Episode 095: Destini Smothers

October 9, 2023

When a young mother vanishes after celebrating her birthday with friends, her family is desperate to know what happened. Who killed Destini?

Episode Media
Destini Smothers (Facebook)
Destini in the clothes she was last seen in on November 3, 2020 (NYPD)
The car where Destini’s body was found (Queens DA)
Kareem Flake (NYPD)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. As you might already know, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, every day nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of one year, this adds up to more than 10 million women and men who suffer at the hands of an abuser. While I cover crimes of this nature throughout the year, I have specifically chosen five cases for the month of October to highlight this epidemic and encourage those who need support to reach out. Last week we discussed a case from my hometown; this week we’re traveling north to New York. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In early November of 2020, 26-year-old Destini Smothers was making plans to attend a funeral in New York City. Destini lived in upstate New York with her boyfriend Kareem and their two young sons, and the drive from their home in Troy would take about 3 hours. Destini’s birthday was also coming up, so they decided to spend a few extra days in the city to celebrate with family and friends.

On the night of Tuesday, November 3rd, Destini and Kareem left the boys in the care of Destini’s mom Simone, who lived in the Bronx, and met up with friends at a bowling alley in Queens just across the East River. Destini was dressed in camo pants and a black top, the perfect outfit for a fun night out. The group of friends hung out for several hours, bowling and laughing and having a great time. When the bowling alley closed at 11, they chatted outside for a while before saying goodnight and going their separate ways. Kareem and Destini got in their black Toyota Camry, Kareem at the wheel, and headed back to the Bronx.

But the next morning, Destini wasn’t at her mom’s house as expected. They had planned to go shopping together, but Simone figured that Destini and Kareem must have made other plans; it was no big deal, they would see each other at the funeral that afternoon. But when Destini didn’t show up at the funeral, Simone could no longer ignore her rising panic. She knew Destini would never miss the funeral if she could help it. Destini wasn’t answering her phone, so Simone called Kareem and asked him if he knew where Destini was.

Kareem said that he hadn’t seen Destini since Tuesday night. He told Simone that after they had left the bowling alley, he and Destini had gotten into an argument. Destini had wanted to stay with her friends for a while longer, but Kareem had wanted to go home. Kareem said that Destini had been so angry that she told him to pull over and let her out. She had then jumped out of the car and walked away, leaving behind her keys, her wallet, and her phone. Kareem drove off, assuming she would find her own way home.

Simone was shocked. Destini and Kareem had a rocky and often abusive relationship, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Destini to walk away from a fight, but usually she would just wait for Kareem to come back around and get her. It didn’t make sense that she would get out of the car in the middle of the night in a strange neighborhood in New York City, and she definitely wouldn’t have left all her belongings behind. When Kareem didn’t come back, Destini would have called Simone right away and gotten a ride. Simone told the New York Daily News, “I know my daughter. My daughter and I are closer than close. It didn’t sit right with me.”

Simone’s sister Shareen told Dateline that the family knew right away that something bad had happened to Destini. “She loves those children and would do anything for them. She wouldn’t just leave them. And there’s no way in hell she’s not calling her mama. My sister is just devastated.”

As soon as Simone heard Kareem’s story, she contacted the New York Police Department and tried to file a missing persons report. But the NYPD told her that she needed to contact the police in Destini’s hometown of Troy. However, when Simone called the Troy Police Department, they said that she needed to contact the NYPD. Simone spent several days trying to get someone to take the report until finally the NYPD agreed to investigate. Shareen told Dateline, “It was a lot of unnecessary back and forth and precious time was wasted. Time that could have been spent to find my niece.”

The Troy police did agree to perform a welfare check at Destini’s house, but they didn’t find her. Detective Russell Clements told Dateline, “We’ll continue to follow up on any tips and leads we receive, but this is mainly the NYPD’s case. But our hope remains that someone who knows something will come forward.”

Investigators began by retracing Destini’s steps the night of November 3rd. They knew that she and Kareem had been at the Bowlero on 34th Avenue in Queens until approximately 11:20pm, when they had driven off in a black Toyota Camry. Kareem’s story was that they had driven along the Grand Central Parkway from Queens toward the Bronx until Destini had jumped out of the car in Astoria. But the Grand Central Parkway is an extremely busy road with multiple lanes of traffic, narrow shoulders, and very few exits. Even in the middle of the night, it would not have been easy for Kareem to pull over and Destini to get out, and Destini would have run the risk of getting hit by another vehicle.

It’s unclear whether investigators looked at CCTV footage from the Grand Central Parkway, but according to the New York City Department of Transportation website, the hundreds of traffic cameras around the city only record live footage in still images every few seconds. They do not store the video footage or the images long-term. There are only 12 cameras situated along the 15-mile parkway, and only 3 of those are in Astoria, where Kareem supposedly stopped the car. It’s unlikely that the cameras would have captured Destini in the dark that night, but if they did, police have never said so.

From the start, Destini’s family suspected that Kareem was hiding something from them. After helping for a few days, Kareem stopped answering his phone and wouldn’t talk to the family at all. He didn’t come to see his kids, and he didn’t call to check on them. While the family was hanging flyers and calling hospitals, Kareem was nowhere to be found. Also missing was the Toyota Camry that Kareem had been driving that night. Kareem had told someone that the car was in the shop, but it sounded like just another excuse.

However, with the investigation getting a late start and Kareem refusing to talk, Destini’s family could only hope that answers would come soon. They continued to canvass the neighborhoods near the bowling alley and the parkway, but weeks passed and there was still no sign of Destini. At the end of November, Shareen told Dateline, “It’s been 27 days, but it feels like we’re still on day one because we don’t have any answers. We need to find her. We need to find her now.”

Then, in March of 2021, four months after Destini disappeared, they got an answer, but it wasn’t the one they had hoped for.

On the morning of March 10th, a tow truck driver with the city’s department of sanitation responded to a call of an abandoned car in Springfield Gardens in Queens. A resident had called the non-emergency number to report that a black Toyota Camry with no license plates had been sitting on the street for several months. The neighborhood was a few short miles from JFK Airport, and travelers would often park their vehicles on the street rather than pay for long-term parking, but this car had been there for two months – residents were tired of seeing it and decided to call it in.

The tow truck operator was already hauling another car on the flatbed, so he hooked the Camry up to the back and headed west. But just a few miles down the road, he noted that something didn’t feel right. He pulled over on Lefferts Boulevard to check out the situation and saw that the Camry had a flat tire. But when he opened the trunk to look for a spare, he was shocked to find the decomposing body of a young woman, curled up in the fetal position.

The driver immediately called the police, and within minutes, the street was swarming with cop cars and news vans. NYPD investigators noticed right away that the woman was wearing camo pants and a black top, the same clothes Destini Smothers had been wearing when she’d disappeared four months earlier. On further examination, they found an ID in the woman’s pocket; this was definitely Destini.

Alerted to the discovery through social media, Destini’s family rushed to the scene, hugging each other as they cried out in grief. But even in the midst of their mourning, they were able to confirm to investigators that the Toyota Camry belonged to Kareem.

I need to note here that there are conflicting reports about the vehicle. According to the family, Destini and Kareem had both owned black Toyota Camry hybrids. Although it was Destini’s car they had driven to Queens on November 3rd, it was Kareem’s car that was discovered on March 10th. The timeline here is also a bit murky, but it seems as if Kareem may have switched cars at some point and left his Camry in Springfield Gardens sometime after the New Year with Destini’s body in the trunk.

Destini’s family had known all along that Kareem was somehow involved in her disappearance, and now they had proof. Destini’s aunt Tima told reporters at the scene, “That was his car. That was the car he was driving. The car went missing. She went missing. So, it all leads and points to him… What’s done in the dark comes to light.”

When the autopsy report was released a few days later, the City Medical Examiner determined that Destini had died from a gunshot wound to the head. They also found blunt impact trauma to her head, which had caused a skull fracture and brain injury. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Investigators began looking into Kareem’s background, which was peppered with criminal charges, and into his relationship with Destini. The couple had been together since they were teens, and they had always been on an emotional roller coaster. Kareem struggled with his anger, lashing out violently at the slightest provocation. When Destini had given birth to their first son at the age of 17, she had hoped it would make things better. But the abuse continued. Simone told the Daily News that the boys had often witnessed their parents fighting. “My grandson told detectives that a few times he heard his father say he was going to kill his mother. He tells me stories.” After Destini disappeared, the boys were taken in by family and put into therapy. “The 4-year-old really doesn’t know, he just knows he hasn’t seen his mother. But the 10-year-old, he knows. He saw the abuse in the household.”

After tests revealed that the front seats of the Camry had been cleaned with peroxide and contained traces of Destini’s blood, investigators finally came to the same conclusion that Destini’s family had known for months – Kareem was the one responsible for her death. Unfortunately, Kareem was nowhere to be found, and the NYPD was not at the top of their game. A wanted poster with Kareem’s picture was circulated throughout the community, but it was filled with incorrect information, including a claim that Kareem had shot and killed Destini on 134th Avenue at 9:50am on March 10, 2021. This, however, was the exact time and date that the tow truck driver discovered Destini’s body several miles away on Lefferts Boulevard. The claim also contradicted the witness statements that the car had been abandoned for months and the fact that Destini’s body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it would be another year before Kareem was finally found.

On April 8, 2022, a thousand miles from Queens, Kareem Flake was taken into custody in Kissimmee, Florida. He was arrested on a domestic battery charge after a woman filed a complaint with local police. He was sent to the Osceola County Jail to await extradition to New York where he would face charges related to Destini’s murder.

The news of Kareem’s arrest was a relief to Destini’s family. Simone told the Daily News that she was ready for the ordeal to be over. “Once he is convicted, once justice is served and he’s brought to trial, that will be it.”

She also posted a picture of Destini on Facebook with the caption, “They got him Des, they got him baby, you can rest now”.

Three months later, Kareem Flake was indicted on two counts of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree kidnapping, two counts of criminal possession of a weapon and two counts of evidence tampering. Destini’s family sat in the courtroom dressed in purple, a color that signifies domestic violence awareness. Her cousin Dominique told CBS New York, “It’s important to be here because we’re telling her story. We’re her support. We are her voice. She heard it. Her hurt was our hurt. We are her voice.”

Initially, Kareem pleaded not guilty to all charges before eventually changing his plea to guilty of first-degree manslaughter. In a press release, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz stated, “This young mother was brutally murdered and her family left to agonize, not knowing what happened to her as her body lay in the trunk of an abandoned car for months. Hopefully this plea will afford some comfort to her loved ones.”

At his sentencing, Kareem showed little emotion, refusing to look at Destini’s family as they gave their impact statements. Cousin Dominique spoke directly to him, asking, “What was her last words? Did she beg you to stop? We searched in the cold, all over highways, trash dumps, beaches, parks, you name it. We drove to different states. You had the audacity to ride along with my family, searching for Destini and lying to us.”

Simone spoke with grace in her heart. “I will not hate you because it will only kill me. So the only right thing to do is forgive you so that I can have peace.”

On September 28, 2022, Kareem Flake was sentenced to 22 years in prison followed by five years post-release supervision. Queens Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise told Kareem that when he chose to take Destini’s life, he had ruined the lives of those around her, and now he would face the consequences.

Destini Smothers was a bright, happy young woman who was often called “Bubbles” for her bubbly personality. She was a loving mother, daughter, sister, and friend. She was also a victim of domestic violence, murdered by an angry, volatile man who claimed to love her. At the sentencing hearing, Destini’s cousin Johann spoke out to other victims, saying, “To women who’re going through it, you know, you’re not alone. Reach out. Speak up, and get the help that you need.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788. Help is available 24/7 – it is free and confidential. Domestic violence is not your fault: you deserve to be safe.