Carlina Smith shed her father's oversized flannel jacket to climb 15 feet into a magnolia tree in her front yard.
The 9-year-old's tomboyish feat showed as much of her late father's influence as her blue eyes. Jeffrey Smith often hunted and fished on the 120 acres surrounding the mobile home he rented in Meggett. The love of the outdoors rubbed off on his daughter.
"That was the number one thing in his life, his daughter," his mother, Debra Atkinson, said
The 34-year-old Smith was comfortable with guns, had a concealed weapons permit and had been a stable force within his family. Those facts, combined with their close relationship, have left his loved ones wondering why he had to die.
Charleston County sheriff's deputies went to his home around 6 p.m. Saturday after dispatchers received a confusing 911 call. A man family members later identified as Smith told dispatchers that he had been "stabbed in the heart," but his speech was garbled. Authorities later tracked the cell phone to an address on Storage Road.
On hearing the 911 recording, those who knew Smith were positive he was distraught and trying to get help; "stabbed in the heart" meant he was heartbroken, not literally cut.
"He was hurting, he was upset," said his sister, Jaclyn Smith.
Guided by only flashlights, deputies saw him outside his mobile home holding a rifle, the Sheriff's Office has said. Two deputies at the scene told him to drop the weapon, but he fired it twice into the woods. One of the deputies fired a single shot and a bullet struck Smith in the back of the neck. He died at the scene.
As a matter of procedure, the two deputies have been placed on administrative leave as the State Law Enforcement Division investigates.
The Sheriff's Office has said a man and a woman were inside Smith's home at the time. Family members said one was a longtime friend of Smith's who had just moved in and the other his girlfriend. Smith's relationship with the woman had been an on-again-off-again thing and the two appeared to be on the outs, his family said.
A friend who has known Smith since high school is convinced that something occurred between Smith and the two others but isn't sure what it was. He thought his friend was too mature to lose control over a simple breakup.
"Knowing Jeff's personality and character, something happened that evening between the people on the property that put him in a disparaged, desperate, heart-broken, melancholy state," Greg Epperson said. "That is so out of character for Jeff to have called a 911 operator for anything."
Smith had fallen on bad times recently with a DUI charge and the loss of his job doing maintenance at Charleston County schools.
Deputies arrested Smith near his home a few minutes before 1 a.m. Dec. 14 after an unidentified caller reported a white school district van swerving on U.S. Highway 17, an incident report states.
Stopped at S.C. Highways 165 and 162, Smith failed field sobriety tests. He later blew a .19 blood alcohol level — more than twice the legal limit — and was cited with driving under the influence, the report says.
When Epperson spoke to his friend Dec. 22, he didn't sound bleak. Smith said he had to drive because he had been visiting his girlfriend's home in North Charleston and that she made him leave. His girlfriend has been unavailable for comment.
The van belonged to the school district, though Smith was allowed to drive it. The school district fired him after the arrest. Officials did not specify why.
Smith grew up in the Glyn Terrace area of North Charleston in a single-parent household with his mother and younger sister. He graduated from Garrett High School and later earned certification in heating and air conditioning from Trident Technical College, finishing at the top of his class, his family said.
Family members estimated that 200 people have passed through the house where his mother and stepfather live since hearing the news of his death.
"For this family, it's been like a horror movie you can't wake up from," said Smith's aunt, Julie Ledford, who came down from Charlotte. "It's a tragedy. I loved that child."
Smith's family and friends wonder whether the state probe will answer their burning questions: Why was he shot in the back of the neck? Would firing his rifle have left his ears ringing and unable to hear the deputies' commands? Could he see the deputies on the dark rural property?
Over and over again, Smith's relatives say his one true love was his daughter.
Carlina was born at 6 months, weighing only 1 pound, 11 ounces. She is now a healthy and active honor student earning A's and B's at Flowertown Elementary School in Summerville.
Her mother, Tonya Thompson, dated Smith in high school. They went their separate ways after their daughter was born but remained friends.
"There's no regret and nothing I would change about him," Thompson said. "We worked very hard together for this little girl. He was a good dad and a good person."