In 2002, Karen Smith, a rookie cop living in Jacksonville, Florida, was visiting her parents in Hagerstown, Maryland, when her dad dropped a bombshell on her.
“I never told you about Uncle Emory,” her father said before sharing the story of a 1935 double homicide in Chevy Chase at the Capital Transit Co., nicknamed the “Car Barn Murders” by the press at the time. Stunned, Smith learned that her great-great-uncle Emory Smith—a mechanic and the night watchman at a trolley station—was shot in the head and killed. His body was dumped a mile away in Rock Creek, just below what is now the Kensington Parkway bridge. Also killed was James Mitchell, the trolley clerk, shot in the head multiple times and found dead, locked in his office.
Smith recalls her father saying that her grandfather was called in for questioning in the case and released. To date, it remains one of the most high-profile crimes in the region, never solved and still sits in the cold case file at the Montgomery County Police Department.
Now a retired detective, Smith believes she has solved the case. In October, she finished writing a 51-page homicide report and shipped it off to Katie Ellis Leggett, a cold case detective at MCPD. Leggett says she will review the report and hopes to deliver it to the county attorney for further analysis. Examining a case this old is uncharted territory for the department, she added, and MCPD wants to be careful how it is handled, not wanting to encourage cold case investigations by unqualified people. Leggett points out that Smith is “not a layperson—she has tons of experience.” The detective says she has “tremendous respect for Karen.”
Smith’s father died in 2018, which prompted her to finally dive in and start investigating the mystery as a way to honor him. A couple of years earlier, NBC4 Washington had aired a story on the Car Barn Murders, and her cousin sent her a link to the report about Montgomery County’s oldest unsolved case.
“There was video footage of the case file, which had tons of stuff in it, and I went, ‘Oh my God, I need to see what’s in there!’ ” Smith says. By that point, she had the background and skill set to investigate the mystery—and perhaps bring some closure for her family.
“So I started digging in,” Smith says. “And the further I dug, I went down wormhole after wormhole of information. …It led me to the primary perpetrator and to my conclusion.”
The case got its name from the “car barn” that once sat at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and the old B&O Railroad tracks (now the Capital Crescent Trail) in Chevy Chase. Trolleys were parked and maintained in the car barn. Mitchell’s killing took place in the trolley office, across the street from the car barn. It was where people waited for the trolley, employees stored their belongings and conductors brought the collected fares to Mitchell, the trolley clerk. Emory Smith was apparently taken from the car barn, where he worked, and was then shot in a car, his body dumped in Rock Creek.
The double homicide occurred around 4:30 a.m. on a snowy Monday in January 1935, says Smith. The $1,249 in weekend receipt money was stolen. Police never found a murder weapon, but Smith says there was a treasure trove of evidence—enough for her to produce a 17-part podcast, Shattered Souls: The Car Barn Murders, that has been released on Spotify, iHeart Radio and Apple Podcasts. In it, she meticulously lays out her case, naming three men for the crime, all of whom died years ago. She says she examined every name in the case file—close to 200—and homed in on a trio original investigators considered suspects. They were never vetted, however, and, inexplicably, faded from the picture. Smith chalks it up to corruption. (Bethesda Magazine has not corroborated Smith’s investigation or contacted the suspects’ relatives and is therefore not naming them.)
Smith’s investigation in the age of the internet uncovered more evidence and tied clues together as she researched the suspects. She says the three were friends, and Smith presents compelling circumstantial evidence on the podcast. Her investigation focused on breaking down timelines, checking alibis, doing geographic profiling and finding inconsistencies in statements. Along the way, Smith uncovered what she says are corruption and payoffs in the robbery murders.
In the course of her research, Smith spoke with retired Montgomery County police officer Jack Toomey, the lead detective on the cold case back in the 1970s and ’80s. While on patrol in 1977, he met a middle-aged Black man named Ernest Carter, a security guard at Columbia Country Club, who said he was at the crime scene as a 7-year-old when the killings took place. Carter said he never spoke to police in the 1930s because he didn’t think they would believe a Black child.
Toomey supplied Smith with parts of the case file. After extensive research, she has found no evidence that Carter is still alive; if he is, he would be 95 years old.
But the information Carter gave to Toomey decades ago was vital to the investigation, Smith says, providing details about the suspects and the getaway car he said he witnessed.
“I don’t see any problem with getting this case closed—not at all,” Toomey says. “All of the proof is there.”
At this point, the best Smith can hope for is to be granted an honorary declaration by the Montgomery County Police Department—officials have the power to close the case. There can be no formal court process because everyone involved is deceased. At the time of publication, the case remained open.
“It’s a noble cause, and she did lots of work on it,” Toomey says. “It will definitely bring a sense of closure to her, and apparently to her family.”
In the meantime, Smith, who now lives in Los Angeles and is a remote lecturer in forensic science at the University of Florida, is shopping a Car Barn Murders book deal and working on several unrelated television projects.
Otherwise, she waits.
“I have no doubt that they’ll close the case,” Smith says. “I would bet my pension on it.”