DOUGLASVILLE, Ga. — A 26-year mystery is now solved, police said. The man accused of raping and murdering a teen in 1995 has been identified.
Atlanta Police gave the "significant update" in 14-year-old Nacole Smith's cold case murder during a press conference on Tuesday morning.
Smith was walking to school with her sister on June 7, 1995 in Atlanta when she forgot something at home, investigators said. She turned around to head back, and cut through the woods by some apartments on Campbellton Road. That's when police said a man raped her then shot her in the face two times, killing her.
For years the mystery went unsolved.
Detective Vincent Velazquez said he opened Nacole's case on his own back in 2002. He was unsuccessful in his quest for two years until detectives discovered her attacker struck again in 2004, raping then 13-year-old Betty Brown in East Point, but not killing her. It happened nine years later just miles away from where Nacole was murdered. Investigators found the DNA from both attacks is the same.
Velazquez said he worked tirelessly in the case, being in consistent contact with Smith's family, conducting hundreds of interviews and over 50 blood samples with the help of other law enforcement before he retired in 2017. He said he then passed the baton over to Scott Demeester, a homicide detective on the cold case squad. Deemester said he is only three months older than Nacole and was a freshman in high school when she was tragically killed.
Using genealogy and ancestry databases, Deemester said it took investigators three years to find a person of interest in the case before there was finally a breakthrough. The team got word that the GBI lab was able to match the DNA profile in the unsolved rape of the victim in East Point just after Christmas in Dec. 2021.
"It was an emotional phone call to Mrs. Smith," Deemester said.
But both Smith's and Brown's families will never get to see their day in court with the man accused of committing these heinous crimes. Police said he died on Aug. 29, 2021 while in hospice care for liver and kidney failure.
Nacole's family joined investigators with the Atlanta Police Department’s Homicide Unit and members of the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office as authorities provided details in the case at the police department's headquarters.
Nacole's mother, Acqunellia, said she has been living without closure in the horrific incident for nearly three decades. She called the moment "bittersweet" and said she's fighting to take "one day at a time."
"Today for me is a bittersweet moment, I never imagined this person to be deceased. So many unanswered questions that I had for him that I could never ask or get answers. I would never say it was closure for me because I’ll live with this pain for the rest of my life," Acqunellia said as tears ran down her checks.
In an emotional testimony, Brown, who is now all grown up with children of her own, said she has hidden this part of her life for years. Brown said she never thought she'd see the day she would be speaking about the assault.
"I’m so conflicted because on one hand I want to rise above and not let this control me, but on the other hand I want his family to suffer, because he’s not here to suffer. I want them to feel the pain that my family has felt for years," Brown said.
Brown said Acqunellia and detective Velazquez have both been in contact with her over the decades. She said their care has been invaluable.
"All these years and checking on me to make sure that I’m okay. I appreciate you because I needed that," she said.
One of the first responding officers on the scene spoke at the press conference. He said he remembers staying out in the woods digging for evidence "all night" back in 1995. He said one detective worked on the case until the day he died in 2017.
Lt. Ralph Woolfolk with the Atlanta Police department said cold cases "are not just a number" to law enforcement. He called Nacole's case a "testament to the hard work of detectives."
Police did not state the suspect's name during the press conference. Woolfolk said investigators wanted the moment to be about the victims, their families, and detectives who dedicated their hard work and time to solving the case.
Watch the full press conference below.