It’s been three and a half years since Nancy Smith’s daughter turned up dead on the streets of Long Beach. She’s canvassed the neighborhood and learned disturbing details of her daughter’s secret life. But she still has no answers.
Nancy Smith replays the moments leading up to the day her life changed forever, wondering if she missed a precious clue. She remembers trying to hide the concern in her voice. She remembers how she picked up her cell phone and tried calling her daughter yet again. Only a day had passed since their last conversation, but Nancy had not been able to get Heather on the phone since, and her daughter’s evasiveness was unsettling.
Heather never ceased to find ways to get herself into trouble. A decade of traffic tickets, unpaid bills and moving in and out of the house had led Nancy to wonder whether her eldest would ever be responsible enough to lead an adult life. Heather was twenty-seven. Nancy had recently received an overdue bill for a month-long car rental in Heather’s name, totaling over $500.
“Why do you owe that much money for a car rental?” Nancy asked her daughter in a voicemail message. “What are you doing?”
The next day, Nancy would be leaving her home in La Mirada, Calif., to visit her brother in Manassas, Va. She wanted to see Heather before she left. Better yet, she wanted Heather to come too. Sometimes, she wished that she could make Heather stay home, look for a job and spend time with her own daughter, six-year-old Hekela, who lived nearby with her father, an ex-boyfriend of Heather’s.
Later that day in mid-August 2010, Nancy picked up Hekela. “Grandma, I haven’t talked to mommy in many days,” Hekela said. “Where is she?”
Nancy dialed again. She reached into the backseat to hand Hekela the phone as it played the beginning of Heather’s voicemail. “Leave her a message.”
“Hi mommy!” she said. “It’s me, Hekela! When are you coming over? I miss you.”
Nancy went to Virginia without Heather. Engrossed in a conversation with her mother at her brother’s dinner table a week later, she barely noticed his house phone ring. Or when he quietly beckoned his wife to join him in the next room.
“Nancy, I’ve got Juan on the phone,” he said. It was Nancy’s husband, Heather’s stepfather, back home in California. Nancy had left her phone in her bag, and he’d probably been trying to reach her.
“Hi Nance,” Juan said. His tone was strange. Strained. He began explaining how he and their two sons had all arrived home that day to detectives at the house. His voice cracked.
“What are detectives doing at the house?” Nancy asked.
Juan started sobbing. “They found her body.”
He was silent.
“Now you’re scaring me,” she told him. “Whose body?”
“Heather’s,” he managed. “They found Heather’s body.”
It didn’t register. “Juan, what do you mean?”
“She’s dead,” he said. “They found her in Long Beach.”
* * *
Three years later, Nancy stands at the site where her daughter’s body was discovered by a passerby at 6:30 a.m. on August 10, 2010. It is the parkway of 355 East 56th Street in Long Beach. She holds a flier with photographs of Heather and details about the police department’s $10,000 reward for anyone with information about her murder. She has made fliers, posters, T-shirts and postcards advertising the reward for information about Heather’s murder. A four-foot-wide magnet on the back of her silver Ford pickup does the same. Nancy has canvassed this neighborhood many times, knocked on its doors and implored its residents to tell her if they remember anything suspicious. Over the past three years, she has come to know it almost as well as her own.
Heather Broadus was found lying on her back across the sidewalk with her arms above her head. She sported purple glitter polish on her nails. There were red bruises on both of her forearms. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. Police reports described her as “bullet-riddled,” and the initial gunshot residue report estimated that more than five shots had been fired. The fatal shot entered through the right side of her chest, passing through her right lung and the right ventricle of her heart. She died within seconds. Residents had heard shots fired at 2:30 a.m. but no one called the police—the sound was not uncommon in the neighborhood. Heather was found on the pavement four hours later.
On the day she received the news, Nancy held her own mother and wept. She was three thousand miles away from where she needed to be – from where her child lay lifeless. But she allowed herself to wallow only briefly. Nancy sprang into action and went through her phone, gathering information for everyone likely to have been in contact with Heather in the six months before her death. By the time police called fifteen minutes later, she had a list ready.
It marked the beginning of a long and frustrating effort to find her daughter’s killer and bring him or her to justice. Tormented by Heather’s death, and the short arc of her life, Nancy wanted to understand what went so wrong.
She made a commitment to her lost child: She would seek out anyone who might know something about Heather’s final days. Every detail counted. She would keep searching for her daughter’s killer, even after it seemed police had all but given up.
* * *
Heather was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on May 22, 1983. Nancy was twenty-one at the time, and her father disowned her after finding out about the pregnancy and her secret marriage to Heather’s father. He also prohibited the rest of the family from speaking to her, a ban which continued through Nancy’s five-year marriage. She suspects that marrying outside of her race (she is white and her ex-husband is black) was a factor. Two more children followed. The couple moved from Pennsylvania to California, where Nancy had been born, and settled in Norwalk, a city in suburban Los Angeles County. Her husband was the youngest of nine siblings raised by a violent alcoholic. His father once sat the whole family on the couch to watch him light their front porch on fire.
He had trouble finding work, but when she came home at the end of each day from her job as a travel agent, the house was clean, he was cooking dinner, and the kids were taken care of. He and Heather were especially close, even as his behavior grew strange. He would drive off for long periods of time under the premise of going to the store. Sometimes Nancy would come home from work and feel as though other people had been in the house in her absence. She finally confronted him when she found a glass pipe emitting a strongly chemical smell in the car. He admitted he had been smoking crack cocaine.
Their marriage ended after the night she arrived home from work and refused to give him the car. He began chasing her around the car for her keys until she scrambled inside it. Before she could reach the lock on the passenger door, he was in the car. He looked right at her, slowly raising his fist. In a single motion, he punched the windshield so hard that it shattered.
I’m not doing this, she thought. She handed him the keys and got out of the car.
“Go,” she said.
As he drove off, she turned towards the front of the house and saw Heather, then five years old, and her sister, standing on the porch, watching.
Next time, that windshield is going to be my face, she thought. As she ushered her kids back into the house, she began formulating a plan to get out.
Soon after, he was arrested and Nancy learned that he had been involved in several robberies over the years. With his arrest, he had violated his parole in Pennsylvania and was taken back to prison there. He called and pleaded with her to not divorce him, but she was resolute. She didn’t want a life in which she took her kids on prison visits. At the time, she explained to her children that their father was very sick. He couldn’t live with them anymore.
“It was a painful thing for Heather because she was so close to him. It was like a death in the family,” Nancy says.
Within a year Nancy met Juan Ocampo, a photographer to whom she has now been married for over two decades, and moved to nearby La Mirada. Juan became a stepfather to Nancy’s children. He still remembers when Heather asked if she could call him “daddy.” He thought about it for a moment before saying yes; it felt like such a big responsibility.
Heather was never an easy kid. Always strong-willed, she was not inclined toward bedtime, and would often get into fights with her brother, with each insistently blaming the other. A third grade teacher once told Heather that she would never be better than a C student, and indeed, Heather never was. In sixth grade, she was briefly diagnosed with a mild learning disability. Nancy says Heather used the diagnosis as a reason to give up trying in school. When Heather was sixteen, she was left in charge of the house while Nancy and Juan went on vacation. Heather threw a huge house party and someone called the police. Nancy found out she had also driven one of the family’s cars over one hundred miles, even though she only had her learner’s permit.
Nancy knew that Heather faced challenges growing up in the predominantly white suburb of La Mirada, challenges that Nancy herself would never be fully able to understand.
“I’m the only black Heather ever,” she used to tell her mom.
“Everyone was naming their kid Heather in the eighties!” Nancy would say in her own defense.
“But I’m half black, mom. Do you know what it’s like to sit in a classroom with five other Heathers who all have blonde hair and blue eyes, and I’m the sixth Heather?”
“Well, you’re special. You’re the Heather they’ll remember.”
Heather kept journals for most of her life. As she got older, she stopped hiding them. Collecting them in an old dark-green-and-blue nylon backpack in the garage, she would toss one in whenever she finished filling its pages with drawings, notes and entries.
At the time of her death, the backpack held fifteen journals, their covers adorned with everything from floral patterns to Ed Hardy designs. Following her death, Nancy began to read through them, hoping to learn what she could about her daughter’s inner world. “I feel so lost and broken-hearted, all because you vanished,” begins one high school entry. Nancy thought back on all of the boys and men Heather had dated over the years. She remembered their names and faces. Some had broken her heart, but would any of them have it in them to kill her?
After high school, for the first time, Heather had begun to see herself as pretty. She got her first long-term boyfriend and became pregnant with Hekela. She was twenty-one, like Nancy had been.
Heather moved into her boyfriend’s parent’s house, but the relationship soon ended. When she moved back home she decided to leave Hekela, still an infant, with him.
Hekela spent the weekdays with her dad and weekends at Nancy’s. On Friday nights, Nancy and Heather would pick Hekela up and the three of them would spend the evening in the kitchen. Heather would cook, running back and forth from the stovetop to show them funny YouTube videos on Nancy’s laptop. She would style Hekela’s hair and try to teach Nancy dance moves. Those nights were some of the best times Nancy remembers.
Heather enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Costa Mesa, but she dropped out after her first semester. She lived primarily with Nancy but moved out for periods of time. Nancy wasn’t happy about Heather’s departures, often to live with whichever boyfriend she had at the moment—most of whom she had known only a short while. Romantically, Heather seemed to vacillate between guys who were either needy and dependent or domineering and controlling.
“She wasn’t a weak, mild girl. She was very stubborn, obstinate, and wanted things her way,” Nancy says. “I guess that’s why things wouldn’t last—she’d come into the relationship acting one way, if [the] guy got too controlling or demanding, she’d just break up, and then she’d have a guy she was pushing around and that wouldn’t last either.”
As Nancy watched Heather gravitate increasingly towards men sometimes a decade older than her, she couldn’t help but wonder: Was she looking for a dad?
Heather made a last effort to get her life on track in the summer of 2009. She was tired of partying, and wanted to find a job, get an apartment and take care of her daughter. She and Nancy drove up to Salinas to settle a ticket that had become a court matter, so that Heather would have a clean background. Heather cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the family. She interned with an online advertising consultant and started selling vacuums on straight commission, going door-to-door and working ten-hour shifts during that winter’s rain. She never managed to sell a vacuum.
She grew discouraged, as she had many times before. Slowly, signs of her restlessness started to emerge.
Heather would borrow Nancy’s truck to go to the store and be gone for hours. One night, she didn’t return at all. Sometimes she would stay up for days. This felt all too familiar to Nancy. To her, this was the behavior or a drug addict.
Sometime in the spring of 2010, Heather met a new guy. Nancy never saw much of him. When Heather came home to change or pick up something, he would wait outside. The only direct contact Nancy had with him was in June, when he helped Heather paint the house. Nancy often paid Heather to do things around the house, and a paint job for $350 was a win-win. Nancy picked both of them up, and Heather finally introduced him. Nancy glanced at him in the truck’s rearview mirror.
“Hi, how you doin?” was all he said.
For some reason, Nancy had a sudden feeling that she should get a really good look at his face. From the rearview mirror, she couldn’t see much past his baseball cap and sunglasses. By the time they returned to the house, the feeling passed. “Here was another boyfriend with obviously no job and no car,” Nancy says. “I didn’t want to bother. I figured he’d be gone soon enough.”
Nancy spent the rest of that day doing chores inside the house. It wasn’t until after the death that Heather’s siblings, who had been in the backyard and interacted with him the day he came to help paint the house, told Nancy that he had boasted about gang affiliations, showed off what he claimed were gang tattoos and yelled obscenities at a disabled family friend while there.
By the end of June, Heather announced that she was moving to Alaska to find work. Food service jobs there paid well, and she had a friend she could stay with.
The announcement arose suddenly, out of a budding dispute about the cleanliness of the garage. It instantly reminded Nancy of an argument they had had before, only back then Heather’s plan had been to move to Las Vegas. Heather’s plans to move away always got under Nancy’s skin.
“What about Hekela?” Nancy asked.
“I’ll take her with me.”
Nancy was enraged. She told Heather that she was selfish and slammed the door to the garage. But immediately she felt bad and returned to apologize. Maybe Alaska would be a good change of pace for Heather and her daughter. They hugged, a moment Nancy holds onto today. At least a foot taller than Nancy, Heather would often give her mother big bear hugs that swept her off her feet, and playfully ruffle her hair in passing. Often irritated by them at the time, Nancy now looks back on those hugs and ruffles wistfully. She still thinks of them whenever the wind ruffles her hair, in that split second when she thinks it might be Heather.
A week later, Nancy learned that Heather didn’t go to Alaska, but instead moved in with her boyfriend in Los Angeles.
* * *
Nancy saw her daughter alive for the last time one early morning in July. Heather snuck past Nancy’s bedroom door around six a.m., peering in to see if she was awake. She had been avoiding her mother for the past month, stopping by only when Nancy was at work or asleep. Nancy looked at her through bleary eyes. By the time she woke up an hour later, Heather was gone.
While at her brother’s house in Virginia the week before Heather’s death, Nancy received a call from a phone number she didn’t recognize with the same area code as Heather’s number. She let it go to voicemail. In the message, there was only silence, as if her number had been dialed by mistake.
A close friend of Heather’s also received a voicemail from a phone number she did not recognize. It sounded like an accidental call too—but the recording captured what sounded like Heather yelling and cursing to herself in the background.
Not much else is known about the specifics of Heather’s final days, but investigators consider Heather’s boyfriend (whose name has not been released) a suspect. In the aftermath of her death, Nancy learned that Heather had confided to a friend that he wouldn’t let her out of his sight and she couldn’t go out on her own. Nancy says the friend told her that Heather tried to leave him in the weeks before she was killed, and in response he had threatened her and the family.
A key to a room at the Bristol Motel, a block and a half away from where she was found, was discovered with Heather’s body. Long Beach Police Homicide Detective Donald Goodman, who has been working on the case, says that Heather may have been with her killer in the silver Mercury Milan she had rented in her name. The car was found a month later in a long-term parking lot.
“I would have thought this would have gotten solved quicker than it has,” says Goodman. “It happened in the middle of a residential area with a lot of activity out at night. There was a lot of noise. Somebody has got to be out there afraid to talk.”
An anonymous source called the police in the early days of the investigation, identifying herself as a friend of Heather’s, but hung up and has never called back.
Heather’s boyfriend’s criminal record reveals that he was once charged with domestic abuse involving threats, battery and drawing a deadly weapon, but charges were not pursued.
He has been questioned about Heather’s murder, and detectives working on the case confirmed there is circumstantial evidence that points to him, but nothing solid. A year after Heather’s death, he was incarcerated for a drug-related felony and has since been released.
“We haven’t ruled him out. He’s got a questionable alibi. If it’s true, there’s no way we can prove it,” says Goodman.
In fact, there are many indicators that Heather’s murder is not an open-and-shut case. DNA from the recovered rental car has returned no matches, but police confirm the car is being looked at in connection with an Orange County home invasion investigation that took place before Heather’s death, suggesting that she may have gotten caught up in other criminal activity.
The toxicology report following Heather’s death revealed traces of cocaine and methamphetamine in her system. The quantities suggest she had not been high at the time, but had used both within the past few days. Yet no revelation is as disquieting as the record showing that on July 23, 2010, a month before her murder, she had been convicted of soliciting or engaging in prostitution. Nancy only learned this a year after Heather was gone. She believes that this might explain the long-term rental car in Heather’s name. Through her research online, she has come across references that these kinds of rentals are a strategy often used by pimps as a way to protect their own identities.
* * *
“I’m so mad, I just want justice and sometimes I feel like nobody else cares,” Nancy says, adding, “I can’t just sit there or ignore it. I have to do something or I feel like I’m going to explode.”
The investigation has slowed. Detectives call less often. Nancy now thinks of cases that have stayed open for ten, fifteen, or twenty years because the investigations went cold. Detective Goodman and his partner have canvassed the neighborhood asking questions multiple times, looking for clues to investigate.
They are still looking for anyone who might have information and Goodman emphasizes that they accept anonymous tips.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten anything in over a couple years,” he says. “Nobody’s come forward and it’s been frustrating.”
They are particularly hoping to track down the anonymous source who never called back.
“I’m just hoping this person will call again,” says Goodman. “Someone out there knows something, and that’s a fact.”
Nancy still keeps fliers and a staple gun in her truck for when she passes high-traffic areas, like metro stations, or the neighborhood itself. She made a Facebook group called Justice for Heather. Yet, over the past year it has also become difficult to find friends available to help hand out fliers.
Recently, she has turned her attention to what she sees as the larger context of Heather’s ordeal, and became a volunteer for the Orange County Human Trafficking Force and helped support the passing of California’s Proposition 35, the CASE Act, which created harsher penalties for human traffickers, including pimps.
When Heather was alive, the two of them shared a love for crime dramas, particularly “CSI.” Nancy remembered how Heather particularly liked the character Horatio Caine. “Whenever there were children on the show, he would get down to their eye level and say, ‘We’re gonna get the guy who killed your mommy.’”
One of the detectives on Heather’s case reminds Nancy of David Caruso, who plays Horatio on “CSI Miami.”
“I can hear her: ‘It’s Horatio, mom! I got Horatio on my case!’” Nancy exclaims, banging on the countertop. “I get a kick out of that.”
Today, Hekela lives with her father but is at Nancy’s house often, and the two still have a close bond. Nancy sometimes wonders what guidance to offer her granddaughter, a headstrong child like Heather, as she grows up.
“I hope she makes better choices—that she sees the value in herself and the love that she has—and that she doesn’t go out looking for whatever her mom was looking for out there,” she says.
She is desperate to find out what else investigators know about the end of Heather’s life, but realizes there could be risks to the investigation if that information were made freely available. Heather died in possession of her most current journal, which has been kept as evidence. Nancy has not been able to see it, despite repeated requests, and can only imagine the answers she might find to her own questions within its pages.
Each day brings its own range of emotions for Nancy. She can be happy in the morning, sad at lunch and not thinking about her grief by the afternoon. On busy days, it feels almost like Heather is somewhere out there, living her own life. Other times, she can hardly believe she will never see her daughter again. She still sometimes gets angry at Heather for not realizing her own potential, but prickles at the thought that anyone might think what happened to her was somehow justified.
“Everyone wants to preserve this image of their child as this great kid, as what they remember and love about their child. I get that. But at the same time, it’s dishonest. I don’t think it dishonors that person to be honest about who they were. If they were honest enough to live it and die it, then why try to paint this different picture?”
Nancy had been touched by how much her daughter was loved. She remembers the candlelight memorial organized by friends from Heather’s high school softball team, during which they shared anecdotes about her: how she once moonwalked into class after arriving late, how she helped a friend confront a boy who was bullying her little brother. Three enlarged photographs of Heather bordered by handwritten messages stood as the focal point. One captured a close-up of Heather and Hekela holding each other, a contented smile playing on Heather’s lips as she looked up at the camera. Nancy stared at the photo and glanced down at what she herself was wearing: the same red and brown checkered shirt that Heather wore in the picture. Nancy had found it among Heather’s things and put it on to feel closer to her.
* * *
The most recent journal of Heather’s that Nancy has runs from 2009 to 2010. It is in large part a collection of lyrics and quotes that Heather held on to:
“I feel the vibe of Vegas on acid,” she wrote in the middle of an early page.
“I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away. I don’t know where my home is.”
“Every story has an end, but an end is just a new beginning.”
“Hussla. Paradise. Heather. Heaven.”
Nancy keeps this last journal in the foyer, under one of the large framed photographs of Heather from the memorial.
Heather also wrote many of her own poems, and in early 2010 penned what is now Nancy’s favorite:
There is only so much your heart & soul can take,
So don’t let the hate escalate.
Recognize the real & eliminate the fake,
Don’t let your relationships be nothing but debates.
It doesn’t have to be this way, our life is what we create.
It’s time to grow and learn from our mistakes.
With nothing left to regret, what from life can we expect?
* * *
Anyone with information about Heather Broadus’s murder should contact Long Beach police homicide Detectives Scott Lasch and Donald Goodman at 562-570-7244.
Jonathan Pobre is a photojournalist based in Los Angeles. A graduate of California State University, Northridge, he has served as a staff photographer at several community and regional newspapers in Los Angeles County.