Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Just a few days before her middle school graduation, Nacole Smith was walking to school with her sister and a friend on June 7, 1995, when she realized she’d forgotten her homework. Smith turned back toward her southwest Atlanta home, waving to her companions as she went.
The 14-year-old took a shortcut through the woods, where police say a man sexually assaulted her and shot her in the face twice. Not long after the attack, someone discovered Smith’s body and called police.
Detectives with the Atlanta Police Department immediately sprang into action, interviewing witnesses, canvassing the neighborhood and chasing down every lead and tip that came in from the community. But eventually, the case went cold. They got a break in 2004 when another young Black teenager, 13-year-old Betty Brown, reported being sexually assaulted in the southwest Atlanta suburb of East Point. Her attacker’s DNA matched the DNA of Smith’s killer, but police still didn’t know the man’s identity.
Then, in January 2022, the police department announced it had solved both cases using forensic genetic genealogy, the same method California investigators used to identify the Golden State Killer. (According to data from the Murder Accountability Project, in 2020, 79 percent of homicide cases where the murder victim was white were solved, compared to 58 percent where the victim was Black.) The perpetrator was Kevin Arnold, a 49-year-old man who’d died of liver and kidney failure just five months earlier in August 2021.
The murder of Nacole Smith will be the subject of an upcoming episode of A&E’s Cold Case Files.
Vincent Velazquez, a retired Atlanta detective who helped solve the case after working on it for 20 years, spoke with A&E True Crime about how the randomness of the attacks made it difficult for investigators to solve these cases—and how they persevered to bring closure to the victims’ families in the end.
What was the community’s response to Nacole’s murder?
The community was in shock. It was a young girl, toward the end of the school year, walking to school. When people realized the brutality of what had happened to her, it really tugged at the conscience of that community.
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In homicide, sometimes depending on who your victim is, you don’t always get the cooperation you need from the community. That was not the situation here. This was a case where even criminals were coming forward to give information to try to help out. The parents in that neighborhood were especially concerned [because] the perpetrator is not in custody.
How did investigators try to solve this case in the beginning?
Initially, they wanted to find witnesses and information. They knew this happened in the woods—he didn’t teleport out of the woods, he had to have exited the woodline somewhere—and the hope was that someone saw him running. There was a massive canvass of the neighborhoods right after the crime and again later. Even police recruit classes were brought out there. Two classes in the academy went and knocked on doors all around the neighborhood within a one-mile radius to see if anyone knew anything.
And then, of course, they had to look at the victim and the motivation behind the attack: Why would someone want her dead? What’s the motive? Did she know her attacker? They had to dig into who Nacole was associated with.
DNA was still in its infancy in 1995—the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) had just come online in 1990. There was plenty of DNA from this particular rape and homicide, so they were looking at what they could do with it. But at that time, there were no matches in CODIS. They also had a shell casing from a 9-millimeter, so they looked to see if that matched any other crimes, and they came up with nothing.
What was the connection to the Betty Brown case?
Nacole’s killer’s DNA sample had been floating around in CODIS for many years. When Betty Brown was raped in 2004, investigators did a rape kit and put DNA from her attacker into CODIS, and we got a hit right away—a forensic match with Nacole’s attacker. We didn’t know who it was, but the same person who killed Nacole Smith left his DNA on Betty Brown in East Point.
Betty Brown was able to give us a description of what her attacker looked like, so we sat her down with a forensic artist, who made a composite sketch that we were able to distribute. The attacker had a prominent gap in his front teeth and he wore gold, round glasses. She was also able to give a description of his age, complexion and body type.
How did advancements in DNA technology eventually help solve this case?
We followed the process that the task force on the Golden State Killer case used. They laid good groundwork using ancestral genealogy DNA. They found a way to see if anyone matching the DNA sample they had from the Golden State Killer was in an ancestral database—meaning some cousin or distant relative of the bad guy wants to know who their relatives are, and there’s some cross-section of DNA that matches.
The Atlanta Police Department hired the same genetic genealogist that the Golden State Killer task force used to solve that case. We had a detective submit a DNA sample from Nacole’s crime scene to one of the databases in 2020 as if it were his own—as in, ‘My name is John Smith, and this is my DNA and I want to find out who I’m related to,’ but it really belonged to our killer.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds because when you start getting matches that are from a third cousin twice removed. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. It comes down to who’s married to whom, who had a child with whom—there’s a lot of legwork.
Why did Kevin Arnold commit these crimes?
These are clearly sexually motivated crimes—one’s a sexual assault and homicide, the other is a sexual assault and a threat. They’re both young girls, so there’s clearly a fascination with young girls who are 13, 14 years old. This is a sexual deviant who is preying on young girls and using physical force.
Do investigators believe Kevin Arnold committed other rapes?
There’s no doubt in my mind that he was continuing to assault young girls, but he either didn’t leave DNA behind or he used a condom and took it with him so there would be no genetic material to match him to our crimes. I don’t believe someone rapes and kills a young girl in 1995 and then rapes another 13-year-old girl in 2004 and they haven’t done anything in between. The motivation is too strong for that person not to act on that. I believe to this day there are other victims out there of Kevin Arnold.
How common are these types of violent sexual assaults committed by strangers?
He literally jumped out of the bushes—it was that proverbial stranger-on-stranger rape, which is rare. Most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, so this was a true young girl’s nightmare. There’s no evidence that Nacole knew him or that he knew Nacole; there’s no evidence that he and Betty Brown were ever acquainted. He’s literally an opportunist, he’s always looking for his next victim. Once he sees an opportunity, he takes it.
He happened to be in that woodline near Nacole when she went into the woods that morning, and he took that opportunity while she was alone. He happened to see Betty Brown walking by herself, and he took that opportunity to drag her into the bushes.
What made these cases so difficult to solve?
This is someone who is a sexual deviant, who has these urges he cannot control. He can’t stop himself from acting on them. And sometimes, that’s more dangerous than a planned-out crime because [in a planned crime] there are so many steps that go into that—usually, the perpetrator leaves behind a bread crumb. But when someone is just acting impulsively and no one sees him, it’s very rare you’re going to catch the guy.
Why did he kill Nacole Smith and not Betty Brown?
We don’t know why he didn’t kill Betty. He threatened her with a knife. He said, ‘I have a knife, and I’ll kill you if you scream.’ It’s possible that he learned from when he shot Nacole that it could be so loud that it could draw attention. He was also younger when he attacked Nacole, so he was probably more mentally immature than when he was as an adult and attacked Betty.
We don’t know why he killed Nacole, either. There’s no indication that he knew her. Nothing we’ve uncovered suggests that their two lives intersected. He intentionally shot her two times in the face because he knew she would be able to recognize him again. But Nacole complied. There’s no indication Nacole was fighting him—there was no DNA under her fingernails and the crime scene didn’t look like a struggle or a big fight had ensued. She had no other physical injuries, aside from the gunshot wounds, so he wasn’t beating her to get her to comply.
What was your reaction when you learned investigators had finally solved these cases?
It was wonderful news to finally figure out who this person was, but of course, my mind was spinning with a million questions. And when I found out he was dead, it was disappointing—we would not be able to present this case in court. This is not just a case for Nacole’s mom, this is a community case—the community really needed a day in court, young people and parents of young girls needed to see this day in court. No one got to have that.
But I got past that because I’m very pragmatic. And I next turned to: What can I learn from this? What mistakes did I make? What did I miss? If this ever happened again, what could we have done differently? Because if something like this happens again, we may be able to solve that case more quickly. Had Nacole’s killer been caught before 2004, Betty Brown wouldn’t have been raped. So that’s the motivation—to make sure the next investigation doesn’t take 27 years.
What did solving this case mean to you?
Every detective has that one case that sticks with them, and this was that one for me. I picked it up as a cold case in 2002, so it was already seven years old at the time. But over the years, Nacole’s mom and I connected on so many levels because she’s been an emotional wreck since this happened. She and I still communicate; we have communicated since 2002. I don’t typically get close to family members. Even when I retired, I was still working on ideas and letting her know that we were not giving up.
Where does the investigation into Kevin Arnold stand today?
There are so many questions about Kevin Arnold that we still don’t have answers to. We’re trying to figure out everywhere he had been living since he killed Nacole, so we’re still in the process of trying to collect that evidence. If we can figure out everywhere he had been, then we can maybe reach out to those jurisdictions and say, ‘Do you have any unsolved sex assaults of young girls?’ The perpetrator may have fit Kevin Arnold’s description. They may be able to show the victims a lineup, and they may be able to pick him out. Maybe, another case can be solved and give that family and that victim some closure.
What lessons did you learn from this cold case?
Sometimes technology has to catch up to the case. I tell a lot of young detectives that sometimes the case will go cold, but technology could catch up, so don’t give up on it. If there’s any philosophy, it’s this: perseverance and persistence always beat resistance. Don’t give up just because you think you’ve exhausted every lead. That’s not acceptable, because things change. In six months, things might look different.
Nacole’s case file sat on my desk, along with her photo. I would look at her photo and that reminded me to look at her file again. I may have read a statement so many times, but I see something on the 50th time that I didn’t see the other 49 times. You are never done. If you think you’re done, you need to start over because you probably missed something.