South Carolina

She was ‘golden.’ Teen was supportive sister starting life before Lexington I-20 death

Maliyah Smith took a flight last week from Omaha, Nebraska, to Atlanta, where she was going to find a future for herself. Tragically, the future ended just a few days later on an interstate in Lexington County.

She turned 19 in early August. By Aug. 18, she was in a new town where the world was opening up for her. She had credentials to work in the medical field and talked about going to college.

The pull of Atlanta’s opportunities might have been secondary to another factor easing Smith to the city — the chance to be with her big sister again.

“Saying sisters is an understatement,” LaRaysha Brown said. They were friends, guardians and navigators of life together.

Brown had lived in Atlanta for about five months, building a career in modeling and fashion. She was going to help her little sister find her way. But it wasn’t just going to be the big sister guiding her younger sibling. Smith was always a quiet force in Brown’s life.

“She was going to be my go-to pro,” Brown said. “She was going to help me and I was going to help her.”

The hopes were cut short when a series of events led Smith to Lexington, South Carolina, where she died after running into interstate traffic only days after she moved to Atlanta. Her family is trying to understand what happened.

Despite the tragedy, her little sister still shines, Brown said.

“There was something golden about her,” she said.

‘Wise . . . Pure Hearted’

Smith and her sister, along with other siblings, grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Their mother worked long hours in the medical field, and Smith became Brown’s closest sibling, she said.

“We never argued about anything,” Brown said. “She would always come to me and tell me anything.”

Smith gained a sense of independence from her hard-working mother and grew into a quiet person whose humility was matched by her strong will. She went into the Job Corps as a young teenager where she studied to work medical jobs like her mother.

“Growing up with her, she was really special and everyone knew,” Brown said. “She was always able to provide for herself.”

After bouncing around different states, Brown took the chance on a modeling and fashion career. She packed up and moved to Atlanta. When she did, her little sister was her greatest supporter. While Smith was soft-spoken, she had resolve to spare and lent that character to her big sister.

LaRaysha Brown and Maliyah Smith.jpg
Maliyah Smith (right) and sister LaRaysha Brown when they were kids on a fishing trip. Provided.

“She was one of the main people that pushed me to do it, telling me I’m beautiful and I can do it,” Brown said. “She was always proud of me.”

Smith was wise, pure hearted and saw opportunity where others might not see anything, Brown said. Her little sister always kept her child-like positivity.

Smith brought all her characteristics with her to Atlanta, moving in with her older sister. A family member paid for her flight, Brown said. Smith and her family had ambitions that the younger of the two sisters could find a career or start a new chapter in her life in the city. Those goals started to crumble only a day later.

Smith wasn’t herself and began to act panicked, Brown said. On the second day in her new home, Smith was persistent about going back to Omaha — like “she was trying to escape.”

That night Smith wanted her sister to stay up with her, to lay in bed and comfort her from something that was scaring her but that she couldn’t express. Brown went to check on her child and fell asleep in another room. When she awoke, her sister was gone.

Not herself

From police and family accounts, an aunt came to the sisters’ house on Aug. 20 around 7 a.m. and couldn’t find Smith. The aunt woke Brown and they called police to report her missing, Brown said. Witnesses saw Smith trying to get into a family member’s locked car and acting strangely while outside her home.

She stole an Atlanta utility company’s truck, according to Brown. She drove almost 200 miles to Gilbert. Near the town, a man on Interstate 20 saw the truck Smith was in swerve into the median, swerve back onto the road and stop in the fast lane, a police report shows. The vehicle she drove ran out of gas. The man stopped to help her.

“She was not acting right,” and behaving erratically, the man told police. She asked the man “if he knew Jesus.”

Smith ran across the interstate without checking for traffic and fell down an embankment, the report states. When she came back to the truck, the man tried to calm her down. Smith snatched the keys hanging out of the man’s pocket and took his vehicle, according to the report.

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She continued on I-20 east and collided with several cars, disabling the vehicle she was in, a deputy said. When another person pulled over to help her, she tried to take that person’s vehicle but couldn’t drive the manual transmission. She ran into traffic and tried to jump on a semi-truck, authorities said. She was struck by the rear wheels of the truck.

Paramedics rushed her to the hospital, where she died.

The family is reconciling the events, Brown said. All Brown knows is her little sister wasn’t herself in those moments.


Other family and friends have memorialized Maliyah Smith in social media posts.

“Maliyah was a humble being, very kind heart,” her close friend Kiara Sharice said. “She was always high spirited whenever she was around me and she always made me laugh. She had really big dreams and ambitions.”

Another friend, Megan Kay, remembered Smith for her “goofy” sense of humor.

A fundraiser was organized to help Smith’s family with funeral expenses.

While other family members expressed their sorrow, Brown’s mourning has been replaced by the optimism and joy that her sister lived by.

“She was always open to her future. At the end of the day, she was very optimistic,” Brown said. “The last thing I can remember her telling me is that I’m going to be okay.”

Nothing can undo the golden quality that her little sister radiated, she said.

“I know it’s going to be okay and she is too. She will always be with me and in my heart. All I can see is light.”

Maliyah Smith.jpg
Maliyah Smith Provided

The fundraiser for Smith’s funeral expenses can be found at

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.