FOREST PARK—Tucked behind the State Farmers Market off I-75 in Forest Park is the Clayton Transitional Center. Early Thursday morning, men could be seen entering the facility as a Georgia State Patrol car cruised through the parking lot. This minimum-security facility is home to about 350 adult male felons, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Inside, they work "in food service, sanitation, building maintenance, barbering, laundry, vehicle maintenance and grounds keeping," according to the facility's website. "The remaining residents are assigned to work release."
It is from here that, on Aug. 15, temptation apparently got the better of Stephen Michael Smith, 34, of LaGrange, who had been serving a ten-year sentence for a 2016 robbery in Troup County.
Smith had been scheduled for release on Sept. 23, 2021. Instead, he left a work detail and, according to Florida law enforcement agencies, allegedly shot a man in Port St. Joe on Monday. The victim, Daniel Lee Upton, 30, of Lakeland, Fla., told police before he died that Smith had shot him and that a woman, Destiny Jene Terry, 44, of LaGrange, had been with Smith at the time. Terry allegedly had helped Smith and Upton set up a drug deal, investigators say.
Five days after his escape—the day that would be Smith's last day alive—the Department of Corrections posted a BOLO poster on Facebook with a $10,000 reward for his capture.
That night, just east of Panama City Beach and 22 miles from the scene of Upton's shooting, law enforcement officials and U.S. Marshals pulled over Smith's vehicle. According to the Gulf County Sheriff's Office, "With the vehicle surrounded by law enforcement, Smith immediately placed a pistol to his head and committed suicide."
As of press time, Terry was in custody in the Gulf County Detention Facility, charged with being a principal to second degree murder.
Gulf County Sheriff's Office Capt. Chris Buchanan said information is limited because the investigation remains open as of press time. "I’m not able to disclose information regarding the (type and amount of) drugs," Buchanan told the News. "As far as Terry and Smith, we do not know how they met and we have not confirmed that Terry is an absconder. We learned that Smith was an absconder after we identified him as the shooter and no BOLOs were received."
Buchanan added that Upton’s body was turned over to the 14th Judicial Circuit Medical Examiner’s Office. Chief Investigator Whit Majors said the cause and manner of death have not yet been certified.
Georgia Department of Corrections Public Affairs Director Joan Heath told the News, "Transitional Centers provide opportunities for inmates to live in a structured setting that will provide counseling and assistance in finding and maintaining employment. Inmates participating in a Transitional Center (TC) through center programs and community employment (work release) are referred to as work release residents upon their assignment to a TC."
More than 95 percent of offenders return to society, Heath explained, and TCs are there to help them do just that.
"By staying in a TC prior to release, they work outside the facility in real-world jobs each day and learn how to re-adjust," she said. "The individual you reference (Smith) went out to work and failed to return to the Center."
Offenders in transition back to the community get that job experience with local businesses that partner with TCs, whether in restaurants, industrial settings or private businesses.
"The time the residents are required back at the Center depends upon their work schedule/shift," Heath said. "Some TCs have partnerships with private transportation companies, and some employers provide the transportation for the resident."
Not just anybody is allowed to take part, she noted. Standard criteria include "assessments, offender history, employment stability/instability, residential stability/instability, financial stability/instability, and professional discretion. Offenders must be disciplinary free for a minimum of 90 days, have the mental and physical capacity to work and hold a job, and be within 12 to 15 months of their tentative parole month or maximum release date."
Had he returned from work that fateful day, Smith may have had other options. In October 2018, the News reported on the Offender Alumni Association, a support group for those who have completed their sentences and returned to society. To learn more about Offender Alumni Association (OAA), visit http://offenderalumniassociation.org
Upton's twin brother, Eric, has posted an appeal on Facebook for help with burial expenses. Facebook posts indicate their mother died of cancer Aug. 14, just five days before his brother was shot, and he says the family cannot afford Daniel's cremation. "Daniel was my twin brother and he deserves a nice funeral and service. I appreciate everyone. GOD BLESS YOU ALL."