The starlight shone upon the Mendocino Coastline in the early morning of November 19, 2017. Nestled in after an evening of laughter and dance, 32-year-old Nicole Smith and her family slept, not knowing that death approached.
At approximately 4:00 a.m., gunfire rang out, and bullets pierced the walls of the home. By the sun’s rise, Nicole Smith would be dead, and today her family seeks answers.
Nicole Smith was born and raised in Mendocino County, living on the Manchester Rancheria for a significant portion of her childhood. The rancheria is the tribal land of the Manchester Band of the Pomo Indians located approximately four miles north of Point Arena along the Mendocino County Coast. As a young woman and into adulthood, Nicole had a passion for her Native American culture practicing tribal dances while wearing traditional, ceremonial clothing. By the age of 32-years-old, Nicole would be the mother of three children.
Star Brightman, Nicole’s niece, recalls admiring her aunt because “she was one of the first girls to play football” in the area. Star described Nicole as some who “loved talking with anyone and got everyone laughing when they were in a bad mood.”
Nicole and her three children had lived in Ukiah, where Star described her aunt began to “struggle.” Star said Nicole chose to leave inland Mendocino with her children and live at the Manchester Rancheria with her sister Bernadette Antoinette Smith.
The evening of November 17 was on a Saturday where Star said songs were sung and dances were danced.
According to Bernadette, Nicole’s sister, there were five kids in the home that evening and four adults. She said three of the children were sleeping in the living room, one of them on a sofa pullout under a front window.
Star recalled going to bed early in her Aunt Bernadette’s room. At one point, Star remembered waking up for a glass of water, but at that time, the house was quiet. Just a short time later though, shots would ring out.
Star described waking to what she thought were fireworks and quickly realized she had suffered a bullet wound. Star was shot on the right side of her buttocks during the drive-by shooting, and she described how, afterward, her “adrenaline was going, and I was just walking back and forth.”
Bernadette described waking up to a loud thump-” like something hitting the wall”-when she saw Star walking down the hall, saying her leg was bleeding.
Nicole Smith’s boyfriend Orlando, who was with her that evening, ran out of their room, screaming, “They’re shooting!”
In the chaos of gunfire, Star said her Aunt Nicole jolted awake and went to the front door when a bullet ripped through it, hit her in the chest, and killed her–right in front of her son.
Bernadette said, at that point, all of the children were awake, so she had everyone in the home get down on the floor.
After everyone was down on the floor, Bernadette recalled seeing muzzle flashes through the glass as bullets punctured the front window above the sofa where a child had moments before been sleeping. Bernadette heard a vehicle rapidly leaving the scene.
With her family by her side, Nicole Smith laid on the floor, experienced a seizure, and bled to death as her family, including her 10-year-old son, helplessly looked on.
Fearing the shooters would return, the children were moved to the Smith’s parent’s home a few doors down. After contacting law enforcement, Bernadette, Star, and Star’s friend waited with Nicole for approximately 1.5 hours before Mendocino County Sheriff deputies arrived on the scene.
Bernadette recalled Nicole’s boyfriend picking up four shotgun shells discharged by the shooters left on the porch after the shooting and throwing them in the house.
That night, Star was flown to the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital because of her bullet wounds. To this day, Star said shotgun pellets are still in her body and even set off a metal detector at one point when entering a Raider’s game.
One day after Nicole’s murder, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office took a person of interest into custody named Ramon Soto. Reporting from Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat and the Anderson Valley Advertiser indicates that 28-year-old Ramon Soto was rumored to be involved with the shooting. An article from the Press Democrat explained law enforcement arrested Soto in Ukiah the day after Smith’s death and booked him inside the Mendocino County Jail, where he assaulted a fellow inmate. Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office would later release him due to insufficient evidence he committed the murder.
Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Captain Greg Van Patten said, “Unfortunately, I am unable to comment in detail about this case as it is an active homicide investigation. My comment will be limited so that I do not jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.”
Captain Van Patten did say that “Sheriff’s Office Detectives have expended a lot of investigative efforts into this case to date, and they are hopeful that it will reach a successful conclusion in time.”
Star desperately wants answers for her aunt’s murder: “Honestly, this case is never going to get solved unless someone speaks.”
Regarding the status of the investigation into her sister’s death, Bernadette said, “The investigation is still going. My family was never informed if [Soto] was cleared or not. The Sheriff’s Office has been out of contact with my family for over 2 years.”
The family is offering a $20,000 reward for anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of all responsible suspects in Nicole’s murder.
If you know anything about Nicole’s murder, please contact the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office at (707) 463-4611. Other reporting options include emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or messaging us via Facebook, or calling in a tip at (707) 560-1543.