One year later, the brutal death of Livia Smith remains unsolved — and friends and family demand answers 

She Would Be 33

She Would Be 33

Miss East Nashville. That's how Carter de Treville remembers her.

That night — Feb. 19, 2013 — she was at the Village Pub, the hot spot near the corner of McGavock and Riverside. She was at the bar, he was on the front porch. She was inside, he was outside. He hadn't planned to meet up, but that was OK. You always stood a good chance of seeing Livia Smith.

An ebullient 32-year-old makeup artist, Smith was a friendly fixture on one of the city's hottest, hippest singles scenes. She was often seen in popular East Side hangouts, friends recall, and de Treville says she made new acquaintances easily. That night, she was laughing and drinking with her friend Anna Worstell, singer for the electronic punk band Five Knives.

"Livia saw me. We were facing each other," de Treville recalls. "She started making faces at me, and being all cute to me. And then they came out and met us on the porch, and we hugged and chatted and were jolly." She asked if he wanted to go out later with them, but de Treville was beat. She gave her friend a hug, as he remembers — he's had a year to replay these events over and over in his head — and they parted ways.

Her last words to him were a cheery, "I love you." She said it twice.

What happened next has mystified police, frustrated investigators and left East Nashvillians angry over the lack of progress in one of Nashville's highest-profile unsolved deaths.

From there, Smith and Worstell went to Holland House, the Eastland Avenue speakeasy. But it was too crowded, so the duo moved to Five Points — first to Edgefield Sports Bar, for a game of darts; then to Red Door, where they agreed that the vibe was off. They finally ended up at 3 Crow Bar, but by the time she arrived, according to other patrons who spoke to her, she was just about ready to go home. Sipping on water, Smith told Worstell that she'd better call it a night, as she had work the next morning. 

Though Smith was speaking correctly, Worstell recalls, her speech was slightly slurred. Worstell says she insisted on driving her friend home. But Smith strongly batted her away. There was a cab right outside, she said.

Other friends would later tell police that she rarely took cabs for the 7-minute drive back to her three-bedroom brick ranch house. Worstell thinks she was just feeling commendably responsible. Before this point, the evening had been "the best night ever," Worstell remembers, "and I was proud of her for making the right decision to cab it home." A 3 Crow bartender thought Smith needed assistance, so Worstell helped her get in.

By this point, investigators believe, the time was between 1:40 and 1:45 a.m. Feb. 20, 2013. 

Neither Worstell nor any other witnesses that night remember what the cab driver looked like, something that has vexed investigators over the past 12 months. Witnesses say the driver was male and not Caucasian (perhaps Middle Eastern or Hispanic, according to detectives) — a profile vague enough to describe any number of Nashville cab drivers.

Witnesses also say the cab was a yellow van, leading some to suspect that the driver was with Nashville's Yellow Cab taxi company. Yet Yellow Cab has no record of the pickup. No surveillance cameras captured Smith getting in the cab. And nobody seems to have paid much attention to either the vehicle or the driver, because it's not unusual to see people getting in a taxi around 5 Points. No big deal.

Except unlike all those other people, Livia Smith never made it home. Three and a half hours after she was seen getting into a cab, at 5:10 a.m., a neighbor headed to work down Barclay Avenue in East Nashville saw an unfamiliar object on the side of the road in the dim early-morning light. It was Livia Smith's lifeless body, less than a block from her house.

Investigators know the cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head. And they have all but ruled out the widely speculated method: hit and run. But was her death an accident? A homicide? Was the taxi driver involved? Who was the taxi driver? Was someone else implicated? Did the person know her? Was it a stranger?

On all counts, theories abound. Yet conclusive evidence has defied the efforts of family, friends and authorities. 

Last year, Smith's brother put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible. Even so, police have received almost no helpful tips, according to East Precinct Detective Matt Filter, one of the investigators working the case. And as time passes, the chances of solving her death grow increasingly desperate — and remote. 

"Witnesses, better cab records, video surveillance," Filter says. "There's a lot of things that could have made this case easy to solve."

Livia Rose Smith grew up in the Leeds community of Northampton, Mass., a blue-collar mill town that in recent decades has transformed into a little mecca for artists and bohemian progressives. The daughter of a painter and a nurse, Smith showed creative proclivities and a gregarious personality at an early age, according to her younger brother Ian Struthers. 

"Growing up, I was the most stylish kid in elementary school," remembers Struthers, 27, a Boston graduate student. "She was my personal shopper. She'd dress me when we did back-to-school shopping. She had a real good eye for things."

Their mother primarily raised the two, and Struthers says his sister was always his artistic and social mentor. She had the enterprise to start her own projects and was never afraid to break into conversation with strangers.

"She had a way with people," he says. "She made friends very quickly. She's always been popular. But popular without ever trying." 

Years later, she was accepted to selective Smith College in her hometown, but she eventually decided that a career in the beauty and cosmetics industry played more to her strengths. So she honed her skills in cosmetic artistry at the New York branch of the Make-Up Designory, also known as MUD. She completed an apprenticeship and took on several high-profile clients over the summer she was there.

In the meantime, she'd married a musician considering a move to Nashville. She seemed well-prepared, as her brother explains: "She worked very, very hard in New York, then moved to Tennessee and was ready to go."

Moving to Music City just as the economic downturn hit, however, created a topsy-turvy transition for someone in luxury retail. To add to the pressure, her marriage was breaking up.

"She had to rough it for a few years before she got back on her feet," Struthers says. "Sometimes [she] would work odd jobs, in addition to freelancing. Once she worked part time at a clothing boutique. She did whatever she had to do." 

But family and friends alike say resilience was a big part of her character, something borne out in the last six months or so of her life. In that time, she landed a job as a counter manager in the Chanel department at Dillard's in Green Hills, while handling freelance makeup chores for musicians and artists. She bought a house on Barclay Avenue in East Nashville, where she lived with her friend Adam McCord and her pitbull-dalmatian mix Ellie.

She started doing yoga again, even picked up arts and crafts projects that she had put away. Her outlook was optimistic and her mood radiant, her brother says.

"She went out in her prime," says Struthers, who caught up with her by phone almost every other day. "She was always working, always busy with freelance work every time I talked to her. She landed on her feet very quickly." 

Talking with Smith's friends, a portrait emerges of a vivacious, magnetic fun-lover with a spontaneous nature and a voracious pop-culture appetite. She collected records and could often be found at indie rock shows in town, such as The xx and Beach House. She went through a rockabilly phase, a juice phase and a dance phase, though only the dance phase took. She loved the TV series Californication and soup from Thai Phooket on Woodland. She loved The Smiths, especially "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out."

More than anything, says her friend and roommate McCord, she loved adventure: a costume, an outing, a chance to shake up the routine. For him, her defining moment came when the two decided to attend a costume party dressed as characters from the '80s Brat Pack classic Pretty in Pink — she as Molly Ringwald, he as Jon Cryer's nerdy Duckie. The funniest part, he remembers, was that they arrived only to find nobody else dressed up.

"That's when I knew we had to be friends," McCord says. 

That same zany spirit made people want to know her. Carter de Treville remembers chatting on the mobile dating site Grindr with someone whose profile — somewhat incongruously — pictured a monkey. The person would send him silly poems about bananas and tease him. "After a month, I was like, I kind of want to hang out with this monkey person," he recalls. "And it turned out to be Livia.

"We started a small group of friends who all got really close. I helped her renovate her house when she bought it. Livia was extremely — and I know it's a cliché, because it's not a great adjective — but she was super beautiful inside and out."

The weekend before her death, friends tell the Scene, she'd been troubled by recent dating experiences, including a trip to Atlanta to spend time with someone she'd met on the dating site OKCupid. It didn't go as she'd hoped, which led her to her friend Julie Jackson's home for solace. ("She came and went from my place as she pleased," Jackson says.) Yet even then she couldn't just sit around and mope. The two drowned their sorrows and fell asleep watching ridiculous YouTube videos to cheer up.

The impression she made on friends cannot be overstated. Alex Thorne says she'll never forget their first encounter at Red Door in East Nashville. "We started talking, and I said something like, 'You're so nice. It's so hard for me to make girl friends sometimes,' " Thorne recalls. "And she just smiled that way she did — a smirk and her eyes got a little squinty — and she said, 'Oh, honey, I'll be your girlfriend.' And we were pretty inseparable from that point on." Once, the pair cruised all around Nashville with their windows down, cranking the pop-jive hit "Mambo No. 5" and trying to get strangers to sing along with them.

"That was just her," Thorne remembers. "And we had such a blast every time we did anything." Keeping friends and family at the center of her life gave Smith vitality, she says: "She would always do cutesy things like knit people scarves and spend so much time stamping the name tag for it, so it would look nice. Just because." 

After the discovery of Smith's body, the news spread with a kind of delayed impact. Struthers was taking notes on his iPad in a class in Boston when somebody sent him an article about a woman's body found on Barclay Avenue in Nashville. He ran out of class. When he called Metro police, they broke the news. As soon as Thorne saw the same news story, she started calling around. 

"A friend of hers had contacted me when the news story was just 'woman found on Barclay,' and so I started calling her phone [and] leaving her messages," she says. "I started to worry, so I called her work. She wasn't there. On a last leg, I called her roommate Adam, and by this point I was frantic. I remember saying, 'Where's Livia?' And there was just silence from him.

"And I started screaming, 'Tell me it isn't her! Tell me it isn't her!' And he said, 'I can't.'

"I threw my phone, and by this time my father had me basically in a choke hold to try and keep me calm. I can honestly say I have never felt such pain in my life."

Adam McCord, who still lives in the house Smith owned, has tried to cope by making changes. He's shuffled furniture around. He's changed the front door. He even got new roommates, he says, so that "there was something in the house besides me and the silence." 

Faced with paltry evidence at every turn, Smith's friends and family have applied pressure wherever they can to advance the case. Their first step was to force an examination of cab practices in Nashville. At the time Smith got into the cab, in February 2013, there was no requirement for local taxis to use a global positioning system (or GPS), which can pinpoint with precision the whereabouts of a cab. Had the one carrying Smith employed such a system, investigators might have been able to locate it.

Driven by Smith's death, several of her friends — including local fashion designer Amanda Valentine and Nashville Public Library volunteer coordinator Ryan Darrow — petitioned the Metro Transportation Licensing Commission to ask that all cabs be required to carry GPS. After hearing their emotional testimony in April 2013, the commission unanimously voted to put the rule on the books. As a result, as part of an annual inspection, cabs must now have a working GPS in place.

Since April there have been no violations, according to Billy Fields, who heads the commission. 

"If it was a yellow cab, it could have been any one of more than 100 cabs that could have been in the area, which is why the GPS is so critical," Fields says. "At least we could have isolated it down to that." What's more, he expects that the commission will order all cabs to have in-vehicle cameras by year's end.

"I think that's going to be a direct outcome of this tragedy," Fields says. 

Yet tensions are still running high over what color the cab was, and whether knowing that fact can help unravel the mystery of Smith's death. 

According to Detective Filter and Traffic Unit Officer Don Davidson, who are both working on the case, witnesses remember Livia getting into a yellow van-style cab. That's enough, Ian Struthers says, to suggest that Nashville's Yellow Cab Co. employed the sought-after driver. He believes the company is being less than forthcoming about his sister's death, and he says he's telling all his friends in Nashville to boycott Yellow Cab taxis.

Doug Trimble, president and general manager of Yellow Cab, insists his company has complied fully with the investigation. The company has no information to share, he says, because it was never involved.

"We researched, researched and researched," Trimble says. While he admits that turnover is rather high and it's "pretty common" for drivers to go unaccounted for, he tells the Scene he has interviewed at least half of his 180 drivers with no luck.

"We did not have a dispatch call there," he says. "We can't figure out what happened." His own theory is that Livia got into one of Nashville's unlicensed "renegade" cabs — some of which are painted yellow, to lend some degree of pseudo-credibility. 

"This is a tragic situation that is disheartening, and it's weighed on all our minds," Trimble says. "But for someone to assume that we haven't made an attempt to try to figure out if this driver was associated with us is inaccurate. We wracked all of our minds for an entire year. We've done more than what has been required. We did all we can do."

The exact manner of Livia Smith's death remains a mystery. Early reports indicated it might have been related to a hit and run. Police have since debunked that notion. 

"We pretty much have determined the opposite," investigator Davidson says. "The overwhelming evidence indicates that she was not hit by a car. Now, she may have fallen, or [been] pushed or jumped or whatever, from a moving vehicle. But there is no evidence that she was run over or struck by a vehicle." 

Investigators are not sure how long her body lay at rest that night on Barclay Avenue. The all-black clothes she was wearing were not ripped or askew, they say. Further details of the file remain sealed as part of an ongoing investigation. Filter says authorities know what caused her death — blunt head trauma — but they still don't know how it happened. 

Nor can they ascertain exactly what caused abrasions on her hands and knees. Asked if resistance was involved, Filter says, "There's no apparent evidence of any kind of attack or sexual assault. That's not saying that one did not occur. But we don't have evidence to support that either way right now." Police did find Smith's cellphone on the scene, which they used later to partially track the vehicle's route.

"It's not necessarily an exact location every step of the way," Filter says. "We were able to trace back her steps somewhat. But what we were able to develop was not conclusive enough to be able to say exactly where she was." 

Prosecutors have not found any suspects — yet, at least. They've ruled out a broad pool of potential suspects, but as with much of the investigation, certainties remain stubbornly elusive. 

"We have some people who are persons of interest," Filter says, adding that none are official suspects yet because no evidence directly ties them to the incident. "Most of the people we're looking at are cab drivers."

For all the frustration that's mounted over the passing months, no resolution is in sight as the open case passes the grim milestone of its first anniversary.

"These kind of cases, because we don't know what the manner of death is, whether this is an accident or a homicide, it will remain open indefinitely until we conclude, or come to some kind of conclusion with it," Filter says. 

The lack of a breakthrough has taken a toll on Smith's family and friends. With even the most basic questions hanging unanswered, some friends say privately that police have been ineffectual. "It really seems like the cops did a piss-poor job of investigating," says a friend who asked not to be named. Others echo that sentiment. 

Authorities steadfastly maintain that they're working to cobble together a case. They say it's difficult, though, when the evidence is as weak and the leads as fruitless as they've been in this instance.

"The most important thing right now, in my mind, is to determine what happened to her, and what happened that night," Filter says. "And if there are any appropriate charges, then they would be filed at that time. But right now we're really dependent on just some outside information from someone to give us the direction to go, as far as a suspect is concerned." 

For Smith's brother Ian Struthers, who is now the landlord of Livia's house and is considering a move to Nashville, accepting the unknowable is becoming a crushing possibility. 

"We're trying to come to terms, and we're probably not going to find out who did it," Struthers says. "I've replayed thousands of scenarios in my head. But until we find the cabbie, we won't know anything."

And until then, a cloud is all that remains of the last hours of Livia Smith — who chose to do the right thing by taking a taxi, and never made it home.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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