Scripps Memorial Hospital for the first time flew the flag at half-staff Tuesday for one of its own patients, to honor a 35-year-old man who died of gunshot wounds after attempting to stop a burglar in University City.
Gary Smith, a North Park carpet layer, died Tuesday morning. He had been shot four times with a small-caliber handgun last Wednesday after he responded to a woman's screams for help after she confronted a burglar in her home.
"We are all devastated," said a prepared statement by the Smith family. "His death is not fair because he was so good, and he was only trying to help. We do want to thank the people of San Diego for all the cards, letters and contributions sent to us. We really appreciate everyone's concern."
For the past week, cards and flowers poured into Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, some from friends and neighbors, but most from people who had never met Smith but who wanted to salute his heroics. During his six-day hospitalization, Smith was in critical condition in the surgical intensive care unit and underwent five operations. Nurses described him as a "fighter."
Smith, who friends and neighbors said was a happy family man, is survived by his wife, Sandra, and their three children: Dominique, 7; Kenny, 3, and Danielle, 9 months. Funeral services will be held in Columbus, Ohio, where Smith's mother lives, probably at the end of the week, hospital spokesman Michael Dabney said. Memorial services have not been planned in San Diego, he said.
Police officers, hospital workers and others close to the family said they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and concern from the community. The family has received more than a thousand letters and cards since Thursday, hospital spokeswoman Edie High said.
A spokeswoman for the San Diego Blood Bank, where 501 people donated a pint of blood each in Smith's name, said the turnout for Smith was comparable to the community response after last fall's San Francisco earthquake.
"We talk about citizens getting involved. Gary did. That was the type of individual that he was," said police Sgt. Willie P. Smith, who was one of the officers on the scene after the shooting. "It's unfortunate that he tried to come to someone's aid and wound up dying for it."
Flags at all Scripps institutions flew at half-staff Tuesday and were to be at half-staff again today, Dabney said.
"That's unprecedented, but we felt it was appropriate. He risked his life and ultimately gave his life for what he did," Dabney said.
Smith, of the 4000 block of Alabama Street, was laying carpet at a condominium in the 7900 block of Camino Tranquilo when he heard screams from the building next door. Smith, who worked for a carpet installation firm, chased a gun-wielding man about a block down the residential street before he was shot in the face, stomach, left arm and right thigh, police said.
Doctors were able to remove two bullets from Smith's body, but Dabney said the bullet in his head and abdomen were not removed because doctors considered it too risky.
Timothy Howard Pemberton, 22, was arrested Friday in connection with the shooting and was booked on suspicion of attempted murder and related charges. At Pemberton's arraignment Tuesday, the charge was changed to murder. Pemberton pleaded not guilty on all counts.
The district attorney's office said it is considering filing for a finding of special circumstances, which would make Pemberton eligible for the death penalty if convicted. Bail was set at $1 million.
Police Officer Bob Chorny said he was the second officer to arrive at the scene of the shooting. "There was lots of blood," he said. "Gary was sitting on the steps with multiple gunshot wounds and was in shock. He kept on asking for medics and saying he would pass out. I told him to stay with me.
"This is one of those things that I'll never forget," Chorny said.
Laurence Bekins, 24, a UC San Diego student who lives next door to the burglarized family, said he met Smith the day of the shooting as he was walking out the door to go to class. Bekins said Smith was working in the balcony apartment, and Smith struck up a conversation with him.
"The last thing I said to him was, 'Take it easy,' " Bekins said. "I missed the action by about a minute and a half." Bekins said that, almost immediately after he left, Christiane Chazin, the woman who found the intruder in her home, emerged from her apartment screaming.
Larry Price, a pharmacy worker who lives next door to the Smith family, said Smith, who had lived in the quiet neighborhood for about seven months, appeared to be a family-oriented man. He said he often saw Smith playing with his three children or sitting in a lawn chair in his front yard watching his children bicycle in the street.
More than $10,000 in donations to defray hospital expenses, estimated to reach at least $100,000, have been contributed since Thursday to the Gary Smith fund, High said. Several area organizations also pooled blood donations in Smith's name.
"When San Diegans hear about a need of a particular person, they find a way to help," San Diego Blood Bank spokeswoman Lynn Stedd said. She said enough blood was donated to replace the blood transfused to Smith.
The San Diego Police Officers Assn. also donated 21 pints of blood from its blood bank, usually reserved for injured officers and families of officers, said Sgt. Smith, an association board director.
"In light of what Gary had done, it seemed appropriate that since he tried to help police officers, we felt it was appropriate for us to help him as much as we could," the sergeant said.
Dabney said Smith's family rode a "roller coaster of emotions" over the past few days. He said the family's most optimistic time was after a five-hour operation Friday, Smith's last, when doctors stopped internal bleeding. He died of lung failure.
Dabney said the family was uninsured but that the hospital's financial department will help them receive financial aid.
Instead of flowers, the family is asking for contributions to two funds established to help offset medical costs and to assist the Smith family. Contributions may be sent to the Scripps Memorial Hospital Foundation Gary Smith Fund or to Sandra Smith, P.O. Box 28, La Jolla 92038.