Phil Hermanek’s new book is about a true-crime case in Alaska
Timber Lakes resident Phil Hermanek was a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, Alaska, when he covered the trials of accused murderer Billy Dean Smith in the early 2000s.
"This trial struck me as something out of the ordinary," Hermanek said during an interview with The Park Record. "It was pretty gruesome. He was a heroin addict and drug dealer who was accused of killing two people, chopping up the bodies and dumping them into Cook Inlet."
The murders and subsequent trials are documented in Hermanek’s new book, "The Trials of Billy Dean Smith: A True Story of Murders on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula," which was published earlier this year by iUniverse.
Hermanek will be at Dolly’s Bookstore on Friday from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. to sign the book, which not only covers Smith’s life as a heroin addict and drug dealer, but also covers, in detail the grisly murders.
"After killing the two, Smith allegedly threw the gun in a lake but couldn’t remember which lake," Hermanek said. "Also, he and some friends chopped up the truck in which he shot the people and buried the pieces all around the Kenai Peninsula.
"So, the cops had nothing," he said. "They had no bodies, no murder weapons and crime scene. It went as a cold case for several years."
One day, Smith was arrested with a suitcase full of cocaine as he was traveling back from the lower 48 and thrown in the Anchorage city jail.
"When he started coming down off of his heroin high, in his scrambled way of thinking, he thought if he could help the cops solve some of these old drug cases, they would let him go so he could get a fix," Hermanek said. "So, he invited the cops in and started talking to them."
The cops had Billy on their list of suspects in the murders and went in with the intension of finding out more about them.
"They interviewed him for a couple of hours and he confessed to the murders, again, thinking that would get him out of jail," Hermanek said. "He was formally charged and he went to court."
The defense said the confession was coerced out of Billy because he was coming down from his high, but the prosecutors wouldn’t have any of that, the writer said.
"I was fortunate to have access to the transcription and put almost all of it in the book," Hermanek said. "I changed the names of a few people because they, to this date, haven’t been charged or convicted, yet, with any related crimes.
"What I wanted to do with this book was let the reader decide if the confession was true or false," he said. "As they find when the read the book the prosecution built its entire case on the confession and the defense said it was one of his friends who served as a lookout who pulled the trigger."
The first trial ended in a mistrial, because one of the lookouts said he had taken a polygraph test, which is inadmissible in court because they are so unreliable.
"That left the jury with an opinion, one way or the other," Hermanek said.
A few months later and a new trial was scheduled and moved from the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage.
"The jury convicted Billy of three felony counts of tampering with evidence — two bodies and the truck — but couldn’t reach a verdict on the murders," Hermanek said. "Again there was enough doubt that Billy wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger."
Hermanek said there were three other suspects. One was a woman who had a motive, but he didn’t think she was capable of killing anyone.
The other two were male and were definitely capable of committing murder, but they didn’t have motives, Hermanek said.
"I feel that Billy committed the murders," he said. "He had motive and was able to do that sort of thing, but even so, I want to leave it up to the reader to decide."
"The Trials of Billy Dean Smith" is Hermanek’s first full-length book, although he has been writing for most of his life.
"I started out in military journalism in the Army back in 1967," he said. "Back then, writing was a better gig than going to Vietnam as part of the infantry, but I had no real interest and planned to become a civil engineer. Things didn’t pan out the way I expected."
The Army noticed Hermanek was good in English and asked if he wanted to become a journalist.
"I asked what a journalist was and they said it was kind of like the reporter Jimmy Olsen in ‘Superman’ and I said, ‘Yeah. I can do that,’" he said.
Hermanek was shipped to the Defense Information School in Indiana where he learned journalism and then they taught him German.
"I worked as a military editor in Germany for three years," he said.
After he was honorably discharged in 1971, Hermanek returned to Chicago, his hometown, and got a job as a reporter at the Daily Calumet.
"I turned in my application and the receptionist called up to the editor and said, ‘I have one and he’s done with the Army,’" he said with a laugh. "They had been hiring journalism graduates who after a few months were drafted."
Hermanek was eventually promoted to edit one of the paper’s weekly newspapers, which he did for a year, before moving into employee communications and public affairs for Standard Oil. There, he was a magazine editor and supervised the company’s English-written field news letters around the world for 11 years.
"I got back into newspapers in San Diego and up the West Coast," he said. "I moved to Utah and worked with Meridian Publishing in Ogden until they went out of business and then worked for Auto Leave in Promontory."
After a few years, Hermanek and his wife, RaShelle Veater-Hermanek, moved to Alaska, where he got a job with the Peninsula Clarion newspaper.
"It’s a community newspaper and I worked there focusing on crime and courts in Kenai for eight years," he said. "I covered Billy’s trials for the newspaper and kept all my notebooks and the transcription and knew one day that this would become a book."
After Hermanek started writing the book a few years ago, his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which ultimately took her life and led him to put the book on hold for a while.
"At the first of this year, I got serious and put my nose to the grindstone," he said. "I found a publisher in April or May and the book was printed at the end of July."
Hermanek dedicated the book to his wife.
"She was only 51 when she died," he said. "She was taken way too early."
Dolly’s Bookstore, 510 Main St., will welcome Phil Hermanek, author of "The Trials of Billy Dean Smith" on Friday, Oct. 30, from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. Hermanek will sign copies of his book. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.dollysbookstore.com.
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