July 2431, 1997
By Howard Altman
The only thing better than a mystery is solving it.
Just hours after City Paper publishes Frank Lewis' story about Judith Smith, who vanished in April, the phones start ringing with possible solutions.
The first call comes from a friend of mine, who says that, unbeknownst to me, she has, for lack of a better term, psychic powers. The friend says she had a vision, back in April, about the missing woman, but was too disturbed by it to do anything until reading Lewis' piece.
The vision, says my friend, was of a woman lying near a pile of tires, near a large, tan-colored wall. She was wearing a raincoat and a red scarf. She was most likely dead.
I suggest we drive around, looking for tire piles, of which there are more than a few in this city. We drive around Kensington and Port Richmond and, after a few wrong turns, come across what looks to be a scene right out of my friend's vision.
There are tires. And a large, tan-colored wall.
We look around for a bit, in this morbid hunt, but are shooed away from the property by its owners.
"Don't you think that if a body were here that long we would have smelled it by now, especially on a sweltering day like today?" says the property owner.
On Sunday, there is another call. The woman from the Society Hill Hotel is sure that she has the answer.
"She was here," says hotel manager Abby Gainer.
After reading Lewis' piece, Gainer says she knew right away that the wacky woman who would talk to herself in tongues was Smith.
"I saw the picture and read the article and I just know it's her," says Gainer, adding that the would-be Judith Smith stayed at the hotel between Tuesday and Thursday of last week. "She was kind of our weirdo of the week."
Gainer was not alone in determining the guest was Smith. Rachel Roesly and Jenny Merrill, waitresses in the hotel restaurant, remember the woman vividly and say, like Gainer, that she was indeed the same woman profiled by Lewis.
A woman whose stay at the Society Hill Hotel might have been longer, except for a couple of incidents, says Gainer.
The first was Wednesday night, when the woman began masturbating in front of a window.
The second was when she had trouble coming up with the funds for a third night's stay.
Gainer says that on Thursday morning before she had a chance to read Lewis' story the woman, who signed in as "H. K. Rich/Collins," asked to stay a third night. The hotel owner, says Gainer, was fine with that. But the woman didn't have any money.
Gainer says she told the woman that the hotel accepted credit cards and that there was a nearby cash machine.
The woman, says Gainer, started yelling in a loud, shrill voice, something about going to ask the emperor to wire her money via Western Union. She then snuck past the front desk and back into her room, then left the hotel early the next day.
"She had conversations with emperors, with Bob Dole," says Gainer, adding that she returned the woman's belongings when the woman returned the room key on Friday.
Not that there was much to bargain about.
"The only thing she had was a scarf. A nice, expensive-looking scarf. It was black with camels and light, red roses. It was the only thing she had."
Though upset that she didn't realize the woman might be Smith until it was too late, Gainer says that she had been sighted before and would probably be sighted again.
"We'll keep an eye out and let you know," she says, adding that hers is not the only area hotel with a Smith sighting.
"Try the Best Western, down the street. They saw her, too."
Tyrone Taylor, Best Western concierge, says that the woman came to his hotel on Wednesday, to use the phone.
"It was about 4:30 p.m.," says Taylor. "She was talking loudly, something about asking for money from the emperor of China."
Everything else matched as well.
Like Gainer, he describes the woman as a heavyset blond with thick makeup and glasses with tape on them. A bit wacky, but no vagrant.
Before I leave the Best Western, Taylor promises to call me if he sees her again.
When I get to work the next morning, there is a message on my machine from Taylor.
"She came in. I offered her a room and called the police. You should come on over."
When I call Taylor, he tells me the whole thing was a false alarm.
"We offered her a room and called police," he says. "But when the police came, they decided that the woman was not Judith Smith."
There was another alleged Smith sighting, this one near Rittenhouse Square. That seems more promising to Jeffrey Smith, Judith's husband, whom Judith accompanied to Philadelphia on a business trip before disappearing.
Frank Lewis calls Ed Geigert, the local private eye working for Jeffrey Smith, to ask about the Society Hill Hotel sighting. Geigert tells Lewis that a guy named Victor Fiorello contacted Smith on Friday after seeing a woman looking remarkably like the picture of Judith Smith on the front of City Paper.
"It was about 5:55 a.m.," says Fiorello. "I was on my way to work at Blue Cross when I was coming out of the Wawa at 20th and Locust. What caught my attention was a fairly well-dressed, older white woman who was sitting outside a gourmet grocery store. It caught my attention because it was so early in the morning and you don't normally see that."
After realizing that he had seen her face before, in the newspaper, Fiorello says he called 911 from work.
Jeffrey Smith has mixed feelings about all the people who think they see his missing wife.
Smith tells me the same thing he told Lewis: there is a homeless woman in the Old City/Penn's Landing area bearing a remarkable resemblance to Judith.
The Rittenhouse Square sighting "is the one I am concerned about," he says.
"That seems to have more potential."
Either way, it has been a difficult three months.
"In one sense, I can understand why the police haven't told me about all the sightings," Smith says. "On the other hand, I want to be appraised. This has all been very rough. But if you find anything out, please let me know."
If you think you've seen Judith Smith, contact private investigator Ed Geigert at 806-1067.
Missing (7/17/97), Missing The Point (7/17/97)
Found (10/2/97), The Boys From Buncombe (10/9/97)