In January, U.S. Army servicemember Angel Conner was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and preparing to deploy to Dubai. After she returned to Fort Sill from visiting her family in Cocoa, Angel was fatally shot by a man she had been seeing as she attempted to flee from her apartment, police said. Now, family members are seeking justice for the 28-year-old mother and soldier, and trying to raise awareness about the horrors of domestic violence.
Just months before she was deploying to Dubai, Angel Conner flew home to Cocoa from Fort Sill, Okla., to spend the holidays with her 6-year-old son, friends and family.
For 14 days, the one-time Cocoa High basketball player met up with friends, shared precious memories with her mother and played with her son — not knowing it would be the last time she would see them.
A few weeks later on Jan. 28, the 28-year-old U.S. Army soldier would return home once again. This time, in a flag-draped coffin carried by soldiers quietly marching on an airport tarmac at dusk as her anguished parents watched.
Angel was killed, not on a battlefield or in an accident, but, according to Oklahoma police, at the hands of another soldier on Jan. 18.
There was a domestic dispute at her apartment, police said, that ended in gun violence.
“Our lives are forever changed. She was so beautiful...so good,” said Gail Conner, who tearfully met her daughter's body at Orlando International Airport.
Her heart sank further when she looked at her daughter's face — marred, battered and swollen.
Angel had been shot six times, police in Lawton, Okla., said.
“This was just so unreal. She was so happy with life. She knew who she was. She was focused, and despite all of that, this happened," Gail Conner told FLORIDA TODAY. "People need to know what happened."
When police used the words "domestic violence," Angel's family was stunned.
Known by friends as vibrant and often outspoken, Angel Conner was in a relationship with the suspect, and, outside of a dispute that turned into a tussle last year, there was nothing to point to her being abused.
There were no obvious warnings. No restraining orders; no formal complaints from Angel Conner during the nine-month period she dated the man accused of killing her, family members said.
"As strong and as good as she was, this happened to Angel. And if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone," Gail Conner said. "I want people to know that you don't have to take it."
The Conner family, now raising their daughter's child, is working to crowd source money so they can travel to and from Oklahoma for court hearings involving the suspect.
More importantly, the Conner family wants to raise awareness about the horrors of domestic violence and to keep Angel's story alive.
"She never wanted to be in a relationship with this person. He had too much drama for her. He had other relationships," said Jessica Conner, Angel's sister. "She told me she was going to break it off. She was just getting ready to deploy to Dubai in March."
Angel La'Vine Conner grew up in Cocoa, at first a shy little girl with big doe eyes. She was a quiet child.
"She loved her daddy, Jetro. He was the biggest man in the world to her," Gail Conner recalled.
As she got older, Angel learned how to style hair and makeup, practicing on her friends.
At Cocoa High, the lanky teen took to the basketball court, building confidence and wowing coaches as the Tigers worked to dominate other teams.
She ran track and was known as a social butterfly who loved to vibe or just hang with friends.
On weekends, the family headed to Melbourne for church at Shiloh Christian Center.
"We used to talk to our kids about the future. We'd tell them,'you're either going into the service or college. So Angel got into the (Jr. Reserve Officer Training Corps)," Gail Conner said.
Her daughter first joined the Army full-time in May 2011 and then the Army Reserves after having her son, Stephon.
After her time in the reserves ended, she was determined to be in the Army full-time to provide for herself and Stephon — the one person she treasured more than her military career. She had been raising him on her own with help from her parents.
Angel Conner worked to transform herself. It showed on social media. She took photos that highlighted her long hair; sultry, self-confident expressions.
"She knew who she was. She didn't want a steady relationship, anything. She was focused on getting into the Army full-time," her mother said. "She'd tell me, 'the struggle is real,' but she made it."
Angel Conner rejoined the Army full-time in March 2019.
When the time came to be stationed in Oklahoma, rather than disrupt her child's schooling, his grandparents stepped up to take care of him in Cocoa.
As Angel settled into her routine at Fort Sill southwest of Oklahoma City, she talked with her son through FaceTime, checking in to make sure he was minding his schoolwork and doing well. She would send him packages full of gifts, including light-up dinosaur shoes.
She also met a man, a 23-year-old soldier named Richard Rasheed Smith.
The pair would talk and hang out. Angel Conner cooked pork chops and chicken pasta meals for him at her apartment. Smith even talked to her parents.
It was 2:30 a.m. Jan. 18.
Less than three hours before, Angel Conner had talked to her mother.
"I told her 'I love you,' and she said, 'I love you too, mom.' I had also spoken to (Smith)," Gail Conner said. "Three hours later she would be dead."
Law enforcement authorities said the pair were in Angel Conner's apartment in Lawton when a dispute erupted. Smith told police the two began to argue when Conner punched him and then pulled a knife on him.
At some point, Conner was beaten in the face and head. Her eye was blackened, her jaw swollen and her nose bruised, family members said.
Smith retrieved a handgun, police reports show. He chased and shot Angel Conner multiple times, police said. Conner, badly wounded, ran out of the apartment until she collapsed.
She had been shot at least once in the back of the head, her sister said.
"The police told me that she was still able to talk. She was able to say (Smith) did this to her. He shot her as she ran downstairs and out of the apartment," Gail Conner said.
She later died on the operating table as doctors worked to save her life.
Smith was booked into the Commanche County Detention Center on a charge of first-degree murder, where he is awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty. His case was assigned to one of the county's two public defenders on Jan. 24, according to the Commanche County Clerk of Courts' Office.
The attorney could not be reached for comment for this article.
"Everything seemed fine between them. I know she was good to (Smith), so I don't get it. I just want to know why," Jessica Conner said.
Cases involving domestic violence and service members have come under scrutiny in recent years. There are no firm statistics that describe the extent of domestic violence in military ranks.
A 2003 report cited by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence showed that among active-duty women, 22 percent reported intimate partner violence during military service. That report is one of the more recent studies to review domestic violence in the armed forces
Domestic violence became a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice last year. There are also family advocacy programs that address domestic violence.
Angel Conner's family members have struggled to accept not only that she is gone, but that she died a violent death.
Hours after the shooting, an investigator came to her mother's home to tell the family of Angel's death.
"The first thought that came to my mind was, 'was it him?'" Jessica Conner asked.
After the body arrived days later, the family made the difficult choice to have an open casket.
"When she came back, the damage to her face was there. And when we were talking about the funeral, I thought about it and just said, 'no,' people need to see what happened to her," Gail Conner said. "You need to understand what can happen."
Her father Jetro came up with the idea to veil her face, and funeral home technicians touched up some of the visible damage.
More than 900 people, including friends, classmates, soldiers and others, crowded into the sanctuary at New Shiloh Christian Center in Melbourne.
Many paid their final respects while looking over at Angel Conner and the evidence of a violent end seen on her veiled face.
There, as the family gathered around the casket, a lone soldier presented Angel Conner's son with an American flag.
It was a heartrending moment for Jessica Conner.
"Stephon is still not taking it well. He's still trying to FaceTime his mom. We found him doing that. He looked at me, said that 'mom won't answer.' His heart is hurting," she said of her nephew.
The family has numerous upcoming court hearings in Oklahoma. They face a long road of legal maneuvering and life without her.
Angel Conner's friends continue to offer support.
"But for me, I need to know, from him, why did he do this? What did she do so badly that you would shoot her? Why was he shooting at her while she ran?" Gail Conner asked.
"We want people to know that this is something that can happen to anyone. There's got to be some good that comes out of all of this."
J.D. Gallop is a Criminal Justice/Breaking News Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallop at 321-917-4641 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JDGallop. To keep up with all his stories about crime and legal issues, please subscribe.
Domestic violence hotlines
24-hour hotline: Army: 580-574-0871
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233)
Military OneSource: 800-342-9647
This story was originally posted to Florida Today and shared to Gannett Media’s Florida websites.