The Deck - Aaron "Peanut" Lamont Smalls (Ace of Spades, Virginia)

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Our card this week is Aaron Lamont Smalls,

the Ace of Spades from Virginia.

When Aaron was found shot to death in 2001,

investigators dug through piles of tips

and several key pieces of evidence

to try and find his killer.

But each lead seemed to dry up quicker than the last,

and the case eventually went cold.

Now, more than 20 years later,

investigators are still hopeful

that they can uncover the truth for his family

and get to the bottom of this case.

I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.



Deputies from the York-Pocosin Sheriff’s Office

were going about their evening

patrolling the streets of York County, Virginia,

when they got a call from dispatch

about an abandoned vehicle.

A sedan had been parked at the Country Club Apartments

on the northwest edge of the county for several days,

and the management company wanted it gone.

So they headed over to the complex to check it out.

By the time they pulled in, it was about 7 p.m.,

so things were pretty quiet.

Most people were inside their units for the night,

and so it didn’t take long for them

to spot the car in question.

It was parked in a spot just off to the side

of one of the buildings, and, at least from the outside,

it appeared to be in working order.

Sheriff Ron Montgomery wasn’t the one on the scene that night.

He was the chief deputy at the time.

But he told our reporter nothing stood out

when his deputies got a closer look.

— So, at the time that we were there,

there were no keys found with the vehicle,

nobody around the vehicle.

The deputy got out and opened the car doors.

The only thing that was unusual about it at that point

was the back seat was missing out of the vehicle.

— When the deputies ran the license plate,

they found that it had been reported stolen

about two weeks ago, on January 25, 2001,

and it was now February 6.

According to the registration,

it belonged to a woman whom I’ll just call V.

Her address on file showed that she lived in Newport News,

which was just about 20 minutes south of the apartment

where the car was found.

They gave V a call and filled her in on what they had found,

saying that she could come pick up her car

directly from the complex.

Even though there weren’t any keys at the scene,

V said that she had a spare,

and she’d make her way up there later that evening.

Thinking the situation was handled,

the deputies went back to their patrol.

But it wasn’t long after that the sheriff’s office

got another call.

This time, it was from V herself.

She’d gone to pick up the car,

and before she drove off in it,

she decided to check the trunk

to see if the back seat had maybe been stowed in there.

It’s a 1984 Chevy Celebrity,

so think, like, super deep trunk and hook-and-eye seats.

Anyway, everything else in the car seemed to be fine.

But when she got to the back and popped the trunk,

she discovered something horrific.

Stuffed inside was the body of her boyfriend, Aaron.

Well, that obviously prompted us to return to the scene.

And ultimately, we discovered that the individual

that was in the back, stuffed in the trunk,

was Aaron Smalls, a Black male out of Newport News, Virginia.

Aaron, who was known almost exclusively

by his nickname, Peanut,

had been missing since January 25th,

the same day she’d reported her car stolen.

And just a quick side note,

I’m gonna call him Peanut from now on,

but you’ll hear Sheriff Montgomery

use both Peanut and Aaron interchangeably.

In the trunk, Peanut’s body didn’t show

any obvious signs of decomposition.

He only had on one shoe, a slipper with a hard sole.

But investigators couldn’t see anything else

without moving his body.

So it’s our protocol that once we found

that there was someone in the trunk that was obviously dead,

we didn’t disturb the body

until the medical examiner got there.

While they waited, they turned their attention back to Vee.

She told them that she and Peanut lived together

in Newport News with his son.

He was originally from Philadelphia,

and most of his family,

including his son’s mother, still lived there.

And it seemed like, despite the distance,

he was pretty close to them.

In fact, on the day he went missing,

his brother was actually in town for a visit.

And according to Vee, he was the last person to see Peanut.

She told deputies that the story

his brother had been telling everyone

was that on the morning of the 25th,

Peanut said that he needed to run to a cell store

to add minutes to the phone that he had just recently bought,

Hello 2001.

So he’d grabbed the keys to Vee’s car

and walked out the door.

So the last time that anyone saw him

was his brother at 8.30 in the morning

when he left and said,

I’m going to go get minutes from my cell phone.

As far as I know, no one saw him again thereafter.

Not that it’s ever reached out to us anyway.

I’m not sure where Vee was during all of this,

but here’s where things really get interesting.

When Peanut didn’t return with the car,

she reported it stolen,

but Peanut himself wasn’t reported missing

until January 28th.

That’s three days after he was last seen.

I can’t explain this gap in time

and the NNPD wasn’t able to confirm

who filed the missing persons report.

So I could be missing some context here,

but it’s an odd detail

that I just can’t get out of my head.

Why report the car missing,

but not the man who drove off in it?

And actually not just missing,

you reported the car stolen.

Now, from what I can tell,

it seems like the stolen status

was more for attention on the missing car,

not to try and say that Peanut had taken it

or anything shady like that.

Now, before they could question Vee any further,

the medical examiner arrived.

And once the body was removed from the trunk

was when we could see

that there was an obvious shotgun blast

to the chest area.

With Peanut’s body on the way to the ME’s office,

investigators were able to do

a more thorough search of the car.

His missing slipper was nowhere to be found,

but tucked into the back of the trunk

were two t-shirts stained with blood and a cell phone.

In fact, the whole trunk was surprisingly tidy.

Sure, there was some blood from the wound on Peanut’s chest,

but not the amount you’d expect to find

from such a brutal injury.

And the body of the car

didn’t have any bloodstains or anything either.

So investigators immediately thought

that Peanut was likely killed outside of the car

and then just put into the trunk.

A lot of the reporting on this case

mentioned that cocaine was found in the vehicle as well,

but Sheriff Montgomery said that was just a rumor.

Besides the two shirts and the phone,

they didn’t find anything else.

Meanwhile, other investigators were canvassing the complex

and interviewing as many residents as they could.

And luckily, many of them came forward

because the unfamiliar car

had really stood out in this neighborhood.

It’s not a high crime area.

If you talk about major crimes like robberies,

murders, that type of thing,

basically larcenies from vehicles.

I mean, we’ve had some issues

with people dealing drugs up there in the past,

but pretty much the same thing that you can find

in other apartment complexes as well.

The timing of when the car appeared varied.

What investigators could tell

was that it’d been there about two weeks,

which fit the date that Peanut had disappeared.

But not one person said they’d heard anything suspicious

during that timeframe, like gunshots or a fight,

which indicated Peanut’s murder

had taken place away from the complex.

We don’t have any idea

where the shooting actually occurred.

It clearly didn’t occur in the parking lot

of the apartment complex

or somebody would have heard that or seen it.

So he was killed somewhere else,

put in the trunk of the car,

and then that car was dropped off

at Country Club Apartments.

Despite no one witnessing the homicide,

some residents had seen someone with the car.

And this person wasn’t Peanut.

They said it was a man who was black, clean-shaven,

roughly six feet tall, maybe 180 pounds,

and in his late 20s to early 30s.

Those who saw this man said that he had been

in or around the car the first couple of days

after Peanut went missing.

There was actually some people that claimed

that they saw him driving the car.

And then the best description claimed

that they saw him get out of the car,

walk around it a couple of times.

There was even one resident who claimed

that he’d spoken to this guy.

He told investigators that the man got out

of the parked car, approached him,

and asked for a cigarette.

He matched the description the other residents gave them.

But this witness got a clear view of what he was wearing,

dark jeans, a dark jacket, and a knit cap.

I don’t know if the witness gave the man a cigarette,

but they didn’t really talk much more,

and eventually the guy left.

Although the witness couldn’t remember

if he had gotten back in the car or just walked off.

I know it feels like the witness should have been able

to give more detail about this guy

since they were face-to-face,

but remember, it’s been two weeks at this point.

Like, do you remember every single person

that you have had an interaction with throughout your day?

I know I don’t.

Anyway, in the end, investigators didn’t have enough

of a description for a composite sketch,

but they took what information they had gathered

and released it to local media

in case someone out there knew the man.

They didn’t get any hits right off the bat,

so they shifted their focus back to Peanut.

They wanted to gather as much information about him

and his disappearance as they could,

and they started by circling back to V.

This time, investigators interviewed her at the station.

Her story didn’t change at all, but just to be safe,

they asked if she would take a polygraph.

She agreed to the test, and she passed.

I’m not sure if she was ever able to explain

the three-day gap between reporting the car stolen

and Peanut being reported missing,

but I’m assuming investigators at the time

were able to clear that up

because they cleared her of any involvement.

Over the next couple of days,

they interviewed as many of Peanut’s other friends

and family as they could,

and everyone they spoke to was devastated by his death.

They said as soon as they realized that he was missing,

everyone was super concerned.

Even though he was 25, it wasn’t normal for him

to go anywhere without at least telling one person

where he was gonna be.

Before Peanut disappeared, his friends and family

said that he was acting totally normal.

Even as he was walking out the door for the last time,

his brother told investigators nothing seemed off.

So when he hadn’t turned back up,

all of Peanut’s loved ones knew that something was wrong,

and they came together to look for him.

They did the same thing that most anyone else would do.

They would call around and ask if anybody had seen him,

and they made people aware

that he was missing along with the car.

After speaking with his friends and family,

investigators headed to the cell phone store next

to confirm if he had made it there.

But they couldn’t find any evidence

that he had ever been to the store on the 24th.

So they circled back to the family to try and see

if maybe there was somewhere else that he could have gone.

And that’s when they learned that Peanut had recently been

in some trouble with the law.

We do have family members who acknowledged

that they knew that Aaron was, in fact, dealing drugs.

I don’t know that there’s any evidence

that he was moving large amounts.

It sounded more like smaller amounts of marijuana

and cocaine that he was moving on a regular basis.

At the time that Aaron disappeared,

there were actually indictments out for him

from a local drug task force on drug charges.

Based on the other information that we had had,

you know, from the family and from the task force,

he was in and out of the upper part of the county,

which is that area,

at least on a fairly regular basis anyway.

So he wouldn’t have been a stranger to that area.

With this information,

investigators thought this could be their missing link.

Maybe Peanut had gone to make a drug deal up in York County

before going to the store and then something went wrong.

Well, based on experience,

you would think that the life

that Aaron Smalls was leading

was probably somehow related to what caused his death.

I mean, over the years,

I’ve worked multiple cases where someone owes you money,

you owe someone money,

and this is the result, you know,

the fact that they get tired of waiting for what they’re owed

and they’re going to make an example.

Despite living what might have been considered

a risky lifestyle,

investigators couldn’t find any other red flags.

Peanut’s family couldn’t pinpoint any known enemies,

any history of bad drug deals

or even run-ins with shady characters.

They couldn’t even think of anyone

who matched the description of the guy seen with V’s car.

And investigators weren’t able to find anything

to connect Peanut to the complex itself either,

like he didn’t seem to know anyone who lived there

or in the surrounding area.

So next, they decided to check his cell phone records

on the chance that they could maybe dig up a lead there.

And since they had what they assumed was his cell phone,

it shouldn’t have been a problem.

But when they took another look

at the phone that was found in the trunk,

they realized it wasn’t Peanut’s.

The phone wasn’t a prepaid cell like Peanut’s was.

And when they looked into the number,

they found that it was actually registered to a woman.

I’ll just call her Wanda.

So next step, find Wanda and ask how her phone

ended up in the trunk under a dead man.

But she was yet another dead end.

Well, the phone owner stated she lost the phone

at Greenbrier Mall around January of 2001.

Now, I had a ton of questions about Wanda.

Like, what are the odds that you lose your phone in a mall

that’s about an hour away, by the way,

and then it shows up a month later in the trunk

of a reportedly stolen car with a murdered man?

But the only additional information

Sheriff Montgomery could provide

was that Wanda didn’t know Peanut

or anyone associated with the case.

So I don’t know if they dove into her phone

to see if they could put some pieces together.

She seems like just another one of those

frustrating loose ends that I can’t tie up

because we just don’t have the information.

But even without Peanut’s physical phone,

they were still able to pull records

from the last two weeks of activity before he went missing.

Now, they couldn’t track his whereabouts,

but they could see who he communicated with.

Unfortunately, though, nothing stood out.

No unknown numbers or calls made at weird hours.

Peanut had been using the phone

for the same reasons we all do,

to keep in touch with loved ones.

And when his autopsy results came back soon after,

investigators hit yet another wall.

The report basically confirmed

what investigators already knew.

Peanut had been killed by a gunshot wound

to the front of his chest,

most likely from a 12-gauge shotgun.

Other than that injury, he didn’t have any other marks

or abrasions on his body,

so it didn’t seem like there was any sort of struggle

before his death.

And nothing stood out in his toxicology report

that would send investigators in any kind of other direction.

The only thing that really stood out

was that the medical examiner

wasn’t able to determine his time of death.

Peanut’s body wasn’t very decomposed,

but that didn’t necessarily mean that he had been killed

right before he was found.

The report stated that he could have been preserved,

thanks to the combination of the sealed trunk

and the chilly winter weather.

-“We know that, you know, on the date that we found the car,

that obviously he died within a fairly short time

prior to that, whether it was days or a week,

there really isn’t any way to know,

other than we have a start date,

which is the last day he’s seen,

and then the day that he’s found,

and in between there, any one of those days are possible.”

At that point, investigators decided to turn back

to the public for help.

They put out another call for information about the case,

and an acquaintance of V’s came forward

and said they’d seen a car

matching the description of V’s vehicle

at a fast-food restaurant on January 27th,

just two days after Peanut disappeared.

-“There was an individual who saw the car

at a Dodgers chicken place on Jefferson Avenue

in the Denbigh area of Newport News,

but the individual driving the car

did not match Aaron’s description.

They did not believe that was Aaron.”

While this witness was certain Peanut wasn’t the one driving,

they weren’t able to provide a very clear description

of the person who was.

All they could say for sure was that the driver was a black male,

and this immediately made investigators

think of the man seen with the car at the apartment complex,

due just to the timing.

-“I would say that we would make that assumption

that it’s probably the same person

that was seen getting out of the car up at Country Club.

It’s all in the same time frame.”

They still couldn’t ID the man, though,

but there were also other tips coming in that they dug into,

and that’s when they came across a woman who I’ll call Stephanie.

She was a friend of Peanut’s,

and she had a story about an incident

that took place before he disappeared

that seemed like it might be a promising lead.

Stephanie told investigators that a couple of days

before Peanut went missing,

she’d gotten a call from a man who was looking for him.

This guy, who I’ll call Daryl,

was a loose acquaintance of Stephanie’s.

Like, she knew him well enough to recognize

who he was when he called,

but she didn’t even know his last name.

Anyway, Daryl said that he needed to get a hold of Peanut

because Peanut was holding on to something that belonged to him,

and he needed it back.

But that’s all the information he would give,

so Stephanie had turned to Peanut for answers.

-“She saw Peanut later that day,

made him aware of this phone call,

and, according to her, said that he was holding a firearm.

Didn’t say whether it was a handgun, shotgun, what it was.

And that was all the information that she had about it.

She didn’t inquire any further.

And after this pretest statement,

she was polygraphed on whether or not

she had any specific information about Peanut.

Did she know who killed Peanut?

And she, according to the polygraph examiner,

she showed no deceit.”

So the next step was to track down Daryl.

And when they did, he admitted that Stephanie’s story was true.

From what I can tell, though, he didn’t give investigators

a reason as to why Peanut was holding the gun for him.

But Sheriff Montgomery had his own suspicions.

-“Sometimes they’re involved in crimes,

and you don’t want to get rid of the gun,

but you don’t want to be caught with it either.

So you pass it on to a trusted friend or accomplice and say,

hang on to this for me for whatever reason

for a period of time.

Sometimes law enforcement’s fortunate enough

to get a hold of that gun and trace it back to crime.”

-“Did you get a hold of the gun

that Peanut was supposedly holding on to?”

-“No. No.

We never found any firearms

that were associated with this case.”

Daryl was adamant that he didn’t have anything

to do with Peanut’s murder.

And since they couldn’t find this firearm

or a single shred of evidence that he could be involved,

investigators were once again forced to move on to another tip.

You see, a single house slipper matching the description

of Peanut’s shoe was found in Newport News.

Now, I don’t know who found it or how police were notified,

but the tip said that the shoe was in a field

at an industrial park.

When investigators heard about this,

they were over the moon.

This could be the second crime scene

they’d been looking for.

But when they checked it out,

the slipper was the only thing they could find.

There was nothing to indicate

that this location was connected to the homicide.

And besides the fact that it looked similar,

investigators weren’t even able to match this slipper

to the one Peanut was wearing.

They tried running some tests on it

to try and get DNA from both shoes,

but they couldn’t connect them.

So this was yet another dead end.

It was around this time, though,

that all that other evidence that they had sent off for testing

finally came back from the lab.

First, they learned that V’s car was even cleaner

than they thought.

They tested it for fingerprints, for blood, whatever,

but every single test they ran came back negative.

And it turns out the exterior had been wiped down.

And here’s where I find myself going back

to the missing back seat.

Like, if the car was super clean,

there had to be a reason

that someone would remove an entire seat, right?

Well, whatever the reason was,

neither Sheriff Montgomery

nor any of the articles I read offered an explanation.

So again, just another loose end.

The only other thing that the lab could tell them

was that the blood found on the two shirts in the trunk

was Peanut’s blood.

But that was all they could get.

So with no other evidence to test or no new tips coming in,

the case started to cool off

and months started going by with nothing new.

That is until they got a call later in 2001

from an inmate at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.

We got contacted by an inmate in the jail

who had had a conversation with another individual,

a cellmate, and that person had said,

my cousin had something to do with Peanut’s death.

And the name of the cousin was familiar to us as well.

We had had dealings with that individual in the past.

The inmate claimed that the information was

that the shotgun that was used in the homicide

was thrown into a drainage ditch or a drainage culvert

in a neighborhood not far from where Peanut was found.

The jail is in York County,

literally five minutes from the apartment complex

where Peanut was found.

So investigators headed over there

to talk with this other inmate.

But when they asked him about the story his cellmate told,

he denied ever making any statements about Peanut’s murder.

And what’s more, he claimed he didn’t even have a cousin

by the name that the cellmate gave investigators.

But they weren’t just gonna take this guy’s word for it.

This was the best lead they’d had in months.

So they went out and searched for this shotgun

over the course of two days.

Investigators along with public works people

from York County actually put devices down into,

cameras down into the sewage system

for considerable amounts of distance

through the whole neighborhood,

never could locate a shotgun in any of the locations

that were remotely close to what was described

by the person in jail.

Investigators were once again forced to move on.

Time started flying by and according to reporting

by David McCauley for the Daily Press,

there wasn’t any movement in the case for five years.

But as time went on, so did advancements in DNA technology.

And in July 2006, investigators decided to send

those two shirts from the trunk off for more testing.

And this time they got a profile,

a profile that wasn’t Peanut’s.

Investigators were hopeful that this was their big break.

So they uploaded the profile to the Virginia DNA Data Bank,

but they didn’t get any hits.

That is until May of 2007, when boom, out of nowhere,

there was a database hit on the DNA profile.

The profile matched to a 32-year-old man

who I’ll call Anthony.

He’d recently been convicted of a felony,

although Sheriff Montgomery couldn’t remember

what the crime was.

When investigators started looking into him,

they realized Anthony actually knew Peanut’s girlfriend, V.

It turns out he was the father of her child.

Now my source didn’t know much about their relationship

or their kid, like how old they were or who they lived with,

but it sounded like Anthony and V saw each other

pretty frequently due to their shared

parenting responsibilities.

And when investigators started asking around about this guy,

they learned that Anthony knew Peanut too.

Actually, he was a known associate of Peanut.

Once we drilled down into some of the interviews,

it wasn’t uncommon for them to be seen together.

They finally tracked Anthony down in August.

And when they told him about the DNA match,

he was like, well, of course my DNA popped up.

Those are my shirts.

At some point, he says he’d left them with V or in the trunk

and they had been there for a while before the murder.

So that was his explanation for why a shirt with his DNA

would be in that vehicle,

which at that point was a plausible explanation.

Just like everyone else they’d questioned in this case,

Anthony swore up and down that he didn’t have anything

to do with Peanut’s homicide.

Throughout the interview,

he fully cooperated with investigators

and he even agreed to give them another DNA sample

to compare to the profile they had,

which they did and it was a match again,

but they just didn’t feel like Anthony was their guy.

If he was as close with V and Peanut as it seemed,

then it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility

for some of his stuff, like the shirts,

to end up in their possession.

Just to be extra sure,

investigators tried to come up

with other more sinister explanations

for why the shirts may have been there,

but ultimately they couldn’t find anything.

And with that, Peanut’s case went ice cold.

Since 2007, investigators have tried

to revive it many times.

They’ve released more pleas for information to the public

and worked with local and national media

to keep Peanut’s story in the news.

They even went back and re-interviewed Anthony

around 2012, 2013, just to be sure his story checked out,

but it did and they were never able to regain any momentum.

And despite their best efforts,

they’ve never found Peanut’s cell phone.

They’ve never found the murder weapon or the keys

or the backseat from V’s car,

or even the crime scene

where they believe Peanut was really killed.

They’ve never ID’d that man

spotted driving V’s car either.

But while the lack of leads

has been frustrating for investigators,

it’s taken the greatest toll on Peanut’s loved ones

who have never given up hope

that they’ll one day have closure.

We get a call at least once a year

from some relatives from Philadelphia

asking if there’s any developments in the case.

They’ve been thankful that we have resurrected the case

a couple of times on local news channels

and on national media,

but to this point,

we don’t have any real person of interest

or any one person that we’re zeroing in on.

The interesting thing about it is

various people have given bits and pieces of information

that weren’t publicly known

enough to draw your interest to how would you know that,

but they don’t lead anywhere right now.

For example, we didn’t publicize

that he was killed by a shotgun blast.

So when this person claimed in a jailhouse interview

that it was a shotgun that was used

or at least insinuated that it was

and put in the sewage drain,

that intrigued us because how else would you know?

After his murder,

Peanut’s son went back to Philadelphia

to live with his mother.

And while he’s surrounded by family members

who love and support him,

he’s grown up without ever knowing

why his father was taken away.

There’s a young man out there

that grew up without his father

and his mother, as far as I know,

and some of his relatives are still alive.

And we’d probably like to know

that the person that committed this crime has faced justice.

You would think with the amount of time gone by,

the only way that this crime’s gonna be solved,

that if someone has specific knowledge of it,

was to come forward at this point in time

and make us aware of some piece of evidence

that we’ve not been made aware of before now.

And as time goes by,

it’s probably less likely that that occurs.

And I would like to think that somebody will hear this

and go, you know, we’re gonna make that phone call.

But I think that’s what it’s gonna take to solve this case.

If you have any information

about the 2001 murder of Aaron Lamont Smalls,

also known as Peanut,

please don’t hesitate to call

the York-Pocosin Sheriff’s Office

at 757-890-4999.

The Deck is an AudioChuck production

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