October 916, 1997
Det. Lt. Sam Constance outside the Pisgah View Ranch.
Howard Altman/City Paper
The Boys From Buncombe
Tracking the Judith Smith murder mystery in the mountains of North Carolina.
By Howard Altman
ASHEVILLE, NCBobby Medford, a tall, craggy-faced version of Gary Cooper, puts his left hand on his left hip and limps at a pretty good clip down the hallway of the converted schoolhouse that serves as headquarters for the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department, a 317-employee operation responsible for enforcing the law in this 672-square-mile county.
During his 28 years on the force, Medford has seen a lot of strange things.
But nothing, he says, as strange as the case of Judith Bradford Smith, the 50-year-old nurse from Newton, MA, whose body was discovered partially buried on a hillside in this rural, mountainous Western North Carolina county.
"It's a real mystery," says Medford, whose easy smile cuts through the shooting pain of recent back surgery. "What's a woman from Massachusetts, who disappeared from Philadelphia, doing in the woods of Western North Carolina?"
It is a mystery that has Medford and his team of detectives at once baffled, frustrated and totally enthralled. And Medford is the perfect embodiment of just how much the discovery of Smith's body has affected his department.
As a cop, he says there are no greater thrills than finding the answers to the questions raised when hunters discovered Smith's skeletal remains on Sept. 7. As a manager, he says it is a tremendous juggling act between solving this crime and dealing with all the other problems in the county.
But it's as a man with a bad back that Medford really tells the story of how crazy life has become at the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department since Smith's bones were discovered.
About the same time that Smith allegedly disappeared from Philadelphia on April 10, Medford underwent back surgery. He was supposed to take it easy for a long time. Then the bones were discovered. And Medford ditched his convalescence, spending nearly four days on a steep hill, on bended knee, sifting through the leaf-covered forest floor looking for clues, finally digging with spoons and toothbrushes to find something, anything, that would tell him what happened.
It proved to be more than his mended back could take.
Soon after cops finished scouring the crime scene, Medford went in for more surgery.
"I was supposed to be in for an hour and a half," says Medford, the pain still evident as he makes his way to the offices of the Criminal Investigation Division. "It wound up taking four hours. Turns out I got a crushed sciatica nerve. From being up on that mountain. This is one hell of a case."
Outside, in a field that abuts the sprawling Biltmore Estate, where tourists pay 30 bucks a head to see how the rich once lived, deer amble out of the woods at dusk to munch on the wildflowers. Inside, down in the basement, detectives of the Criminal Investigation Division go about the grisly business of tracking down robbers and rapists and arsonists and, every so often, a killer.
Every year, the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department investigates about a half dozen murders.
To date, the department has solved every one.
Lt. Sam Constance is leading the search for Judy Smith's killer. To keep that perfect record intact.
There is not much in the way of frivolity or color on the white cinderblock walls of Constance's office, which is fitting for a man who worries so much about how his department spends its money that he found a local chain of Citgo gas stations to sell gas cheaper than at Asheville's city pumps.
That's not to say the office is devoid of charm.
Orange and yellow drawings from his daughter Brooklyn's Lion King coloring book adorn the gray, four-drawer metal filing cabinet along the wall to the right of his desk. (Constance has two daughters, Brooklyn, 7, and Savannah Marie, 18 months. "I guess we got stuck on those city names," he says.)
On the wall facing him is a poster extolling the virtues of risk.
"To conquer without risk is to triumph without glory."
Behind his desk is a matching poster, extolling perseverance.
"There is no substitute for hard work."
Constance is no stranger to either risk or perseverance.
At 30, he is in charge of the most baffling mystery his department has ever encountered. His rise, from the department's auxiliary force six years ago to second in command of the detective squad, has been both meteoric and dangerous.
He made his bones on the narcotics squad, where he spent three years working long hours undercover, putting his life on the line as he delved into the world of Buncombe County's crack dealers and pot growers.
It was good experience, he says. But it was very hard on his family.
Being undercover meant being out late at night. The danger and the distance created a strain.
A strain, he adds, revisited when he broke the news to his wife about his upcoming trip to Boston and Philadelphia, where he and Det. Steve Fredrickson will try and pick up Judith Smith's trail.
Like Sheriff Bobby Medford's back pain, Constance's troubles on the homefront highlight the stress the Judith Smith case has placed on the department.
"I was supposed to babysit the kids this weekend," Constance says with a deep shrug of spousal and paternal guilt. "But now I have to go away."
Grabbing his blue blazer, Constance rushes out to his red Taurus, parked in the lot. His jaw tightens with tension.
There is much to be done in the next 48 hours, before he and Fredrickson head north. Other cases to take care of, like the one where two men and two women from Georgia began shooting up Buncombe County last month.
It doesn't help, either, that, all of a sudden, the FBI is breathing down his back about Smith.
There are still many, many interviews to be conducted for the Smith case. Hotel, motel and campground operators to question. Bus station and airport personnel to quiz. Constance wants his detectives to plaster the county with newly arrived pictures of Judith Smith in the hope that someone can tell them something about her.
Constance and his detectives must determine how and when Judy Smith made it from Philly to Buncombe County. They must figure out why.
And, especially, who killed her.
So far, those questions have gone largely unanswered.
It wasn't until the last weekend in September, more than two weeks after the remains were discovered, that officials at the medical examiner's office were able to make a positive ID.
But no one can say for sure that they saw her in Buncombe County, a problem eerily similar to the one faced by Philadelphia Police trying to determine if she had ever been there.
"This whole case is intriguing," says Constance as he begins to drive the dozen-odd miles from his office to the twisting two-lane road with the beautiful view of Mount Pisgah that might have been the last road Judith Smith ever saw. "It's real good? I mean bad. It's bad, what happened to her, but it is a good case. Challenging. You get to use everything you've learned. Just last month, I went to a homicide school in Nashville put on by the University of North Florida. This is a good chance to use what I learned there."
As he drives past strip malls and convenience stores, onto I-40 west, Constance talks about the importance of conducting his own investigations up North even though police in Newton and Philadelphia have already covered that territory.
"It's not that we are uncomfortable with what the Philadelphia Police have done," says Constance. "It's just that we want to cross the T's from our end, too."
Constance says he wants to subpoena Judith Smith's financial records, to see if she has any connections to Buncombe County. He wants to talk to Judith's husband, Jeffrey Smith, personally, to see up close how Smith, considered a suspect by Philadelphia Police, handles himself under scrutiny.
"Mr. Smith has promised that he will cooperate with us," says Constance. "So far, he has. We are not considering anyone a suspect at this point because we don't want to paint ourselves into a corner."
Constance says he is hoping the husband can provide some pictures of Judy's missing jewelry that he can take back to Buncombe County to distribute to pawn shops.
Constance says he also wants to talk to the children, to see if they can add any information.
"There's a connection here," says Constance. "But did she end up here by accident, or did she come down on her own free will?"
Between Boston and Philly, Constance says he will take a side trip to Long Island, to visit Smith's first husband.
"Maybe he can shed some light on this," Constance says.
In Philly, Constance and Fredrickson will subpoena the DoubleTree's records, to see if there is anything there that can shed light on whether she was ever in Philly. Staying there overnight, courtesy of the hotel, the two detectives, like a couple of Carolina bloodhounds, will see if they can pick up Smith's scent.
The frugal detective adds one more piece of information to the mix.
"We're not flying out of Asheville, we're flying out of Atlanta," he says. "We'll save the county about $700 apiece."
The Jerseyesque collection of hotels, motels and fast food joints along Route 19-23 quickly fades away once Constance makes a left onto Pisgah View Road.
It is like a left-hand turn into another time.
The road winds slowly higher, up to about 4,000 feet, as it heads south to Mount Pisgah. Old homes and churches, forests and fields of tobacco blur by.
"It really is beautiful out here," says Constance, who is at once enjoying the scenery, keeping the car on the road and looking out for campgrounds or guest farms where Smith might have stayed.
"She liked the outdoors," says Constance. "We know that. We also found animal hairs on some of her clothing. We know that Smith liked horses. There's a horse farm up the road I want to check out. Maybe they saw Smith."
Constance's first stop is at the Mountain Springs Cabins and Chalets, off to the left, alongside a trout stream, which he looks at with envy.
Before getting out of the car, he puts on the blue blazer, a ritual at every stop.
"Great fishing up here," he says, walking up the path to the front door.
Inside, the phone rings. Lights flash.
"The owner must be deaf," he surmises.
He gets to the screen door of the main cabin, opens it and introduces himself to Sarah Jones, the elderly woman who owns the place.
Another woman, Jones' assistant, tells Constance to talk slowly and directly to Jones, who can and does read lips.
"My name is Sam Constance. I'm a detective with the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office. I'm here to ask if you have ever seen this woman."
Constance hands Jones a picture of Smith. But it is clear by the puzzled look on her face that Jones is having a tough time reading his lips.
Constance explains again that he is looking for Smith and that she may have registered under one of three names: Eldridge, her first husband's name; Bradford, her second husband's name; or Smith.
"I've got good books," says Jones, promising to check them. Then she offers a piece of tantalizing information.
There is a trail, out back, she says, that leads all the way up the mountain, to the crime scene.
Constance thanks her for taking the time and heads back to the Taurus.
"We'll have to check that out, walk up the trail and see where it leads," he says, adding one more thing to his to-do list, which is what he was hoping for when he came out here today.
As he continues south, toward the Pisgah View Ranch just down the road, Constance discounts any abduction theories.
"I think she was here on her own free will," he says. "It doesn't look like she was kidnapped."
And that, he adds, "would make it less likely that [Jeffrey] Smith was involved."
He does not elaborate, hesitant to give too much away.
Changing the subject, Constance says that there is a chance Judith Smith might have been this way before. He says Jeffrey called him back after talking with her daughter, who remembered that Judith had once driven an elderly patient "somewhere down south, maybe North Carolina." Constance says he is trying to track down that man's daughter, to see if she knows if Judith took her dad to Buncombe County, which would establish a prior contact with the area.
A few minutes later, Constance pulls into the long driveway leading to the main house of the Pisgah View Ranch. It is a beautiful, old wooden building that delivers mightily on the promise of its name.
Aside from the view, the ranch is famous for its hospitality, its food and its horses.
It is the latter that makes Constance think that Judy Smith might have checked in here.
"She was known to have a fondness for race horses," he says, reiterating that the hairs found on her clothing might belong to a horse.
Before getting out of the car, he stops to listen to the squawky chatter over the police radio.
It is a report of a stolen car.
"I like to keep on top of things," he says, before finally turning off the radio, putting on his blue blazer and walking to the ranch house.
Inside, Constance is greeted warmly by Phyllis Parris and her assistant, Blyn Viduck.
Parris knows Constance's parents and tells him they have a reservation coming up.
He smiles and then goes into his spiel, about Judith Smith and the three names. Parris looks at Smith's picture, says it "looks like someone we met" and begins checking guest logs. Viduck checks the stable logs.
"You know, this might take a while," says Parris, proud that, unlike many places these days, her logs are handwritten, not computerized.
Constance thanks the women and says he will check in next week.
"These are good people," he says. "I don't want to bug them. If they say they will help, they will help."
It is a short drive from the ranch to the Rocky Point picnic area, where, up the mountain, Smith's remains were found.
Constance pulls up to the dirt parking area, dons the blazer and, as soon as he steps out of the car, is hit by the strong smell of marijuana, which appears to be coming from the couple sitting with two small children at a picnic bench.
"I'm here about the Judith Smith case, she was found here, you know," says Constance, who, as a former undercover narc, is clearly bugged, both by the smell and by the fact that he is so bugged.
"I'm not here to bug you about marijuana, but have you been smoking?" he asks.
Both the man and the woman deny smoking pot and the woman sighs loudly that of all the places to hang out, "I can't believe I picked the place where that lady was found."
The man is visibly upset, pours out the bottle of wine the two were sharing and gets ready to leave. Constance asks them to empty their pockets, frisks the man and checks the woman's cigarette pack.
No joints, no bags, just the pungent smell of dope in the woods near a murder scene.
After the couple leave, Constance, still bugged, says regardless of how people feel about drugs, they should never do them in front of kids. With that, he gets back into the car and drives up the road, to a shortcut leading to where Smith was buried.
Stepping out of the car, Constance grumbles about how the mud will dirty up the shoes he just had shined for his trip.
As he walks up the hill, across two small, muddy streams, Constance says there is no way the portly Jeffrey Smith, or anyone else for that matter, dragged Judith, a big woman in her own right, up the mountain.
Standing under a canopy of pines and locusts and maples, Constance refuses to walk the last few feet to the rocky outcrop, created by a fallen tree, where Smith was buried.
Maybe it's the memory of spending 12, 14, 16 hours a day on his hands and knees, scouring the woods for clues.
Maybe it's the thought of Smith's skull found halfway down the hill, separated from her lower jaw which was found in the gravesite.
He won't say why.
He just won't go.
"Someone knows what happened," he says, looking up the hill. "Someone is out there."
Walking back down the hill, through the mud, over the streams, Constance gets back in the car and is greeted by the crackle of the radio.
He drives up the winding, torturous road leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway so that he can make a cell-phone call to his office.
The FBI, he learns, wants to get involved.
While he appreciates any help he can get, he is not pleased to learn that the feds want to set things up.
"This is our case," he says. "Now they want to get involved? Don't get me wrong, we need help, but it isn't very helpful to have someone else set up your interviews for you. I want to be able to follow the trail as it unfolds. It will be a lot harder if the feds are setting things up for me."
Clearly annoyed, Constance heads back down the hill, past the picnic area, back to civilization, where he has kept the DA waiting.
"So much to do," he says. "So little time."
Epilogue 1: Sightings
Friday morning, Constance discounts any chance that Judith Smith stayed at the Mountain Springs Cabins and Chalet. But there were two positive sightings.
A woman at a Christmas store at the Biltmore estate says she definitely saw a woman matching Smith's description back in April. Constance says this is a solid witness.
The operator of Big Cove Campground, a few miles west of Pisgah View Road, also reported seeing a woman matching Smith's description. She pulled into the campground in a gray sedan filled with bags and boxes. She wanted to know if she could spend the night in her car and drove away when informed she couldn't.
The information about the gray sedan matches information I gathered when I drove back up Pisgah View Road on my own Friday afternoon.
Diane Crowell, owner of Crowell's Deli, tells me that a woman who looked like Smith stopped by in April, bought $30 worth of sandwiches and a toy truck. She was driving a gray sedan.
"That's her," Crowell tells me as I show her the picture on the cover of our July 11 issue. "I know she came in here."
Back in his office, Constance, now dressed in shorts and about ready to leave for Atlanta, is interested in Crowell's story.
He is less interested in the story residents of Pisgah View Road told me about Smith being in the area to visit two nurses who lived in a house near where her body was found.
"We don't think there is a connection there," he says, before heading out the door.
Epilogue II: The News from Newton
Wednesday morning, Bobby Medford calls me.
Constance and Fredrickson interviewed Jeffrey Smith for five hours. He was very cooperative and agreed to take a lie detector test, but couldn't at the moment because he was on medication.
They also interviewed the children, as well as Judith Smith's first husband. Constance and Fredrickson didn't show up in Philly on Tuesday night as scheduled because they had to make a detour to check up on a lead.
Does any of this change Jeffrey Smith's status as a potential suspect?
"No," says Medford. "It's still a mystery."
Missing (7/17/97), Missing The Point (7/17/97), Smithspotting (7/24/97), Found (10/2/97)