There are few places in Florida as colorful or intriguing as Key West and few people who know the inside stories of the Southernmost City as well as Terry Schmida. This Canadian ex-pat served as a reporter and editor at the Key West Citizen for two decades, and has pretty much seen it all. Since 2006, Schmida has shared his knowledge with readers in three true crime books that delve into the darker side of his adopted hometown.
Schmida also comes from what he calls “good writing stock.” His great-uncle, Myles "The Slasher" Finnan, was an Irish Republican poet who had to depart the Emerald Isle because of his nationalist writings, and his beloved, late uncle, Tony Brady, was a successful author of children’s books. Schmida's mother is the novelist Joanna Brady, author of The Woman at the Light (St. Martin's Press, 2012.) “As you can see,” he says, “I had plenty of inspiration.” These influences manifested themselves early on, as Schmida took it upon himself to create a class newspaper called "The Box" - named for his teacher's "time-out" area - while he was still in grade school. He sold those copies for 25 cents each.
Schmida's full-time career in journalism, however, grew out of economic necessity. “When I graduated college in '95, I entered a different world than I expected,” he says. “Canada was in the midst of a severe recession, and jobs in the media were hard to get. So I moved into my parents’ basement. When my parents relocated to Key West in 1995, the basement left with them, so I went along for the ride and never looked back.”
Upon his arrival in Key West, Schmida leafed through the local phone book looking for media-related opportunities. The first job offer he got was from the Citizen which, coincidentally, was owned by former Toronto neighbor Ken Thomson. Schmida started out building ads in the composing room and eventually parlayed his interest in music to a position as an Arts and Entertainment writer. When the paper’s crime reporter left, the job was offered to Schmida.
Schmida had always been fascinated by crime stories. As a boy, he was a fan of Max Haines’s “Crime Flashback” column in The Toronto Sun. The interest followed him to university in Montreal. “In college, I would go to places where famous crimes took place,” he says. “I got a thrill thinking that a crime happened on the very spot where I was standing. So I jumped into the crime reporter gig with gusto.” Schmida kept this “dream job” until he was offered a promotion to Arts and Entertainment editor. Since the new position was non-controversial, allowed him to work his own hours and included a pay raise, he took it.
Although he had moved over to a new beat, Schmida’s love for crime reporting didn’t disappear – it just took on a new form. In 2003, he began writing a collection of stories chronicling some of Key West’s more interesting crimes. “A hundred years ago, when Miami was still a little hamlet, Key West was the biggest city in Florida,” Schmida explains. “So there was no shortage of material.” Three years later, he had completed Terry Schmida's True Crime Stories of Key West and the Florida Keys.
The day after the book was published, he wrote the first story for Volume 2 which came out in the fall of 2008. “I took a break after the second book,” Schmida says, “but the crimes continued to happen. This is a growth industry.” He completed and published Volume 3 in late 2014.
Schmida describes his books as “history viewed through a prism of law enforcement” and admits that writing about true crimes in a small town poses some unique challenges. “I didn’t want to open old wounds by writing about crimes that were too recent where someone’s relative might have been involved,” he says. “I had to ride a fine line between entertainment and picking a corpse to make money.” While his first crime book contains mostly older stories, Volume 2 is more of a fifty-fifty mix of old and new, and Volume 3 is composed mainly of even more recent crimes.
Upon Volume 3's release, Schmida left his most recent capacity as the Citizen's Education and Social Services editor, to concentrate fully on his own books and freelance work. At 45, Schmida is now hitting his stride, covering Key West, Marathon, and all of Monroe County for the Konk Life and Mile Marker newspapers, and serving as the morning news anchor at the Island 107.l FM radio station.
Schmida’s current book project is a chronicle about his decades spent as a Florida Keys news hound. He is also working on another book about Key West’s great eccentrics, and is even exploring the possibility of establishing a crime museum in the old city jail building.
Lastly, Schmida has begun experimenting with fiction writing but admits that he has some reservations about that particular genre. “I tend to be suspicious of fiction because whenever I read it, I can see factual elements embedded in the story,” he says. “I want to tell the writer to just tell me the truth – because the uncut truth is usually stranger than fiction."
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