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Originally published April 29, 2011 at 5:48 PM | Page modified May 1, 2011 at 12:40 PM

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Obituary: Steven Carlton Smith, 64, known for Green River serial-murder coverage

Steven Carlton Smith, author and indefatigable crime reporter, known for his prizewinning reporting on the Green River serial-murder case, has died. He was 64.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Steven Carlton Smith, author and indefatigable crime reporter, known for his prizewinning reporting on the Green River serial-murder case, has died. He was 64.

Mr. Smith, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times, was living in Reno, Nev., when he died on Easter Sunday. A neighbor found him unresponsive on the steps of his apartment. An autopsy is pending.

Known as Carlton to his Seattle Times colleagues, Mr. Smith was born in Riverside, Calif., and grew up in South Pasadena, Calif. Son of the late Jack and Phyllis Smith, he graduated from South Pasadena High School in 1965, and from Whitman College in Walla Walla with a degree in history, his family said in a statement.

His interest soon turned to journalism. He started as a copy boy at the Los Angeles Times and worked his way up to a reporting job. He reported for The (Eugene) Register-Guard and Willamette Week, and he arrived at The Seattle Times in 1983.

At that point, Mr. Smith's colleague and future reporting partner Tomas Guillen already had started working on stories about the Green River killings. The two would work most of a decade together on the story — their reporting for The Seattle Times was a finalist for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting.

Guillen, now a professor of journalism at Seattle University, remembers that editors put the two together because they brought different skills to the story, and they soon became known as the odd couple of the newsroom.

"I was more into reporting and digging," Guillen recalled. Mr. Smith, an intellectual with a passion for history and politics and a gift for spinning stories, "was a writer's writer."

Guillen favored white shirts and ties. Even when Mr. Smith wore a coat and tie, he managed to look like he had just crawled out of bed — "he was always a little disheveled," Guillen recalled.

But they both shared a passion for accountability and what Guillen called "social justice." Though the victims were initially labeled prostitutes (and many were), "they were human beings first," said Guillen.

"We were always after the Police Department and the Sheriff's Office. We wanted answers. We were put on the case because we were determined, we were disciplined, we were efficient and we weren't going to let go."

The two worked the story days, nights, weekends. They locked horns with cops, prosecutors and their own editors.

"They were in it through thick and thin," said Nick Provenza, their supervising editor.

Mr. Smith's ex-wife, Helga Kahr, said the story "was all-consuming; he just worked around the clock sometimes. I remember him getting calls saying they had found bones. It was really emotional for him, having to deal with all that misery and sadness. They were just little girls. A lot of them were teenagers."

Mr. Smith's and Guillen's work would result in "The Search for the Green River Killer," a book published in 1991, 10 years before Gary Leon Ridgway was arrested. He was eventually convicted of 49 murders. The book was a New York Times best-seller.

Mr. Smith left The Times in 1991, moved to California and made his living afterward writing true-crime books. He published 25 books, including on the JonBenet Ramsey case, the Wichita BTK case and a book he co-wrote with Mark Prothero, Ridgway's defense attorney.

It was not an easy way to make a living — the deadlines were punishing, the cases were all over the country, and "sometimes he would lose money on a book because he spent so much time researching," said Kahr, who remained friends with Mr. Smith after their divorce in 1994.

Guillen would hear from Mr. Smith from time to time. "He would call me from some city. He'd say, 'I'm working on this book. They found this, they found that — what do you think? Who do you think did it?' "

He filed lawsuits to force governments to release documents relating to cases he was investigating, often acting as his own attorney, Kahr said.

In February, Kahr talked to Mr. Smith. He was depressed about finances, but he was about to fulfill his publishing contract with his final true-crime book. He hoped to work on a historical novel and get part-time work at a newspaper. Though he preferred hotels, they had agreed to go camping together this summer.

"He was my best and dearest friend," said Kahr.

Said Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman: "Carlton was at once one of the most challenging, most fun, most confounding and most talented reporters with whom I've worked. He was a handful to supervise and edit, but all of that was worth it because he was even more of a handful for people, especially public officials, who were trying to conceal important information. Carlton was a unique and outstanding reporter and writer, and I'm grateful he spent time in our newsroom."

Mr. Smith is survived by sister Martha Troedson (Darryl), of Sierra Madre, Calif.; and brothers Randy, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and David (Ann), of Sedona, Ariz.; sister-in-law Marcia Smith, of Cambria, Calif., and five nieces and nephews.

"He was interested in politics, current affairs and sports; a consummate storyteller, reader and a philosophical thinker," said his family's statement. "He will be greatly missed."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

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