Cannon Beach tragedy affects us all

A small vigil was held across the street from the Surfsand Resort, where the first homicide in Cannon Beach in almost half a century took place recently, included a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

I admit I have been known to leave the door unlocked to my house overnight.

Or I forgot to press the keyless remote for my car, which is parked outside.

Friends from Portland sometimes worry that thieves will come in the middle of the night and steal their jewelry.

But in Cannon Beach, we have very little crime.

Usually the items that dominate the Cannon Beach police log are warnings issued to “unlawful lodgers” – those who think the inner-city trail around the lagoon ponds would be a good place to camp out.

That is why the horrible tragedy that occurred the weekend beginning Friday, Aug. 1, came as a shock to those who live and work in Cannon Beach.

To hear that a toddler died and a teenage girl was injured and their mother is a suspect is not the news that you usually hear on a bright, sunny weekend day in town.

Usually, on the first weekend in August, the locals are thinking about pulling weeds in their garden, taking a stroll on the beach or joining their friends at the first-Saturday oyster fry at the American Legion building early in the evening. Perhaps, they’ll catch the play at the Coaster Theatre after dinner.

But on Saturday night, Aug. 2, many of us in town were thinking about the two children and wondering where their mother was. The local police department, led by Chief Jason Schermerhorn, and other law enforcement agencies, were focused on the search for the missing woman.

Meanwhile, instead of enjoying a warm summer evening barbecuing in the backyard or viewing the latest artwork at the Cannon Beach Gallery opening, 15 adults and three children stood vigil around the corner from the upscale hotel where the crimes were committed. They held lit candles in memory of the toddler whose name they still didn’t know.

“Yesterday was an extremely sad day for Cannon Beach,” Barb Knop, board president of Cannon Beach Preschool and Children’s Center, told Cannon Beach Gazette reporter Erick Bengel during the vigil.

“I’ve devoted my life to helping children, and to see such a tragedy so close in our community is heartbreaking,” Knop said.

Some news outlets questioned whether this was a signal that Cannon Beach had finally fallen victim to criminal elements. Would the town’s residents have to start worrying about other bad-doers? Was this a sign that the village had taken a turn for the worse?

But Schermerhorn put it into perspective: This was the first homicide in Cannon Beach in nearly 50 years, he said.

By the time Sunday evening arrived, Jessica Smith, the 40-year-old missing mother, had been apprehended, thanks to sharp-eyed personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River, who had done an aerial search and discovered Smith’s car on a logging road deep in the forest off of U.S. Highway 26.

She was only 15 miles east of Cannon Beach.

Locals also heard the news that Alana Smith, the 13-year-old daughter who had received critical cuts and had undergone surgery, was expected to recover from her physical wounds.

I admit, I relaxed a little when I heard about Jessica Smith’s capture.

As a reporter elsewhere, I have covered “cops,” or as I used to put it, “murder and mayhem.” I have written about terrible criminal acts in other places. When I first took over the “cops” beat, I would look at everyone suspiciously, even if they were just standing on a corner minding their own business (Or were they?). A friend observed that I had become very paranoid. I replied that I was more “careful.”

But those crimes were in other places. In bigger places, where criminals are wont to congregate.

Not in Cannon Beach.

My neighbors and I have gotten used to the quiet way of life, where no one worries about crime statistics. Yes, there are cases of domestic abuse, drug possession, assault and drunken driving. But even these are somewhat occasional.

Will it be difficult for us, though, to stop being just slightly on edge after this toddler’s death and the teenager’s injuries? Will we ever completely remove the image each of us has conjured up of a blood-soaked hotel room?

They didn’t even live here. But we have taken them into our hearts. They stay in our minds.

It’s not quite accurate to say that the Cannon Beach locals were “innocent” until this happened. Most of us have lived elsewhere; we have probably personally experienced some kind of crime.

Maybe we didn’t lose our innocence, but maybe we have lost our complacency.

Nancy McCarthy is the South County reporter for The Daily Astorian and the editor of the Cannon Beach Gazette and the Seaside Signal. Her column appears every two weeks.

They didn’t even live here. But we have taken them into our hearts. They stay in our minds.

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