April 1623, 1998
hit and run
A Ring Of Clues
The discovery last week of Judith Smith's two wedding rings near the site where she was killed "more or less rules out robbery as a motive," according to investigators looking into the death of the tourist from Newton, MA, who may have disappeared from Philadelphia last April.
"We were glad to find them," says Lt. Sam Constance of the Buncombe County, NC, Sheriff's Department. "It is reassuring to us that robbery was not the motive."
The discovery of the rings comes two months after Constance's investigative team determined that Judith Smith appeared to be in good spirits during her stay in Asheville, according to at least two eyewitnesses.
"If you subscribe to the theory that she was here on her own, that totally eliminates the husband, Jeffrey Smith, as a suspect," says Constance, adding that Philadelphia Police still consider him a suspect.
Jeffrey Smith, an attorney who practices in Boston, reported Judy missing April 10, the day after she arrived in Philadelphia to go sightseeing while Jeffrey attended a healthcare conference. Detectives soon began to question whether Judy was ever here; one repeated his doubts about Jeffrey's story when contacted this week. But Jeffrey has stood by his initial reportthat his wife left the DoubleTree Hotel that morning to visit the Liberty Bell, and never returned.
Five months later, Judith's badly decomposed body was found partially buried in a remote mountain region of North Carolina by hunters. She was dressed for the terrain, suggesting that she had planned the trip, but how she got there and why remains a mystery.
Last Wednesday, 10 investigators from the Sheriff's Office and the FBI combed the steep hill where Smith was found. "We spent 12 hours on the crime scene," says Constance. "We just wanted to recheck the area. The rings were items that we hunted for from the start. It was a needle in a haystack."
Constance says officers found one ring with a metal detector and the other by sifting through dirt.
He says the rings are significant because they might provide evidence of who killed her.
"We sent the rings to the FBI crime lab where they will check for trace evidencehairs or fibers, anything that would result from an altercation," says Constance.
Constance adds that his department is still waiting for the FBI crime lab to determine a cause of death.
"We haven't gotten all the information back yet," he says.
Constance says he "goes back and forth" on whether Jeffrey Smith is a suspect.
Four people at the historic Biltmore Villagepart of an estate which abuts the Buncombe County Sheriff Department headquartersplace Smith in Asheville at the time of her death. At least two of those witnesses, says Constance, described her as "extremely friendly. She was smiling and spoke of her husband. One of the ladies said [Smith] said her husband was an attorney."
Constance says the witness reported that Smith's description of her husband was "neither negative nor positive."
Investigators had been inquiring about a possible connection between Smith and two women who worked at the Biltmore Villages and owned a cabin near where Smith was found. That lead, however, has proved inconclusive.
The Buncombe County Sheriff's Department is still receiving leads from Asheville and from Massachusetts, where Jeffrey Smith still lives in the home he shared with his wife. Sheriffs will be visiting Massachusetts again in the next few weeks to talk with Smithwho Constance describes as being "very cooperative"and "any and everyone who might have some information."
There are no scheduled stops in Philadelphia, which won't bother Jeffrey Smith.
"I understand your distinguished police department is still taking the position that she was never there," Smith said in a phone interview this week. "As far as I'm concerned, that's just idiotic. It's just their way of closing the file" and saving the city the embarrassment of losing a tourist, he says.
Smith says he's no closer to explaining his wife's disappearance today than he was after her body was found. He leans, however, toward believing she became disoriented due to some sort of internal or external trauma.
"One circumstance reinforces my belief that something happened to her in Philadelphia, and that's that she was found without her red backpack," he says. An experienced and avid traveler, Judy took her red backpack everywhere, according to Jeffrey and her two adult children.
"The unfortunate part," he continues, "is I believe she must have been a victim in two different places. And while that sounds implausible, even to me, I can't think of anything more plausible."
America's Most Wanted, which was scheduled to air the Smith case April 6, has rescheduled, Constance says. In the meantime, anyone with information about the case should call 1-800-430-9651.
-Howard Altman and Frank Lewis