Many in Ojai are mourning the death of Richard “Richie” Smith, 37, who grew up in Ojai and followed his dream to become a bartender and drummer and live in New Orleans. He was shot and killed on Jan. 7 in front of his New Orleans home in the 5th District.
A memorial for Smith is planned for Jan. 23 at the Deer Lodge in Meiners Oaks.
CORRECTION: A gathering to celebrate his life will be held Jan. 17 in New Orleans.
“He was a force, a super-big personality,” said Joe Billingiere of Ventura, who played guitar and sang with Smith in two bands, Blues Bullet and Night Owl. “He was a raw drummer. He wanted to sound like John Bonham in Dodger Stadium. He was a Led Zeppelin and a Dodgers fan.”
The bands played over the years around Ojai, Ventura and Los Angeles. Billingiere said he met Smith about 16 years ago. “He always wanted to be in the Big Easy for some reason, to be a bartender there, as a lover of music, the lifestyle, culture and architecture. The old-school cocktails from the 1920s came from the South and New Orleans.”
Smith grew up in Ojai, attended public elementary schools and graduated from Chaparral High School. He later became known as a popular barkeep and musician. He moved to New Orleans in 2018.
Smith had been renting a room from fellow former Ojai resident, Genevieve Dillon, his friend of more than 20 years. She said Smith made the mile-and-a-half walk home from work frequently.
Dillon said she has been informed by the detective that as part of the investigation into Smith's death, subpoenas have been issued for footage from three surveillance cameras in the area, two on residential homes and one from a business.
She said dozens of his friends in New Orleans are expected at the Jan. 17 celebration of his life. “He was truly living his dream. He loved New Orleans and was looking to start a band again. ... Dozens of friends and patrons here love him, just as much as the hundreds of people in Ojai that know and love him.”
Elizabeth Haffner, co-owner of Ojai Valley Brewery, said: “He was loved by everyone. ... I think if you look through the comments on social media, you’ll see how many people he touched — hundreds, if not over 1,000 people. It’s a testament to his character as to how many people are saddened.”
Haffner's mother owned Azu, which the family operated for 21 years prior to it being sold. “This town was really his family,” Haffner continued. “My mom hired him” in 2002 or 2003 at Azu. “He started working at Azu as a busser when he was 17. His dream was to be a bartender, and when he was 21, he started behind the bar. I ran it with him for 12 years. Everyone knew him. He was behind the bar four or five nights a week. He knew everyone’s name. He was a storyteller. He’d regale all his regulars with his wild night or wild weekend.”
In New Orleans, Smith worked as lead bartender at Evangeline Restaurant. In an email to the Ojai Valley News, restaurant owner Rhonda Miller wrote: “Richie would always have a friendly smile and a delicious cocktail for our guests. Richie was proficient at experimenting with local ingredients to develop unique libations that we would feature monthly. … He loved our guests and made many friends, both locals and tourists alike, that returned time after time to sit at our bar for a meal and chat with him. His laugh and smile were contagious, I will miss that.”
Nigel Chisholm of Ojai, a bar-restaurant owner, wrote in a text to the OVN: “Everyone loved Richie and Richie loved everyone right back. He lived his life the same way he played the drums, unapologetically, with wild abandon, and with joy in his heart. Everyone who knew Richie is broken today.”
According to the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office, Smith was a “victim in a homicide” that occurred around 1:33 a.m. Jan. 7. The coroner’s statement confirming Smith’s identity was released publicly Jan. 9, according to the New Orleans Police Department.
According to police reports, New Orleans Police Department officers responded to a call early in the morning on Jan. 7 to the 1600 block of Marigny Street in the 5th District. They found “a man down” and “suffering from a single gunshot wound. The victim died at the scene.”
A preliminary police report indicated that a neighbor shot Smith and, based on comments from that neighbor, there was an interaction with Smith in which the neighbor said he felt “threatened.”
The investigation is ongoing and nobody has been arrested as of Jan. 12, according to the New Orleans Police Department.
The New Orleans Police Department reported at least four shooting deaths the night Smith was shot.
Chris Wilson of Ojai has known Smith since 2001 when Smith was working at the Ojai Brew Pub. He said: “Richie had a warm heart and a big laugh. A total rocker. He loved Southern stoner metal and played in different metal bands. He loved New Orleans. He wanted to be in New Orleans and play in bands and bartend, live in ‘The Big Easy.’”