Preview: The Ballad of Billi-Jo, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones (S4,E9)
On May 29, 2007, Billi Jo and Wayne Smallwood experienced a fire in their Fort Campbell, Kentucky home. They had three children living with them at the time of the fire: Sam, Rebekah, and Nevaeh. The neighbors ran outside to see what was going on only to find a chaotic scene. Wayne was on the ground with a broken ankle and Billi Jo was still on the roof attempting to escape the smoke and fire and screaming for help; she was holding her 14 month old Nevaeh. After passing the child down to firefighters, Billi Jo was reluctant to get off the roof because her other children were still in the home. Firefighters entered the burning home and found Rebekah but she was already dead and Sam was still alive when they carried him out of the house but he wasn’t stable enough to fly to the burn unit in Nashville. He died of his injuries at the local hospital. Billi Jo was airlifted to a Nashville hospital with second and third degree burns on her legs and one of her arms. Wayne arrived later in Nashville with a shattered ankle.
Before the fire, Wayne and Billi Jo had a pretty normal life. Wayne returned from his first deployment to Iraq nine months earlier. Like most military families, the Smallwood family struggled with their finances and the stresses of military life too. Both Billi Jo and Wayne had children from other relationships. Rebekah and Sam were Billi Jo’s kids and they stayed with her and Wayne’s son Cote lived with his mother. And just over a year before the fire, the couple had their own baby together: Nevaeh. Local authorities brought in federal authorities to investigate the burned out home. They found that one of the smoke detectors had been taken down and placed on a baby highchair. ATF also found a partly burned spout on a gasoline can. They brought in a working dog and the dog discovered an accelerant; the ATF believed gas had been used to start the fire and this was arson. They also found the Smallwood’s car had been vandalized, all the tires had been slashed, and someone left a threatening note keyed on the car.
Investigators interviewed Billi Jo and Wayne Smallwood in the hospital. Billi Jo told them earlier in the day they had driven back from Georgia after visiting Wayne’s family. On this day, Wayne was being especially nice to Sam which was atypical because he was usually pretty hard on him. According to Billi Jo, when they returned home, Wayne took the last of the cash and headed down to a bar on base to drink with his friends; the couple struggled financially. Billi Jo claims that while Wayne was gone, a man called the house threatening to harm Wayne. Billi Jo called the military police to report the threatening phone call, then she called Wayne at the bar. Instead of rushing home to check on his family, Wayne stayed at the bar. The MP’s checked in with Billi Jo but they told her soldier’s quite often played pranks on one another. Eventually, Billi Jo fell asleep with Nevaeh and Wayne fell asleep with Rebekah. When Billi Jo realized the house was on fire, she grabbed Nevaeh so they could get to safety yet Wayne jumped from the second story floor without any of the children.
ATF Agents interviewed the Smallwood’s small circle of family and friends to see if they could find anyone who had a reason to commit this crime. They learned that Wayne was embroiled in a contentious custody battle with his ex-wife. According to Billi Jo, Wayne had recently met with his ex-wife about their son and it lead to an argument; the two fought often. In the meantime, arson investigators determined that because all the locks were engaged downstairs, someone from inside the house had to have started the fire. Agents scrutinized both Billi Jo and Wayne looking for any inconsistencies. Billi Jo told them she went to Wal-Mart earlier in the evening to pick up some items for the baby but when they checked surveillance footage, there was no sign of Billi Jo at the Wal-Mart. When investigators questioned her about the inconsistency, she told them that it was a K-Mart, not Wal-Mart. The second time Billi Jo told the investigators what she bought, it included a gas can. This was a disturbing revelation but Billi Jo’s explanation was simple: military members are fined if they don’t mow the grass.
Prosecutors wanted to prove that Billi Jo torched her home on base in an effort to kill her husband Wayne and collect the $400,000 life insurance pay-out. When constructing their arguments, they noted that the Smallwood’s already had a couple gas cans in the back yard therefore Billi Jo didn’t need to purchase another one. Billi Jo said she forgot to bring a gas can with her when she ran errands and it was easier to just buy another one. ATF Agents visited K-Mart and learned that BJ had in fact visited the store that day. They also learned that the the nozzle on the gas can she bought matched the one found in the fire. And although Billi Jo said she needed to mow the grass, it had not been mowed that day. Federal investigators suspected someone who lived in the house started the fire so they interviewed Wayne and gave him a polygraph; he passed. In a separate interview, Billi Jo admitted she saw blue flames and this was a moment of revelation for the investigators because you are only going to see blue flame when the fire is first lit.
Billi Jo and Wayne argued a lot and Billi Jo testified that Wayne had a violent side too. Billi Jo admitted to confronting Wayne numerous times about his inability to manage money; Wayne’s gambling caused problems too. Investigators theorized Billi Jo had enough of Wayne and this was her motive. On the same night as the fire, the Smallwood’s were overdrawn on their bank account and Wayne had spent the last of their money on alcohol. If Wayne died in the fire, Billi Jo would receive $400,000. Hoping to find out who made the threatening phone calls, prosecutors subpoenaed the telephone records and found no threatening call had been made. Billi Jo says there was a phone call but the phone company said their records are almost 99% accurate. Prosecutors believe everything that comes out of Billi Jo’s mouth is a lie. Billi Jo’s injuries to the legs and one arm were also suspicious. They believed these burns were caused when a fire was ignited in front of her; they believe she was kneeling when she lit the fire.
In preparation for trial, the remains of the Smallwood’s home were removed and taken to a crime lab. It was at this time that forensic experts found overlooked evidence. They determined that the dining room window had been up about 6-8 inches at the time of the fire. This information damaged the prosecution’s theory to an extent because Billi-Jo believed a stranger entered the home and started the fire. The investigators believed either Wayne or Billi Jo started the fire because the house was locked up. Prosecutors moved forward with Billi Jo as their prime suspect because of her connection to a gas can and a financial motive to kill her husband. The prosecution took a look at the intruder theory and couldn’t understand how an adult got through the window and didn’t break or knock anything over. Investigators deduced it was highly unlikely that an intruder would enter the home and not alert the family dog.
Six months after the fire, Billi Jo reported that Wayne was acting erratically and in November 2007, he attacked Billi Jo with a knife. He was convicted of assault and spent eleven months in jail. Billi Jo and Nevaeh move to Georgia with her mother. Two weeks after Wayne was released from jail, Billi Jo was arrested for setting the fire that killed her two children Sam and Rebekah. Five years after the fire that killed Sam and Rebekah, Billi Jo went to trial. The prosecution claimed Billi Jo’s motive was to kill her husband for the life insurance money but the plan backfired and she accidentally killed two of her children. In court, the defense attacked the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence but the jury wasn’t buying it. Billi Jo Smallwood was found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison. Billi Jo’s mother believes she is innocent and that someone out there knows something.
Source: The Ballad of Billi-Jo, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones
ID Go: When a house fire takes the lives of Wayne and Billi Jo Smallwood’s two young children, everyone on the Fort Campbell military base is grief-stricken for them. But when it turns out the fire was intentionally set – grief turns to outrage. -The Ballad of Billi-Jo, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones (S4,E9)
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The Ballad of Billi-Jo | True Crime with Aphrodite Jones (S4,E9)
She didn’t hand Neveah to firefighters. She handed her to a neighbor, who handed her to me. My partner and I (MPs) were the first on scene. She wouldn’t let go of me so I rode with her to the hospital and stayed there the rest of the night in the nurses station while she slept on me. I watched as they wheeled Samuel out to the helicopter and then back into the hospital when they couldn’t revive him again. It was a very sad night and one that I think about often. I’ve always wondered what happened to Neveah. I’ve never forgotten her.