a pest. . . ."

"He'd just start talking about something that was happening at work. The impression I got was that he was somebody who didn't have a whole lot of friends," he said.

While his mother was in Europe on a one-month vacation, Smith began living in the underground garage beneath the towering Santa Monica Shores apartment complex where she had a unit. He slept in a van there, arousing the suspicion of guards.

On the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1987, Smith appeared at his mother's door.

"He was at the peephole and wanted to know why I forgot his birthday," Phyllis Newman said. "When I opened the door, he attacked me like an enraged animal."

She was left uninjured, but the apartment was a shambles.

Smith was charged with four counts of assault and battery and vandalism, according to Municipal Court records, and found guilty of battery and vandalism. On Nov. 16, 1987, he was sentenced to 115 days in jail, but the term was suspended and he was placed on probation for two years.

Court File

A probation memo in Smith's court file includes a condition that he "is not to associate with . . . anyone involved with witchcraft, Satanism, fortune-telling, voodoo or the occult." Newman explained that her son had become obsessed with a San Fernando Valley psychic and was continually spending money for fortune-telling sessions.

For the next year, Smith drifted around Santa Monica's streets. Briefly, he left the area, telling his mother later that he had gone to New York.

During that period, according to court records, he twice broke parole conditions, in August, 1988, and again last month. Just last Friday, records show, he was ordered to appear in court in March "for review of his progress with psychiatric counseling."

By then, say those who encountered the homeless man, Smith was making no more progress--just deteriorating.

Victoria Brien, 35, who coordinates a group that feeds homeless people each night in Palisades Park, a thin grassy strip on a bluff that overlooks the ocean in Santa Monica, encountered Smith one night in January in the Santa Monica Place Mall.

Disoriented, Smith told her that he had visions of Christ being snatched from the cross.

"It distressed him greatly," Brien said. "He literally lay his head on my shoulder and wept. He was terrified."

Times staff writers Penelope McMillian and Ginger Thompson also contributed to this story.

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