Residents of Marneuli speak of their shock and horror at the deaths of the Smiths, an American-turned-Georgian family that had called the Georgian town home for more than six years.
'She called last Wednesday [July 4] and said they wanted to go to the mountains for two days,' Sabina Talibova said of her friend Laura Smith, whose body was discovered last week along with those of her slain husband Ryan Smith and their four-year-old son Caleb. 'We were supposed to meet up on Friday. But on Thursday they probably were dead.'
Speaking to RFE/RL on July 11, Talibova said: 'We don't know all the details. It's very painful.'
A search for the family began when police were notified on July 6 that the couple and their son had gone missing in the remote Khada Gorge in Georgia's northeastern Dusheti municipality.
Laura Smith's dead body was found near a waterfall later that day, while her husband's was discovered on July 7.
A police report said there were 'no traces of violence' on the woman's body, while an autopsy revealed that Ryan Smith, 44, died of a gunshot wound. Police said that Caleb had also been shot.
Police arrested a 19-year-old shepherd, whom the authorities accuse of shooting and killing both Ryan and Caleb with a hunting rifle and then hiding Caleb's body.
The shepherd, identified by Georgian media as Malkhaz Kobauri, confessed to the killings and led police to Caleb's body, according to the police report.
He has denied the charges.
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Officials have suggested that the killing stemmed from an argument between the shepherd and Ryan Smith, but no further details were provided.
The police suspect that Laura Smith, 43, fell to her death into a ravine while trying to escape the scene, adding that an investigation was still under way.
Kobauri has been charged with premediated murder and faces life in prison.
In the majority ethnic-Azeri town of Marneuli, population 20,000, the Smiths were regarded by residents as one of their own.
Laura Smith was an English teacher at a local public school and had many friends in the town, Talibova says.
However, it was Ryan Smith's self-described love of 'foreign language and culture' that brought the family to the region.
Ryan Smith ran a community-development project, reWoven, that aimed at boosting the local area's ancient rug-weaving culture and providing income and opportunities for rural women.
A native of California, Ryan Smith lived in Azerbaijan in 2002 through 2005 and learned Azeri language and culture.
On his website, Ryan Smith once described how he had come to appreciate the ancient art of rug-making.
'My time spent in the rug markets of Baku's old city had already filled me with an appreciation for this ancient craft. But moving to a remote region where the craft still survived inspired me to investigate the possibility of starting a rug-weaving business,' he wrote.
But in 2005, he moved back to the United States, where he met and married Laura.
The couple moved to Georgia to start his dream project in a predominantly ethnic Azeri area in the country's south.
Ryan Smith recalled that he would travel to villages in the search of rug-weavers willing to work for his project.
There were not many villages 'with active weavers' who crafted the rugs traditional to the region, he wrote. Some weavers would agree but later backed down. Some would not accept the prices Smith offered. Still others were willing to work, but were not familiar with the original, classic design.
'I spent four days and two nights in Garachirp, a village that I had never once visited before. I entered as a stranger, but left as a friend. I had arrived with yarn, but I left with only hope. As I drove away, I had muted optimism that I would one day return to see my skeins of naturally-dyed, wool yarn transformed into a beautiful village carpet,' Ryan Smith wrote.
The project eventually took off. The couple, meantime, applied for Georgian citizenship and became dual U.S.-Georgian nationals in 2012.
They wanted 'to live in Georgia for years to come, and especially in Marneuli,' Ryan Smith said in an interview in 2015.
Uncertainty In Kosalar
In a village of Kosalar, on the outskirts of Marneuli, Ryan Smith's death brought not only sadness but uncertainty.
He provided vital job opportunities to many women in the village, where 'there are no other possibilities for work so you can at least take care of your children,' says rug-weaver Gulnar Mamishova.
Mamishova describes Ryan Smith as a 'very kind and very honest person,' ready to help anyone.
'When somebody needed something for their family or business he was helped anytime, Mamishova said. 'He helped the town so much.'
Georgian media reported that the Smiths were planning to open a children's playground in Marneuli with their own funds.
The playground plan and the reWoven project have come to an abrupt halt with the Smiths' deaths.
Marneuli will hold a funeral for the couple and their son on July 12.
The suspect in their murder, Kobauri, is expected to go on trial in September.
Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service
Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who focuses on Central Asia.
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