Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

October 2–9, 1997

city beat

City Beat: Found


Jeffrey Smith (right), in in July with his stepson Craig and a snapshot of Judith.

Photo: Judy Royster


Jeffrey Smith, still a suspect in his wife's disappearance, talks exclusively to City Paper.

By Howard Altman and Frank Lewis

When the Newton, MA, police arrived at Jeffrey Smith's house on Monday, the horrible news they were bearing answered the question that had been haunting him since April.

His 50-year-old wife, Judith, who had disappeared in Philadelphia on April 10 while accompanying him on a business trip, was no longer missing, the cops told him.

She was dead.

The skeletal remains of her body were found by hunters in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest on Sept. 7.

As the initial shock subsided and grief set in, as Smith tried to cope with the realization that his desperate, five-month search was over, as he struggled to overcome suspicions that somehow, he was involved in his wife's death, the answer to his question only raised more questions.

Why did she walk out of the DoubleTree Hotel and never return?

How did she get from Philadelphia to North Carolina?

Why was she camping in a remote area rarely frequented by outsiders?

And, most importantly, who killed her?

"Given the attitude of the Philadelphia Police Department, I'm not confident that we'll ever get reasonable answers as to what happened," Smith said late Tuesday night in a telephone interview, still angry that cops here think his wife may never have visited Philly at all. "Unfortunately, this is going to haunt me for the rest of my life, in one manner or another. My only solace is... maybe she didn't suffer, whatever happened to her."

But his ordeal is far from over. Philadelphia Police, saying 85 to 90 percent of female murder victims are killed by someone close to them, steadfastly refused Wednesday morning to rule out anyone as a suspect. Especially Jeffrey Smith, who police say recently refused to take a lie detector test.

Nobody is quite sure, at this point, what happened to Judith Smith.

And it was only by a quirk of fate that authorities came to identify the bones found in the woods as hers.

At about 4 p.m. on Sept. 7, the hunters, a father and son whose names are not being released in part because they were hunting deer before deer season officially began, came across a gruesome discovery near the Stoney Point picnic area: a partially buried skeleton and bones scattered over about a hundred-yard area by animals picking at the remains.

The hunters contacted the Buncombe County Sheriff's office.

"The skeleton still had on long, insulated underwear, blue jeans and hiking boots," says Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford. "There was nothing in the pockets. No wallet. No identification at all."

Near the body, says Medford, investigators found a blue vinyl backpack. Inside were winter clothing and $80 cash. Authorities also found a shirt buried nearby, with $87 in the shirt pocket.

Medford says he immediately treated the discovery as a homicide.

It was not the first time, says Medford, that a body had been found in the woods off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Two years ago, a woman was found tied to a tree about 10 miles from where the hunters found Smith's body. That woman had been raped and killed.

Her killer, however, was arrested and convicted.

On Sept. 7, Medford had a mystery on his hands.

Who had been camping out in the woods?

How did the person die? Who was responsible?

The remains were sent to the North Carolina medical examiner's lab in Chapel Hill. From there, Medford, a 28-year veteran and sheriff for the last three, learned that the body was that of a white female, probably between the ages of 40 to 55, who had been there, it seemed, for a year, possibly two.

And one more thing.

The woman had "real bad arthritis in her right knee," according to Medford.

The ME's office, however, offered no cause of death.

And no clue as to the victim's name.

It might have remained that way forever, if not for Jeffrey Smith's dogged pursuit of his wife and a hunch by a North Carolina doctor.

For months, Smith had been spending his days and nights calling law enforcement officials and medical facilities all over the country, faxing pictures of his missing wife, trying to convince people to help him find her.

One of those fliers apparently made its way to the Angel Medical Center in Franklin, NC, 65 miles west of Asheville. There, an emergency room doctor named Parker Davis saw it and connected the information about Judith Smith to a Sept. 9 story he'd read in the Asheville Citizen-Times about a body found by hunters in the woods.

On Sept. 25, Davis faxed the article to Philadelphia Police.

Det. James Sweeney read the fax and contacted Medford's office. Sweeney gave the sheriff Jeffrey Smith's phone number, and Smith arranged to have his wife's dental records sent to North Carolina to see if they could find a match.

"Judith Smith had extensive dental work," says Sheriff Medford. "The body had extensive dental work. It was a match."

Medford says his department then contacted the Philadelphia Police Department to let them know. His office also called Newton police department, so that they could give the bad news to Smith.

Medford says he and his team of five investigators will lead the search for the person or persons who killed Judith Smith.

They will start by canvassing the area near where her body was found as well as hotels, motels and sporting goods shops around Asheville, the mountaintop resort community where it appears Judith Smith spent time before she died.

Medford says that his investigation will take him up to Massachusetts, where he will interview Jeffrey Smith. The Duncombe County crew will then visit Philadelphia in an attempt to retrace Judith Smith's steps.

At this point, Medford says he does not think Smith killed his wife.

A portly man who breathes heavily after walking, Smith "was medically deficient to be hiking around the woods," says Medford.

The last time Jeffrey Smith says he saw his wife, she was in the shower of their room at the DoubleTree.

Smith was in town to attend a conference of the pharmaceutical organization he represents. Judith was with him, he maintains, to do the usual touristy things while he mingled and schmoozed and attended sessions. This was her first visit to Philadelphia, and she intended to take in the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and other historic sites.

The plan, he says, was for him to do his thing, her to do hers and both would meet up back at the hotel room, where they would get ready for that evening's 6 p.m. cocktail party.

Smith says he returned to his room from breakfast and suggested to his showering wife that she try it. Judith joked about going as she was, naked and dripping wet.

Smith says he then left the room for the day's hectic schedule, which culminated with his moderating the final session of the day. When he returned to the room, at about 5:30, Judith wasn't there.

"I was a little concerned," Smith says in an interview for a July 17 City Paper cover story about his wife's disappearance. "But I thought maybe we had mixed signals and she thought she was supposed to proceed to the cocktail party."

By 6:15 p.m., Smith began to worry. A concierge called area hospitals while Smith hopped in a cab to cruise the Phlash bus route, which Judy had says she'd use to get around Center City. Around midnight he stopped at Central Detectives headquarters to file a missing persons report. He was told to wait until she'd been missing 24 hours.

This was to be the start of Jeffrey Smith's dissatisfaction with the Philadelphia Police Department's handling of his wife's disappearance.

Even after he pulled some strings to get the search under way (Mayor Rendell and State Rep. John Perzel had spoken at the conference Jeffrey was attending), Smith says, the investigators seemed stuck on the notion that Judy probably had taken off out of anger or a desire for attention, and would return when she felt she'd made her point.

That attitude never really changed, Smith says Tuesday night.

"They tortured me—that's the word I would use—in a variety of ways," Smith says.

One method, he says, was the continued questioning of whether Judy Smith ever arrived in Philadelphia. Privately, investigators says they were puzzled by several details. For example, she was an experienced traveler, but had to catch a later flight than her husband because she'd forgotten to bring a photo ID to the airport. (This FAA regulation had been in effect about 18 months at that time, and Jeffrey says Judy had flown on only one other occasion in that period.)

A female detective who saw the Smiths' hotel room says she doubted a woman had been staying there. The clothes she apparently left behind seemed not to have been worn, suggesting she'd left the hotel in the same outfit in which she'd arrived the previous night, and there were no cosmetics to be found. Her children, Craig and Amy, however, says this was consistent with Judy's behavior.

Another detective had difficulty with Jeffrey's assertion that Judy had arrived at the hotel bearing flowers for him. And other than a desk clerk who recalled seeing Judy when she arrived (there was no guest registry to sign), Jeffrey also seemed to be the only person who'd seen her at the hotel.

Until last month.

After reading an Aug. 31 Inquirer Magazine article about Judy's disappearance, another person who'd attended the conference at the DoubleTree came forward to support Smith's story. According to Joseph Dobrenski, chairman of the organization that sponsored the April conference, Carmen Catazone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy in Park Ridge, IL, sent Smith a letter, care of Smith's New Jersey-based organization, saying he'd witnessed Judy's arrival and had informed Philadelphia Police.

Dobrenski told City Paper he received the letter Tuesday, and promptly forwarded it to Smith's Boston office. Catazone could not be reached before press time.

"We have talked to him," says Capt. John McGinnis. "He doesn't know Judy Smith, he believes he may have overheard her talking to someone. We are going to have police in Chicago talk to him and show him pictures of Judithstatement."

"We are trying to keep a very open mind on what occurred here," McGinnis says. But Jeffrey Smith remains a suspect.

"When you look at the statistics, 85 to 90 percent of females [who are murdered] are killed by someone very close to thema family member, spouse, boyfriend. Statistically, we have to look at Jeffrey Smith as a suspect, until it's proven that he is not a suspect.

"Part of our job is not to believe everything people tell us. My heart goes out to Mr. Smith. It's a shame he is considered a suspectus she wasn't happy in the marriage at all. He tells us they were happy, but he may not be 100 percent truthful. He may be embarrassed that the marriage wasn't working out at the time of the disappearance.

"A lot of detectives were working this, and we're very upset she turned up dead. We were hoping that if she was not happy, that she had left and started anew—that was what we were hoping for. When you work [a case] so closely, you identify with it and the victim, and you get upset."

If you believe nothing else, Jeffrey Smith asks, believe this: he never refused to take a lie detector test.

In fact, he says, he agreed to take one, on two conditions: that the test be administered by the FBI, and that if he "passed"—in other words, dispelled Philadelphia investigators' lingering doubts as to whether Judy ever had set foot in Philadelphia—the Philadelphia Police Department would then formally request FBI assistance in the investigation.

But local police are adamant that Smith resisted.

"He refused," says Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Zappile. "Certain conditions were met, but as far as I'm concerned he refused."

McGinnis says Smith already knew the FBI would not join the investigation when he made that a condition for taking the polygraph, and that Philadelphia Police arranged for Massachusetts State Police to administer the test.

"We asked him, he said no—that's a refusal no matter how you word it," McGinnis says. "He is a lawyer, I'm sure he's very good with words, but the bottom line is he was asked to take one and he didn't take one."

Whether the FBI could have or would have gotten involved in the case remains unclear. From the start, Smith believed a formal request for assistance was all that was needed. But in July, local FBI spokesperson Special Agent Linda Visi told City Paper: "We can only get involved when there's a violent crime, and when the police need our assistance for specific reasons, like following up leads in another jurisdiction."

On Wednesday, Special Agent Gerry Williams confirmed this. "A formal request in this matter would have been declined" because most criteria—such as evidence that Judy Smith had been abducted and taken across state lines—had not been met.

Even now, with the body identified, the FBI will assist local authorities only with interviews and records checks, Williams says.

Jeffrey Smith says he is as much at a loss as investigators to explain what led Judy to the Blue Ridge Mountains. To his knowledge, she had no friends or relatives in that region. Her only connections, he says, were a week-long trip to Raleigh-Durham to visit Jeffrey at a weight-loss facility several years ago, and a drive to Tennessee or Virginia (Smith and his stepson Craig differ in their recollections) with a patient of Judy's who wanted to visit relatives there.

But to suggest she was familiar with the area in which she was found is "beyond the bounds of rationality," he said.

"I still don't believe she went to North Carolina in her right mind [early reported sightings indicated Judy might have been disoriented], and I'm not at all convinced she went there voluntarily," he says. Her beloved red backpack, identification and jewelry were not found with her body, but about $160 in cash was. Smith wonders why anyone would take the former and leave the latter.

"Something had to have happened to those things earlier than the time she dieddifferent events—one of which occurred in Philadelphia, and the other of which occurred in North Carolina."

prior coverage:
Missing (7/17/97) and Missing The Point (7/17/97), Smithspotting (7/24/97)

follow up:
The Boys From Buncombe

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