It wasn’t until after Michael Smith’s death that his mother, Cassandra, heard the story.
A woman posted the message on Facebook, recalling the time Michael stopped a group of boys from beating up her son and then took him home to keep the child safe.
Moments like this have kept Cassandra Smith going since Monday morning, when she learned that her 17-year-old son was killed when the car he was riding in crashed on Missouri 291, overturned and burst into flames.
The driver, 19-year-old Anthony Dunlap, also died, and two other boys were injured. The group was coming home from a party. Dunlap, the designated driver, had not been drinking, according to Excelsior Springs police who stopped the car an hour before the crash and then let the boys go.
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There have been other moments of grace — a community vigil, the teenagers who gather in her home with food and supportive words — when the kindness of others has kept her from fully feeling the nightmare of losing a child.
“I think I’m running on autopilot. My house has been packed with kids who have not let me really experience the pain full force yet,” Smith said. “I know when things calm down and I’m by myself, it’s not going to be pretty.”
But other moments have made the tragedy all the more difficult. Last week, some community members expressed anger in public and on social media when friends of Michael memorialized his name in spray paint at the crash site and an Independence school and park. Police also investigated a video taken of boys shooting off guns into the air in honor of Michael, known to his friends by his nickname, “Chum Chum.”
A funeral home backed out of service plans after that, Smith said, and she has seen her son’s name and others “trashed” on social media. Smith doesn’t condone the behavior but says she has a special understanding of the pain that drives it.
“What we say and how we treat these kids — that’s what’s going to mold them for the future,” Smith said. “We have to show them how to grieve properly.”
Michael, Smith’s second child and only son, was funny, confident and a soon-to-be dad, Smith said. He strove to make people laugh, his mother said, and could turn humor on himself.
He was a chubby child, Smith remembered, and his friends started calling him “Chum Chum.” He sometimes shook his belly or talked in funny voices, always aiming to make his family laugh.
“He was confident in himself his whole life,” Smith said.
Still, the boy had his share of struggle, his mother said. After getting in some trouble, he spent time at a residential treatment facility for male youth in Iowa, returning a year ago. There, he straightened his act out, Smith said, and was elected to the student government as well as a leadership position in his dormitory. Some counselors wondered if Michael might make a good mentor for troubled kids someday, his mother said.
His girlfriend, Yildi Rios, who is five months pregnant, said Michael was eager to be a dad. The first night she met Michael, Rios said, they had an instant connection and kissed for the first time.
Their friendship blossomed. They played board games together and talked about life. Michael wrote her letters from Iowa, she said, and the two began an off-again, on-again relationship.
“He would tell me to stay out of trouble. Be good to your mom. Positive things,” Rios said. “We were really, really close.”
Smith and her eldest daughter, Selena, are planning funeral services for Michael. A GoFundMe account to help pay for services has been created by a family friend.
She has been touched by the kindness of those Michael left behind. Some friends have sent her pictures of tattoos they have gotten in his honor. Others stop by to tell stories or make sure her family has something to eat.
“I had no idea that he touched so many people’s lives,” Smith said. “People knew him as the person they could come to when they were down.”