Scott Smith, who grew up on a small ranch near Manteca, and was a Fresno-based reporter for Associated Press before becoming the wire agency’s Venezuela correspondent, has died of brain cancer.
Smith, 50, passed away Thursday, Aug.19, at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, his family said.
He joined the AP in 2014, reporting from Fresno. The Valley native documented California’s battle with drought and its impacts on farmers and poor communities that struggled as hundreds of wells ran dry.
Prior to that, the graduate of California State University, Chico, spent more than a decade at The (Stockton) Record. His reporting on the so-called “Speed Freak” serial killings led authorities to unearth five victims, including the remains of three women.
Evacuated From Caracas
Most recently, Smith reported from Venezuela amid a wave of deadly anti-government unrest spurred in part by growing pressure from the Trump administration, which was seeking to force President Nicolás Maduro from power.
Smith was diagnosed in February with brain cancer and was evacuated from the capital, Caracas, in a rare show of cooperation between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments amid the coronavirus pandemic and a strict American ban on all flights to the country in place since 2019.
Smith’s easygoing demeanor, boundless curiosity, and immense pride at being a foreign correspondent won him the trust and respect of government supporters and opponents alike.
“Even while sick, he was asking when he could go back to Caracas or what his onward assignment might be elsewhere in the world once better,’’ said Ian Phillips, AP’s head of international news.
Valley Upbringing Shaped Smith’s Reporting
Smith looked through the polarizing rhetoric of Venezuela’s political crisis and gave voice to all he encountered: oil-covered fishermen eking out a hellacious existence in a polluted lake, street gangsters hurt by the rising price of bullets or the families of victims of a fire at an overcrowded prison.
He also eschewed facile explanations for the nation’s woes.
“He used to joke that a small-town kid who showed steers at the county fair wasn’t supposed to be a foreign correspondent writing the first draft of history,” said Kelly Scott, his sister. “He never took himself too seriously.”
As a youngster, Smith began playing the trumpet and later learned to play the flute. But he also grew up participating in Arabian horse show competitions, raising and selling turkeys, and even racing tractors — skills he learned growing up in the country.
Smith volunteered for the Peace Corps after college. He was sent to Uzbekistan, then emerging from Soviet rule, where he taught English. Later he ran a non-profit training Uzbek journalists on how to gather news free of government censors.
Smith is survived by his parents, Scott and Lorene Smith, sisters Kelly Scott and Kristy Bean, and their spouses, as well as two nephews and a niece.
(GV Wire contributed to this story.)