July 1724, 1997
By Frank Lewis
Jeffrey Smith can't get comfortable. Seated in the small conference room of his Boston law firm, he changes position every few minutes, first reclining slightly and draping his arms across the backs of two other chairs, then leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table.
He sighs frequently. When he speaks, he spends more time staring blankly at the white wall and polished table than at the other people in the room. He seems weary of the topic, exhausted from months of trying to help police detectives, reporters, relatives, friends and himself understand his wife's sudden and still unexplained disappearance.
"The nights are the hardest," he says finally, "being alone, being in our house, and seeing all of her things."
"There was a story, a mystery story I read a lot of mysteries and science fiction in which there was a woman whose husband had died, and she couldn't touch his clothes, she couldn't move his stuff around. When I first read it years ago, it didn't make sense to me. But it's happened [to me]. I can't touch her stuff in the house. I can't unpack her suitcase. So everything is sort of still... still there."
He pauses, looks up, adds, "That's how it is." For a second, his tone and expression convey the barest hint of annoyance. There, happy now? Or would you rather I sob uncontrollably as well? Then his face softens and he is helpless and crushed once again, glad for the opportunity to let people know he still can't find his wife.
Judith Smith, a 50-year-old nurse from Newton, MA, an upscale Boston suburb, came to Philadelphia in April to do the usual tourist things while her husband attended the conference of the pharmaceutical organization he represents. Within 24 hours, she was gone. Many people claim to have seen her one as recently as two weeks ago but her family hasn't heard from her and both police and private investigators are at a total loss.
The latest supposed sighting reported last Thursday by an Easton, PA, woman has done little to clear things up. After reading about Judy in the Allentown Morning Call, the woman told police she had seen Judy wandering around Bally's Wild Wild West Casino in Atlantic City the previous weekend (July 4 or 5).
"Atlantic City is about the last place in the world my wife would go," says Jeffrey, Judy's husband of eight months and boyfriend of 10 years. Jeffrey enjoys an occasional night at the casinos and tried sometimes to get her to join him, but she always declined. "She hated it. [Gambling] just wasn't her."
On the other hand, if he can believe Judy was seen shopping in New Jersey while he raced frantically from police station to tourist destination to hospital, he can believe she was wandering around Bally's last weekend. Nothing about this case has made much sense.
Aside from the dozen or so reported sightings, most of which even the family concedes probably aren't reliable, Judy Smith seems to have vanished without a trace or a remotely reasonable explanation. By all accounts she loved and got along famously with her husband, adored her college-aged children from a previous marriage, and was extremely devoted to her mostly elderly, homebound patients. And she couldn't have gotten far on the cashshe was carrying anyway.
The most promising sighting has turned out also to be the most disturbing; witnesses say she was acting strangely, as if not all there. Because of this, the most statistically improbable scenario amnesia seems the most plausible.
Her family prefers it, at least, to the options.
Police carry on the search as much as they can in a three-month-old case that hasn't caught many breaks. Back in Newton and nearby Boston, her husband and children just wait. They've notified every relevant agency, contacted every relative and friend they could find, to no avail. All they can do is sit and wonder, what happened to Judy?
Judy Bradford her name from her second marriage cared for Jeff's father for a week or so in his home after he'd undergone throat surgery to remove a cancerous growth about 10 years ago. That was how they met.
"She just had a wonderful personality, and was a very practical person, too," Jeffrey says, smiling slightly, almost sadly. "One of the things [my father] needed was to have a bag of fluid dripped into him, and we didn't have an IV pole at home. And I can still visualize her getting up on a chair and hanging it from the top of the window curtain holder."
Sometime after she stopped caring for his father, Jeffrey asked her on a date. They attended a "very, very bad" performance by a community theater company, and had a wonderful time.
The found they had much in common. Both were divorced single parents: Jeff was raising a daughter from his first marriage, Judy had a daughter and son from her second marriage. They shared an interest in health care: Judy worked as a nurse, primarily providing home care, and Jeff represented the Northeast Pharmaceutical Conference, an organization of researchers and executives from New England and other eastern states. Both enjoyed plays and Celtics games.
"She was very bright is very bright." He pauses and seems to pale, visibly shaken by his own words. He takes a deep breath before continuing. "On a very rare occasion I lapse into the past tense. It bothers me that I do that. She is very bright, and she was able to expose me to things I hadn't done before, and I was able to do the same for her. I don't know... we grew to love each other, I guess."
As she had several times before, Judy decided to join Jeff for this year's Northeast Pharmaceutical Conference meeting, held in the Doubletree Hotel, Broad and Locust Streets, April 9-11. Judy planned to do some sightseeing, then join Jeff and some other couples from the organization for dinner once or twice. On Friday, they were to meet up with old friends who live in New Jersey.
Jeffrey wasn't concerned for her safety.
"She's an inordinately self-reliant person," who traveled to Thailand alone about five years ago to visit the grateful family of a former patient, he says. She also once took her kids to Europe for several weeks. Judy is an experienced traveler, Jeff says, who neither needed nor tolerated protection.
"It wouldn't have occurred to me to talk her out of going sightseeing in Philadelphia alone," he says. "Who knew how dangerous Philadelphia could be?"
In hindsight, the little scene at Boston's Logan Airport on April 9 looks like a sign that Judy shouldn't have made the trip.
As the Smiths checked in for their 1:30 p.m. flight, Judy realized she'd left her driver's license at home; without a photo ID, she was not allowed to board the plane. Jeffrey had a meeting scheduled for that afternoon, so he went ahead while Judy returned home to fetch her license. She caught a 7:30 flight and took a cab to the Doubletree, where she met Jeffrey in the lobby with flowers and a sheepish apology for her forgetfulness.
Before retiring that night, they discussed her plans for the next day. This was Judy's first visit to Philadelphia, and she intended to take in the usual sights the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall while Jeffrey attended conference functions all day.
He got up early the next morning and had breakfast. When he returned to the room shortly before 9, Judy was in the shower. He suggested she try the complimentary breakfast, and she joked about going that minute, as she was. Jeffrey then left for the opening presentation.
Conference activities kept him busy all day. He moderated the final session of the day, then returned to the room about 5:30, expecting his wife to be there.
"I was a little concerned," he recalls. "But I thought maybe we had mixed signals, and that she thought she was supposed to proceed to the cocktail party [to begin at 6]. So I went down to the room where the cocktail party was, and I kind of floated back and forth between the room where the cocktail party was and our room for the next, oh, half or three-quarters of an hour."
By 6:15, he was worried enough to explain the situation to a concierge and a hotel security guard; the concierge began calling area hospitals.
He struggled to understand her lateness. Maybe she'd stopped to help someone, he thought; on a flight to Florida last year, she'd volunteered to care for another passenger, an apparent AIDS sufferer, who became violently ill. Helping a stranger in need was entirely in character.
But not calling when she was running so late was not.
The rest of the night remains a blur. Jeffrey hailed a cab, and had the driver follow the route of SEPTA's Phlash service, which he knew Judy planned to use that day. "I had him drive it about five miles an hour," he recalls with a thin smile. "Drove him crazy, with all the traffic behind us. I'm not sure what I expected to see, but that's what I did."
He returned to the hotel, then took another cab to the 6th and 9th police districts, which cover the east and west sides of Center City, respectively. An officer at 6th District provided a list of city hospitals. He planned to visit them next, but a nurse at Jefferson offered to call the other hospitals for him.
"I remember this: I would do a task, whatever it was I would either go to a [police] station or a hospital and then I would take a cab back to the hotel to see if she was there, or if they'd heard word of anything. I kept bouncing, sort of, hoping there'd be some word."
"I know that I contacted my stepchildren, and I had my daughter that night go to my house and check to see if there were any messages on either answering machine." He and Judy have their own phone lines.
Around midnight he returned to 9th District headquarters, which also houses Central Detectives Division, hoping to file a missing persons report. "They wouldn't do it," he says. "They took the position that she hadn't been missing for a long enough period of time to warrant their getting involved."
Wait 24 hours, they said. A detective hinted that if he wanted to "push it," he could make the report the next morning, 24 hours after he'd last seen his wife. So he returned once again to the hotel, and sat in his room, without sleeping or even changing his clothes, for the next several hours.
"I was worried," he recalls. "I was angry, I was frustrated... I was a little numb." He pauses. "In a sense I've felt the same for almost three months... All of those feelings are continuing."
For that, he says, the Philadelphia police are partly to blame.
Before returning to Central Detectives Friday morning to get the missing person report under way, Jeffrey Smith decided to pull some strings.
Already frustrated by what he perceived as reluctance to help, Smith contacted an official with the Northeast Pharmaceutical Conference, who in turn called the offices of Mayor Rendell and State Rep. John Perzel, speaker of the Pennsylvania House. Both spoke at the conference.
What went on behind the scenes isn't quite clear neither Rendell's nor Perzel's nor Police Commissioner Richard Neal's offices returned calls but Smith says he was waiting at Central Detectives when word came down later that morning. "You could literally see the change," he recalls. He was invited to make a report; a lieutenant hovered nearby while he told a detective everything he knew. He overheard someone say that an extra copy was to be sent to Neal.
"I would like to believe what I did in that respect was unnecessary," Smith says. "I, in fact, don't... I know that in some respect the assistance I got from [Perzel], but also more specifically Mayor Rendell's office, and from Commissioner Neal's office, [influenced] the manpower they ultimately put on the matter. And I'm grateful for that."
But his frustrations would continue. The greatest, he says, was the recurring suggestion that Judy had disappeared voluntarily.
"The problem is, at least from my perspective, that [police officers] have a mindset... and it's understandable but it is insensible," he explains. "The mindset is that women sometimes do these crazy things. They have mid-life crises, they run away for brief periods of time and then come back and therefore ... it's a domestic problem."
"What makes that not sensible in this context is that a woman doesn't need to fly to Philadelphia to run away from home. It's not like someone from a suburb reporting that his wife left the house in a huff or something like that. And it's that mindset that clouds their judgment, and it's very difficult to break through when people believe that."
"Even several days into the investigation there was at least one detective who was talking about women having mid-life crises and running away just to get attention." That detective, who Smith prefers not be named (he seems reluctant to malign them individually), presented it both ways in an April 14 Boston Globe article, saying Judy "does not seem the type of person to just disappear," and, "It is not uncommon for a person of this age to have a mid-life crisis and disappear for a few days just to see if anyone misses them."
Smith says the detectives insisted on interviewing his step-daughter, Amy Bradford, Judy's daughter from her second marriage, as soon as she arrived in Philadelphia and not with him around.
Amy says it wasn't hard to convince them, however, that Judy had no reason to hide from Jeff; they were very happy together, and made a great couple. "He's the most honest person I've ever met," Amy says. "The guy doesn't even cheat on his taxes."
Jeffrey says he understands why the detectives needed to speak with Amy alone, "although I was incensed at the time." And Amy's testimony seemed to help after that, two pairs of detectives began working on the case "pretty steadily and pretty hard, and doing as much as you could do at that point... There was some serious effort to try to find her."
The Daily News reported Judy Smith's disappearance on April 12, and again on April 14. An Inquirer article ran in between, and two local television stations aired the story as well.
Numerous reports of sightings followed, and all were followed up by the small army now searching for Judy. In addition to the police there were four detectives on the case, and all Philadelphia and SEPTA patrol cops were made aware of her disappearance there was Jeffrey; Dean and Dale Landau, old friends who lived in New Jersey and who had planned to meet the Smiths Friday afternoon; Judy's daughter Amy and her boyfriend Jay, who drove here Saturday, April 12; and her son Craig, who arrived Tuesday.
Details differed in each reported sighting, but a common thread ran through most: Judy apparently was not in her right mind.
She seemed fine when she left the Doubletree sometime after 9 a.m. on April 10 (she was wearing blue jeans, white sneakers, a three-quarter length, dark-colored coat and carrying a worn red backpack; she is 5-foot-1-inch tall, 135 pounds, with straight, shoulder-length brown hair with blond highlights and brown eyes). A hotel employee told police she asked where she could catch the Phlash, SEPTA's Center City van service. This would have been consistent with her plans, according to Jeffrey; the Phlash stops at both the Liberty Bell and the Visitors' Center at 16th Street and JFK Boulevard, both of which she'd mentioned the night before.
A Phlash driver told police and Jeffrey who coincidentally met the driver while riding the Phlash route during his search that he recalled picking Judy up at Front and South in the early afternoon. She is believed to have gotten off near the Doubletree.
Later, she was seen entering and leaving the Greyhound bus terminal at 11th and Filbert. "We concluded she probably used the ladies' room," says Jeffrey. He also speculates she might have been heading to or from Chinatown she loved Chinese and Thai food but a canvass of restaurants there turned up nothing.
"We rented bikes," says Amy of the search, "we walked, we drove a lot, so physically it was exhausting. And mentally it was exhausting because you'd get people saying they saw her somewhere, and we'd run out there to look and of course she wasn't there. We kind of felt like she was always a couple steps ahead of us."
Yet another report put Judy at Broad and Locust at about 3 p.m. This was the first in which she was described as "acting disoriented."
Around the same time the next day, she supposedly was seen shopping for dresses in Macy's in the Deptford Mall in Deptford, NJ. A salesperson and customer described Judy, right down to the red backpack, but said she seemed unstable; she prattled on about buying clothes for her daughter, but said her daughter usually didn't like them.
When she left, she tried to get a young woman standing nearby to leave with her, as if she thought the woman was her daughter. Unfortunately, none of this was caught on the store's surveillance cameras.
Smith had a local private investigator, Ed Geigert, check out the report. "Geigert was confident, based upon his conversation [with the witnesses], that it was Judy," says Jeffrey. (Geigert was on vacation and unavailable for comment.) For the family, the reference to buying clothes for her daughter was the clincher. This was an old habit of Judy's, Amy says.
But what was she doing in Deptford? Impossible to say, though it's not hard to figure how she might have gotten there. New Jersey Transit's Route 400 bus runs to the mall hourly from Market Street between Seventh and 13th, and from Broad and Cherry.
"Why would she get on it?" Jeffrey asks rhetorically. "Why wouldn't she, on the other hand? I mean, if she were disoriented..."
Several reports placed her near Penn's Landing, but the police and Judy's family believe these witnesses actually saw a homeless woman known to frequent the area who bears a striking resemblance to Judy. "I saw her from across the street," says Craig, "and Ithought it was my mother."
"[Patrol] cops were stopping her all the time," adds Detective James Sweeney, now the primary investigator on the case.
But then there was David. A homeless man who hangs out near Penn's Landing, David insisted he'd seen Judy and not her local look-alike when shown her picture. She'd slept on a bench near his one night, he claimed. He'd tried to buy her coffee.
On Wednesday, April 15, the search party went out for dinner, then stopped by Penn's Landing to check in with David. You just missed her, he told them Judy had been there 20 minutes earlier.
Almost frantic with excitement, they fanned out and scoured the area for the next several hours. She was nowhere to be seen. Craig and Jay spent the rest of the night there, peering anxiously through the windows of their car, but she never returned.
Craig is "pretty confident" David knew what he was talking about (City Paper was unable to locate him). Jeffrey still doesn't know what to make of him.
"Yes, he was homeless and living on the streets, but he wasn't at least he didn't appear to me to have been a substance-abuser," he says, sounding weary again, as if still tortured by seemingly coming so close but not really knowing. "He talked reasonably; I don't know how to phrase it any better than that. And it wasn't like he was trying to get anything from us," though they did give him some money.
"And what's peculiar about his sighting, if you will... it was the last time anybody and I mean anybody even identified a picture of her."
So what happened to Judy Smith?
For obvious reasons her family prefers to believe she wasn't killed; besides, no body fitting her description has been found in the area.
Assuming at least some of the sightings are believable, an abduction seems unlikely. The reports of her whereabouts on Thursday suggest she did indeed wander around Center City, as she'd told Jeffrey she would. Where, then, could a woman described by her husband as "a fighter" and son as "exceedingly loud," even under normal circumstances, be nabbed off the street and forced into a building or car without attracting someone's attention?
"I grew up with her," adds Craig. "She was the most difficult person to try to embarrass in public. If she didn't like something, she was yelling."
"She certainly wouldn't go with anyone voluntarily," Jeffrey says. "Even if somebody called her from a house saying 'My child just had a heart attack' or something, 'Please come into the house,' I don't see her doing that. She'd say, 'Let's call 911.' She'd be helpful, but she wouldn't be that helpful."
Voluntary disappearance can't be ruled out, but the circumstances cast doubts on that scenario as well.
She is believed to have been carrying as much as $200 in cash, but she left about $500 in the hotel room. Neither the American Express Gold Card nor the phone charge card she also carried has been used since her trip to Philadelphia. (Sweeney says the credit card has been "red-flagged" if it's used, investigators will be contacted immediately.) There have been no attempts to tap the couple's bank accounts.
Her passport was found in her Newton home. And that, of course, is also where she left her car, most of her clothes and just about everything else she owned. If she were fleeing to start a new life somewhere else, wouldn't she have taken more at the very least, the additional cash from the hotel room? She was carrying her nurse's license, but finding work as a nurse in another state would have meant verification of her credentials in Massachusetts. Jeffrey checked there have been no such attempts.
Then there are the obvious questions: why fly to a strange city to run away? And why act loopy while wearing the same clothes and toting the same red backpack in a shopping mall and on the streets of Center City over the next few days? Granted, it would establish a guilt-easing cover story (she didn't ditch her husband and kids, she's just confused), but it also would increase the odds of being found. Theoretically she could have been on the West Coast for hours, or halfway to Hawaii, by the time her absence was noticed (without her passport, she'd be limited to the States). But if the sightings are to be believed, she was talking to herself outside the hotel less than three hours before her husband started to worry, and was shopping in New Jersey the next day.
"As far as leaving, doing this voluntarily, she wouldn't have done that to me and my sister," says Craig. "That was always a big thing growing up: if you're lost, or you're going to be late, it's not a big deal, just make sure you call, because not knowing is the worst thing."
That leaves mental incapacitation.
Late last month, a 27-year-old Ontario woman was reunited with her family almost three weeks after leaving for a planned trip to Minnesota, and two weeks after wandering into an Orlando, FL, hospital complaining of a severe headache and inability to recall who she was and how she got there. An Orlando station aired her plea for information about her identity, and a Minneapolis station that had been following the story rushed a tape of the segment to her family.
Such stories give Judy's family hope. Still, amnesia and other memory-altering conditions known as disassociative disorders are exceedingly rare.
Generalized amnesia, in which all or most details of a person's life are forgotten, can follow an emotional or physical trauma; in the latter case, possible triggers include a serious blow to the head or a stroke. (Coincidentally, Judy underwent a complete physical just two weeks before her disappearance. Though Jeffrey still has not been able to obtain her medical records, her insurance company finally revealed, after considerable coaxing and a threat of a lawsuit, that she appeared to be in good health.)
But the amnesia theory raises perplexing questions as well.
"If it's just a matter of memory, she can still ask for help," says Dr. Barry Rovner, professor of psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University. Even someone who can't recall her name probably "would have the wherewithal to go to someone a police officer for help."
Even if you assume the impairment is so pervasive it's affecting her judgment, you still have to wonder how she's surviving. If she lacks the sense to seek help, how is she finding enough to eat? What would have compelled her, in such a state, to catch a bus to the Deptford Mall?
Furthermore, amnesia brought on by physical trauma doesn't leave the victim "intact in every other way," as typically portrayed in soap operas and movies, Rovner adds. The trigger whether a stroke or diabetes or a head injury almost certainly would have caused other noticeable symptoms.
There is the possibility of a psychological cause. When actress Margot Kidder was hospitalized after several days of hiding in bushes and eating from trash cans, she was suffering from manic depression, Rovner says. A severe personality disorder can bring on memory loss or persuade the person to act that way but such a condition doesn't erupt spontaneously at age 50. And the same questions about survival still apply.
The theory "just starts to sound improbable, from a clinical standpoint," Rovner says.
Jeffrey Smith knows all of this. Upon returning to Boston in April, he consulted a neurologist who told him all the same things.
"I have nightmares about it, that she's been abducted off the streets of Philadelphia," he admits. "Most of them are waking nightmares, unfortunately. There's very little that doesn't remind me of her in one sense or another, that doesn't make me sad and frightened at the same time."
The possibility that she fled seems almost comforting in comparison.
"Somebody asked me recently how I would feel if, in fact, she had left voluntarily, and the answer is I'd be overjoyed if I could find her."
Jeffrey Smith returned to Philadelphia in mid-May to follow up on a few issues with the police that he says still have not been addressed to his satisfaction.
One involves the FBI. Simply put, Smith wants the agency brought into the case. But according to Lt. Michael Ryan of Central Detectives, the police department has not made the request because the case doesn't fit the criteria.
Local FBI spokeswoman Special Agent Linda Visi says Ryan's correct. "We can only get involved when there's a violent crime, and when the police would need our assistance for specific reasons, like following up leads in another jurisdiction," Visi explains.
Smith's other complaint, which both infuriates and haunts him to this day, involves the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a database used by law enforcement officials at all levels across the country. Smith says Ryan told him shortly after Judy's disappearance that her name and description had been entered into "the national computer system"; Smith took him to mean the NCIC. But weeks later, Smith says, he "got a hint" he won't elaborate that Judy was not in the NCIC system.
To find out, he asked for a copy of her NCIC printout, but was given something altogether different. He then demanded that she be entered, and she was. The next day.
"There was a misunderstanding," says Ryan, who confirms that Judy wasn't entered until "sometime in May." He opts diplomatically, perhaps not to elaborate.
"The problem with this," says Jeffrey, "is if, in fact, she were wandering around disoriented... and had come into contact with a police authority, a hospital, a mental institution, in the month between April 11, the day [the Philadelphia police] took the report, and May 15, when they actually entered her in the system, no one would be able to make a match."
"I find this very frightening to believe, but it is theoretically possible that she is sitting somewhere, that someone put in a request to the NCIC system in that month, got a negative [response] and... There's no way to know. And it's very frustrating."
Recently, however, the Philadelphia Police Department launched a renewed effort to find Judy Smith.
Sweeney has been authorized to re-investigate the case, tracking all of her known steps from the airport and talking again to every witness who reported seeing her. A summary of the case is being distributed to media outlets by the department's public affairs unit, and led to the Associated Press article carried last week by the Allentown Morning Call and, more locally, the Daily News. (At press time, the Atlantic City sighting was the only new report to result.)
With luck, coverage by a national television show will follow. None has bitten so far, but Jeffrey remains hopeful.
In the meantime, he will continue to wait.
"In an odd kind of way it's been getting worse instead of better," he sighs, his mouth contorting slightly as if he's struggling to maintain his composure. "I had things to do before, and even though they were frustrating and time-consuming... at least they were time-consuming. I think one of the reasons I went back to Philadelphia [in May] was I had kind of run out of things to do back here."
"I think I coped better the first couple of weeks. Maybe my hopes were higher. I had that hope that what I was doing might accomplish something."
Missing The Point: Statistics can't tell the whole story of how many people wind up like Judith Smith.
Smithspotting (7/24/97), Found (10/2/97), The Boys From Buncombe (10/9/97)