Jacksonville, FL — The mother of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle says she never would have let the girl leave with Donald Smith, but wanted to believe the man was acting sincerely when he offered to buy the family clothing and food.
Rayne Perrywinkle was the first witness called by the State during today's opening of the Smith trial. She says she was initially skeptical of Smith, fearing that he was going to try to take her money, but she warmed to him as they made small talk, and he spoke about his church, his wife, and his job- although prosecutors say none of the information he relayed was real.
“He [Smith] told me I was safe,” Perrywinkle said.
“He told you that you were safe?” asked Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel.
“Yes, he looked in to my face and told me I was safe,” Perrywinkle said.
“Did you want to believe him?” Caliel asked.
“Yes, very much so,” she responded.
FULL COVERAGE: The trial of Donald Smith
Perrywinkle had walked with Cherish and her two other younger daughters to a Family Dollar, then Dollar General, mainly to buy some new clothing for Cherish- who was leaving the next day to fly across the country to be with her biological father. After buying a few household items, and needing to reserve some money for a ride to and from the airport, Perrywinkle says she had looked at a dress to buy Cherish, but determined it was too expensive. She encountered Smith right outside of the Dollar General, and testified that he told her he had a $150 gift card for Walmart that he didn’t need, offering to spend it on the family.
Smith said his wife was going to bring the gift card, so they waited for her while talking. Time continued to pass, with no sign of Smith’s wife, at which point Perrywinkle says he offered to drive them all. She says she initially resisted, but started to feel “foolish” after Smith got “snappy” and offered to show her his driver’s license. She loaded the items she bought, her children, and their stroller in to the van, and Smith drove them to the Walmart.
Perrywinkle says, when they got there, Smith took out his phone and appeared to be speaking with his wife about what they would eat. He then said he would continue to wait outside for her, while telling Perrywinkle to take the girls inside to start shopping.
“Cherish wanted me to get a necklace for myself, we were looking at the jewelry. And I said, ‘Cherish, I’m not here for myself, I’m here for you’,” Perrywinkle testified.
They started gathering items, with Perrywinkle saying she made a stack in the cart for each girl. At some point, Smith started following along, but the only thing he put in the cart was a bundle of rope. Perrywinkle says she asked a few more times if Smith’s wife was on the way, both because she didn’t want Smith to feel like they were wasting his time and because she knew she couldn’t afford the items on her own.
“Were you still hoping at that point in time that the gift card was real and you could get things for your children?” Caliel asked.
“Yes,” Perrywinkle responded.
Smith then said he was going to go to the McDonald’s at the front of the store to get food. Perrywinkle says Cherish asked what she wanted, and she said cheeseburgers. Cherish then followed Smith, to what her mother believed would be the restaurant.
“If he would have asked me if he could take her, I would have said no. But, because McDonald’s is inside Walmart, with people around, I knew she would never leave, leave my side,” Perrywinkle testified.
Instead, surveillance footage that was played in court appears to show Cherish follow Smith right out of the store and to his van.
“Had you known that they were going to leave the store, would you have let Cherish leave the store with the defendant?” asked Caliel.
“No,” Perrywinkle said.
More time passed, and Rayne said she heard the store closing announcement, so she went and looked for Cherish and Smith, and couldn’t find them. She says she got more panicked, and eventually sought help both from Walmart and then, later, police. While hearing her initial 911 call played in open court, Perrywinkle got emotional on the stand.
“Ma’am, when your daughter followed after this defendant, towards McDonald’s, was that the last time you ever saw your daughter alive?” Caliel asked.
“Yes,” Perrywinkle responded.
The defense declined to cross-examine Perrywinkle, at the request of Smith. After the jury was briefly taken out of the room, the judge said she had been told he asked that she not be questioned by his attorneys. The judge briefly questioned Smith to make sure he understood that decision, to which he responded that he didn’t want Perrywinkle to go through any more than she had to go through.
A few other witnesses helped prosecutors fill in details during the hours leading up to Cherish’s kidnapping. A former Dollar General assistant manager and Walmart employee both verified the surveillance footage, which was then further explained by an FBI analyst.
A now-divorced couple also told the court of a strange interaction they had with Smith while waiting in the parking lot outside of the Walmart. The pair says they were waiting for a family member, when Smith pulled up, and said they were going for cheeseburgers- in a manner that made it seem like he knew them and they were friends, although they said they had never met Smith. They tried to follow him to nearby fast food restaurants, thinking maybe the family member they were waiting for was with Smith, but ultimately, they never found him.
Smith is standing trial for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cherish. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
WOKV and our partner Action News Jax are following every development as the trial takes place.