Aide charged in ex-senator’s death now accused of attempting murder-for-hire plot from jail

An Arkansas murder case shrouded in mystery took another sharp turn Tuesday as the woman accused of killing former state Sen. Linda Collins-Smith last summer was charged with trying to have Collins-Smith’s ex-husband and three others, including a judge and a prosecutor, killed from behind bars.

Rebecca Lynn O’Donnell, 49, of Pocahontas, is charged with two counts of solicitation to commit capital murder and two counts of solicitation to commit tampering with physical evidence, court records show.

O’Donnell, a former campaign aide and one of Collins-Smith’s closest friends, is also charged with capital murder, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence in the 57-year-old businesswoman and former lawmaker’s death. O’Donnell is being held in the Jackson County Jail.

Credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Collins-Smith was elected to the Arkansas House as a Democrat in 2011, but switched parties less than a year later, The Washington Post reported. After a four-year term in the House, she was elected as a Republican state senator in 2014 and served a single term.

Prior to their 2018 divorce, she and her ex-husband, retired 3rd Judicial Circuit Judge Philip Smith, also owned a Days Inn together, the Post reported. They sold the hotel as part of the split.

O’Donnell served as a witness on Collins-Smith’s behalf in the couple’s divorce proceedings, which were described as acrimonious and bitter, the newspaper said.

“We are sickened and upset that someone so close to Linda would be involved in such a terrible, heartless crime,” Collins-Smith’s family said in a statement following O’Donnell’s initial arrest in June.

According to a probable cause affidavit filed this week and obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, O'Donnell's cellmate told Jackson County authorities that O'Donnell was trying to hire her and another inmate to kill Smith. The alleged solicitation took place between June 15 and Dec. 1, the document says.

“Ms. (Shana) Hembrey advised that O’Donnell wanted the death of Phil Smith to look like a suicide,” the affidavit states.

Phil Smith’s new wife, Mary Smith, was also to die as part of the plot, according to court documents. The women said O’Donnell wanted them to pack some of Mary Smith’s belongings in a bag so it would look like she was in the process of leaving her husband.

They were to either shoot or hang Phil Smith to make the situation look like a murder-suicide, the document alleges.

The second inmate, Cassandra Geoffrion, turned over to detectives several handwritten notes from O’Donnell, including a “suicide note” O’Donnell allegedly gave her Nov. 5. O’Donnell wanted the note planted at the scene, Geoffrion said.

Surveillance footage from inside the jail shows O’Donnell passing what appear to be notes to Geoffrion the night of Nov. 5, authorities say.

The suicide note was meant to clear O'Donnell's name so "charges would be dropped off her," according to the affidavit.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Demillo

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Demillo

O’Donnell also wanted the women to travel to the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, where her car is impounded, and “blow it up to destroy any evidence that may be in the vehicle,” the document says.

"Ms. Geoffrion stated that she would never do what Ms. O'Donnell has asked, however she is concerned that someone else, a more gullible individual, may do what O'Donnell is asking," the affidavit states.

A third inmate, Rebecca Landrum, also came forward and told investigators that O'Donnell approached her several times about killing not only Phil Smith, but also prosecutor Henry Boyce and Circuit Judge Harold Erwin. Both have previously been involved in the murder case against O'Donnell, but CBS News reported that both recused themselves last summer.

Because Phil Smith is a retired 3rd Judicial Circuit judge, all of the judges on that circuit recused themselves from the criminal case against O'Donnell, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp assigned a retired judge from a different circuit to hear the case.

Phil Smith's retirement was forced in December 2017 by the Arkansas' Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission, which was investigating his improper use of court equipment during his divorce proceedings. According to a letter of reprimand, he agreed to step down from the bench and never again work as a judge.

Landrum told detectives O'Donnell claimed Phil Smith had set her up for his ex-wife's killing. O'Donnell also claimed that the police had "planted stuff in her trunk," the most recent affidavit states.

Credit: Randolph County Sheriff's Department

Credit: Randolph County Sheriff's Department

All three women told investigators O’Donnell planned to pay them with a bag of gold and silver Phil Smith supposedly had in his home. They were to take the bag with them when they left following the killings.

"Ms. O'Donnell told Ms. Landrum that the last time Linda (Collins-Smith) had the gold and silver appraised, it was worth between $20,000 and $30,000," the affidavit says.

Public divorce records obtained by the Post show that Collins-Smith and her ex-husband were arguing over about $28,000 in gold and silver coins stashed somewhere.

Inmate Melissa Duede told authorities she not only heard the solicitation of Landrum, but that O’Donnell also asked her to get her boyfriend to kill Smith and Boyce.

O’Donnell asked Landrum if she knew “some Mexican people” willing to kill Smith, Duede told police.

"Landrum stated, 'Yeah, I could see about it,'" the affidavit says.

O’Donnell then gave Landrum a list of names and the personal information of those she wanted dead, the affidavit says.

O'Donnell's defense attorney, Lee Short, told the Democrat-Gazette that the new allegations against his client are "outlandish," and he accused the four women who came forward of doing so to broker lighter sentences for themselves.

"Having handled high-profile homicides before, this happens in almost every single one of them," Short told the newspaper.

O’Donnell’s arrest for Collins-Smith’s slaying garnered national headlines in June, when the former senator’s body was found outside her home in Pocahontas.

Credit: Google/Google Maps

Credit: Google/Google Maps

According to the arrest affidavit in the murder case, Collins-Smith's son called 911 June 4 after he and his grandfather went to the house to look for his mother, who had last been seen alive on May 28.

"Mr. Smith stated that they found a body. He believed the body was his mother's," the affidavit says. "He said the body was wrapped in a blanket under a tarp in the driveway."

Arkansas State Police crime scene technicians found that the body, which was in an advanced state of decomposition, had been moved from inside the house to where it was found under the tarp.

The medical examiner determined that Collins-Smith died of multiple stab wounds.

The arrest affidavit indicates that O'Donnell was seen on video at Collins-Smith's house May 28, the day she vanished, removing security cameras from inside the former senator's home.

All other details of the evidence against O’Donnell were redacted from the affidavit released to the public.

O'Donnell's fiancé, Tim Loggains, said in a statement Tuesday that his "family's faith in Becky is unwavering," according to ABC7 in Little Rock.

"We cannot imagine the evidence will actually substantiate these allegations," Loggains said. "The allegations defy believability. I won't even comment on the informant's extensive criminal history but instead will wait to see if the state produces credible evidence at trial."

The Arkansas Times reported that Collins-Smith's family issued a statement on the new charges through Ken Yang, who worked as communications director for the late former senator. In the statement, the family thanked the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and the Arkansas State Police for their vigilance and quick response to the new allegations.

"We have full faith that the investigators acted on solid evidence supporting these charges and not just on a whim," the statement said. "We appreciate the transparency shown by all agencies involved in this matter.

“These newest charges further cement in our minds that the police have arrested the right person. Rebecca O’Donnell’s threats are being treated very seriously but have not deterred our faith in what we are committed to -- justice for Linda.”

About the Author