A plaque at the Curry County Courthouse was placed by the Clovis chapter of the New Mexico Homicide Survivors group as a memorial for victims of violent crimes. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Maria Beardmore lost a daughter last December. She said she also lost her best friend when Laura McNaughton’s lifeless body was found in a ditch north of Clovis.
“We were very close. That’s why there’s so much sadness,” Beardmore said in a telephone interview from her home in San Diego, the first time a McNaughton family member has spoken in depth and publicly about the slaying.
Beardmore said she refused to allow geography to separate her from her daughter. In addition to daily phone calls, Beardmore made almost monthly drives from San Diego to Clovis for visits. She wanted to help her recently divorced 30-year-old daughter, who worked part-time and attended college, to build a future for her and her two daughters, Beardmore said.
McNaughton died before she was able to accept her associate’s degree from Clovis Community College. Her family received it the week after her death. It was framed and given to McNaughton’s children, Beardmore said.
Beardmore said her family, which includes four daughters, has always been close. She said she proudly watched as McNaughton fostered the same loving closeness with her own daughters.
Clovis dentist James Smith, 37, has been charged with killing McNaughton and is scheduled to be tried in January. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
According to court documents, Smith frequented the restaurant where McNaughton waited tables, asking to sit in her section and leaving her large tips.
McNaughton told friends and her mother that Smith made her feel uncomfortable, court records show.
“There was no relationship at all,” Beardmore said. “She was concerned — she did not want a relationship with him.”
According to court records, Smith told police McNaughton “died very quickly” at his home after they engaged in a “very physical embrace.”
Smith family members have thus far declined CNJ requests for interviews. Smith’s attorney has declined to answer questions about the case.
Watching the wheels of justice turn is difficult for Beardmore. She and her family closely monitor news coverage and try to be involved in every court hearing as Smith’s Jan. 8 death penalty trial draws closer.
The coming months will be difficult as they await a verdict to determine Smith’s guilt or innocence. The stages of grief are compounded by the court element, Beardmore said.
“At first it’s denial and then you go through stages and then you know this is real. It’s difficult. By (the time of the trial), I will be a much stronger person. You just can’t let someone do something like this. That’s my daughter.”
Clovis resident Charlotte Whitbeck empathizes with Beardmore.
Whitbeck’s only brother was killed in October 2000, stabbed by an acquaintance after a verbal dispute. Years later, she still struggles with his death.
“One of the things that’s different in a homicide death than other types of deaths is that it just takes so long to get any type of closure,” she said.
In her brother’s case, six months passed before a week-long jury trial resulted in a guilty verdict.
The trial and media coverage was often frustrating for Whitbeck. She explained families find themselves watching from the sidelines as the district attorney’s office pursues justice for their loved one.
Whitbeck’s experience prompted her and other family members to create the Clovis chapter of the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide group. Her brother’s widow is the chapter leader.
“(The grief) never really goes away,” she said.
Whitbeck offered words of advice to Beardmore for the months ahead as McNaughton’s family waits for closure.
“Always remember that you have family (with you) and you need to put it in God’s hands because what justice isn’t received on Earth will be received afterwards,” she said.
For Beardmore, focusing on a promise she made to her daughter fuels her.
“Me and Laura made a promise that if anything ever happened to her, I would take care of (her) girls and be there for them — help out.”
Beardmore said it’s a promise she intends to keep.