State 125

Larry Gene Bell shook community’s sense of safety with killings of two young girls

A 36-year-old Gilbert electrician struck fear into thousands of Columbia-area parents in 1985 as police searched desperately for the suspect who snatched two girls from their front yards and killed them.

Larry Gene Bell would be called a serial killer, a sadist, a psychotic by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers, respectively, as the manhunt and eventual execution by electrocution unfolded over a decade.

Bell kept the dark secrets of why he committed murder. He took a vow of silence in the hours leading up to his Oct. 4, 1996, appointment with the chair, which he believed was made of the same “true blue oak” as Jesus Christ’s cross. Bell had delusions of being Christ and had told mental health doctors the chair’s 2,000 volts of electricity would allow him to ascend to God’s throne. Bell rejected the option of lethal injection.

He was convicted of snatching Shari Smith, 17, while she checked the mailbox at her family’s Red Bank home. Later, Debra Mae Helmick, 9, was playing with her 3-year-old brother at their home in Richland County when she was pulled screaming into a vehicle. Bell was suspected but never charged in the 1984 disappearance of a Charlotte woman.

Bell would torment the Smith family with phone calls, including how he killed the teenager and where to find the girls’ bodies. Smith’s body was found in Saluda County, Helmick’s in the Gilbert community of Lexington County.

A crowd cheered as the hearse carrying Bell’s body left Broad River Correctional Institution. One of his defense lawyers said, “... we have executed a sick, delusional, psychotic man.”

Clif LeBlanc