***WARNING: THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT***
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – He watched as the tiny woman was beaten, stomped on, bound and then submerged under water at the Suburban Extended Stay on West Coliseum Boulevard nearly two years ago.
But that’s all Terry Smith, Jr. said he did.
The 36-year-old described himself as a “witness” to the beating and drowning of Tiffany Ferris during his hearing where he admitted guilt to a count of aggravated battery in front of an Allen Superior Court magistrate Wednesday.
Ferris, a 35-year-old mother of two, was killed in May 2021. Her death was ruled a homicide.
“I failed to stop it,” said Smith during the hearing.
He claimed that it wasn’t him, but two others – 25-year-old Ajaylan Shabazz and 19-year-old Arionna Darling – who were responsible for Ferris’ killing.
All three were arrested and charged shortly after the killing.
Darling hung herself while in Allen County Jail in June 2021. Shabazz took a deal from Allen County prosecutors last May where he admitted to a count of aggravated battery in connection to Ferris’ death but backed out of that agreement this past October.
Faced with a jury trial scheduled to begin Tuesday where both he and Shabazz would be tried together, Smith took his own plea deal offered up by prosecutors.
The agreement calls for him to serve 12 years in prison for his part in Ferris’ death.
The aggravated battery charge he pleaded guilty to, a Level 3 felony, carries a sentence of between three and 16 years in prison.
Smith was originally charged with murder, a Level 1 felony, which carries a sentence of 45 to 65 years in prison. Per the plea deal, prosecutors will drop that charge.
The 12 years Smith is likely to get at his May 26 sentencing will be served consecutively to six years he’s already received for an armed robbery conviction in connection to a robbery at a local Hawthorn Suites.
That robbery was committed the same day of Ferris’ killing and also involved Smith, Shabazz and Darling, according to court documents.
Both Smith and Shabazz attempted to put all the blame for Ferris’ death on Darling. It became clear, however, as they tried to work out plea agreements to save themselves individually that they were not above selling each other out.
The family of Darling said just after her hanging death in June 2021 that she was threatened through the jail’s plumbing system.
Ferris, originally from Decatur, was found naked with her hands and feet bound by duct tape in the bathtub of a back hotel room used as a storage closet around 9 a.m. May 10, 2021. Authorities estimated she’d been dead about 12 hours.
Ferris had been beaten, stomped and then held down under water in the bathtub until dead, according to a court documents.
Smith claimed he witnessed the killing and then “helped to clean up.”
Tesa Helge, Allen County chief counsel for the prosecutor’s office, walked Smith through his actions at Wednesday’s hearing.
“He helped them clean up, left the room to go to another scene and then left Fort Wayne,” Helge said.
She added that he never reported the homicide and “never should have gone into the room in the first place.”
Ferris’ sister-in-law, Destiny Erhardt, has attended every hearing, wiping away tears every time she sees either Smith or Shabazz in court. Her husband, Chad Erhardt, accompanied her Wednesday and stood by her side as she repeated her unexpected thanks to Terry Smith, Jr. for putting into words his guilt.
“It’s kind of a mix of emotions. I feel relieved that almost two years is over now for half of it. The other half of me says I don’t think it’s long enough. Tiffany’s not here anymore with us. She’s not here with her kids and so I don’t think it’s long enough. But another part of me just says ‘thank you’ for finally saying you did it,” Erhardt said just after court. Erhardt was referring to the plea’s 12-year executed sentence as too short for the crime.
“It’s gone back and forth over the last two years,” Erhardt continued. “Lots of finger pointing, lots of ‘I didn’t do it’, lots of ‘she did it’, lots of taking a plea and backing out. I feel like we’ve been in court at least once or twice a month the last two years and just for him, just for him to finally say I’m done, it’s over. That’s what I thank him for and admitting finally,” Erhardt added.
She added that her closure will come when she sees Smith in the courtroom during his sentencing next month.
That’s when she will get to speak to him in open court, telling him just how much the killing has impacted her and those who loved Ferris.
Until then, Erhardt is preparing for Shabazz’s murder trial, which is slated to begin Tuesday.
And she’s on “pins and needles.”