Murder Victim's Family Wins $9 Million Claim

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Angelo Ziotas
Angelo Ziotas

In 2007, Shamaia Smith was a 22-year-old stripper at the Kahoots club in Vernon. On the afternoon of March 14, 2007, she left her parents' house in East Hartford after telling her boyfriend she was going to work. Smith's family, friends and co-workers never saw her again.

According to court records, police allegedly later told Kenneth Otto's wife, Kathleen, that Smith had been working as a prostitute and had an ongoing relationship with the husband.

Kenneth Otto, now in his early 60s, told police that he picked up Smith on March 14 and dropped her off at another Kahoots club in East Hartford, but denied knowing what happened to her after that. Prosecutors, however, believe that Otto drove Smith to his 75-acre property in Stafford that day, shot her in a trailer and burned her body in a fire pit. East Hartford police identified Otto as a possible suspect after listening to voicemails he left for Smith.

Authorities say that when they searched Otto's property on April 12, 2007, they saw Otto digging a hole with a backhoe to bury the trailer, which he had destroyed.

In a large fire pit, police found bullet shell casings, pieces of human tissue, bone fragments, teeth, part of a foot and a set of keys that, investigator later determined, belonged to Smith. Investigators say they also found Smith's blood on a mop and on pieces of plastic and linoleum found in a vacuum bag recovered from the trailer site.

Days after police searched Kenneth Otto's property, his wife filed for divorce. Otto was charged with Smith's murder in May 2007, and apprehended at Bradley International Airport. He reportedly had $10,000 in U.S. and Canadian currency in his possession.

In December 2008, Otto was convicted of murder and evidence tampering. In early 2009, he was sentenced to 60 years behind bars, which, given his age, is essentially a life sentence.

Otto later challenged his criminal conviction on grounds that there wasn't enough evidence to prove he intended to kill Smith. Otto also claimed that prosecutor David Zagaja gave an improper closing argument when he told the jury that Otto should be convicted of murder because he destroyed evidence. State Supreme Court justices, in a unanimous ruling last year, rejected those claims and upheld the conviction.

"We conclude that the circumstantial evidence and the reasonable inferences the jury could draw therefrom ... are sufficient to support the jury's finding that the defendant had the requisite intent to kill the victim," wrote Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr.

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