Donations sought for severely burned Pontiac woman
Connie Smith has long charmed others with her smile, upbeat attitude and unflagging devotion to helping others.
The Pontiac resident spent years working as an aide in city elementary schools — bonding with youngsters who knew her as “Miss Connie” and, while joining a slew of activities, befriending parents, teachers and administrators.
“She was always there supporting and jumping in when anybody needed anything,” said Nicole Harris, a former teacher who worked with her for seven years. “She is a super-sweet, lovable lady and just cared for everybody.”
Smith now needs a helping hand in return.
Last month, the 53-year-old mother was set on fire in an apparent domestic dispute, authorities said.
She faces a lengthy hospital stay to recover from serious burns to an estimated 45 percent of her body.
To help with her recuperation, relatives and supporters have launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $100,000.
The aim is to cover the expenses Smith’s insurance does not so she can “get back her on her feet and focus on getting better and being Connie,” brother Edward Galloway said. “We’re trying to get as much help as possible. …She’s a beautiful person.”
Smith has not been home since paramedics rushed her to St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital nearly three weeks ago.
She told Oakland County Sheriff’s deputies dispatched to the emergency room early Jan. 17 that boyfriend James Montgomery had set her ablaze, investigators said at the time.
Montgomery, who went to the hospital waiting room, initially claimed Smith accidentally poured alcohol on herself then dropped a lit cigarette. But in an interview, the 48-year-old admitted to spraying his partner with brandy then “flicking” a lighter after an argument at their home, county authorities reported.
He was arrested that day and later arraigned on one count of assault with intent to murder, a felony potentially carrying a life sentence.
Galloway learned about the incident from another relative within hours and was immediately livid. But he was unprepared for first glimpsing his sibling in the hospital, wounded and unable to breathe on her own.
“I just broke down,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘There’s nothing I could do. I can’t take her pain away from her.’”
The tragedy also alarmed those who had warmed to Smith during her years working in the Pontiac School District.
“Everybody was just stunned and shocked and heartbroken,” said Harris, who has worked in education for more than 20 years and now leads an academy in the city. “It’s been devastating.”
Harris first met Smith, who also headed a parent-teacher association, while she worked part-time as a building helper at the former Webster Elementary, which the Pontiac native’s son Taylor attended.
Handling everything from lunch duty to watching youths at recess, “she was the one you knew was reliable,” Harris said. “She was the most dedicated parent I had the opportunity to work with.”
Smith filled a similar role at other schools, including Whitman Elementary, where she coordinated a book fair; popped popcorn on Fridays; raised funds for an annual field day; acted as a parent liaison; and helped arrange “mobile dentist” visits, principal Letha Powell said.
“She was loved by everyone. She was an outgoing person who truly loved being around kids," Powell said. "She is the epitome of what every school principal would love to have on board. If there was any way to assist, she would.”
Smith, who had previous experience working in a hospital, continued in the position she loved despite pain from complications associated with a hip injury she suffered as a youth, said her aunt, Beatrice Wright.
“The role she played, she did it so well," Wright said. "....So many people gravitated toward her. She’s gone over and above what she needed to.”
Doctors estimate Smith could remain at Detroit Receiving Hospital, where she was transferred, for up to two months, Galloway said. Extensive physical therapy is also expected.
For now, she remains heavily medicated after multiple surgeries and has communicates mostly through nods and glances. It’s unclear when she could return to work or support her son, an Oakland University student.
“Connie’s a very strong person and active person. We hardly ever see her down. To see her down right now is very difficult,” Galloway said. “It’s a heartbreaking situation. It’s something I would not want on anyone.”
Smith’s family has stayed by her side while juggling court dates for Montgomery, who remains at the Oakland County Jail on a $1 million bond, records show. A probable cause conference is scheduled for Feb. 12 at 50th District Court in Pontiac.
“I hope he never sees the light of day again,” Galloway said. “No one deserves that. And if he’s able to get out after he tried to kill my sister, what is he going to do to the next person? He doesn’t ever need to be on the streets ever again.”
As the case progresses and Smith rests, the community is rallying around her. Supporters have so far donated more than $4,000 to the GoFundMe effort.
“Praying for this beautiful soul,” one contributor wrote. “So sorry this happened to her.”