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Two years after Sage Smith’s disappearance, family wants answers over discrepancies in missing person cases

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Courteney Stuart
November 19, 2014

In September, days after 18-year-old UVA student Hannah Graham disappeared, the City of Charlottesville donated $10,000 to the reward fund for information in her case. This week, two years after 2011 Charlottesville High School graduate Sage Smith disappeared, city officials announced they would add $10,000 to the reward fund in her case as well. The then 19-year-old transgender woman, who at the time of her disappearance also used her birth name, Dashad Smith, vanished on November 20, 2012, after making plans to meet an acquaintance and last being seen by witnesses on West Main Street. City officials claim the delay in the donation resulted from a misunderstanding and that they always intended for the two cases to be treated equally. To Smith’s family and friends, however, the delay is simply fresh evidence of the stark difference between the way Smith and Graham’s cases have been treated by police, media, city officials and the public.

“Where are the stories about my grandchild? Where are the thousands of volunteers?” said Smith’s grandmother, Lolita “Cookie” Smith, sitting in the living room of her small Orangedale Avenue duplex on a recent afternoon. She described the pain she experienced daily while watching the historic and unprecedented five-week search for Graham, and the wall-to-wall national media coverage of the case that ultimately helped law enforcement track her accused abductor, Jesse Matthew, to a deserted beach in Galveston, Texas.

She said she doesn’t want to take away from the attention on other high-profile cases, but she wants the same effort put into the search for her grandchild.

“Sage was not given a drop in the bucket of what other people got,” she said. “I can’t see how one person’s life is more valuable, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation or ability to pay.”

Lolita Smith had been battling breast cancer at the time of Smith’s disappearance, and in recent months she has suffered a cascade of additional health woes, including congestive heart failure, which her doctors attribute in large part, she said, to stress and grief. In August, she underwent a triple bypass, and at press time, days after giving an interview for this story, she was back in intensive care.

Smith’s father is also wracked with grief and anger, much of it directed at police and, in particular, Chief Tim Longo, whose emotional presence at press conferences during the search for Hannah Graham prompted both praise for his compassion and suggestions that the case had become too personal for him in the national media.

“You got people in this community thinking Chief Longo is racist,” said Dean Smith. “I don’t think he’s racist—not no black and white thing. I think he’s classist. Tell him, shed some tears for the other ones that’s missing.”

Longo declined a request for an interview for this story, but Charlottesville Police Captain Gary Pleasants defends the department’s handling of the investigation, which began with targeted searches along West Main Street and on the Corner in the days after Smith vanished, and expanded to a Richmond-area landfill a month later. No sign of Smith was found, and although police have named now 23-year-old Erik McFadden as a person of interest who’d been planning to meet Smith on the evening she vanished, they say they have been unable to locate him. He left town soon after Smith was reported missing, and had a single phone conversation with a detective in which he denied meeting with her. According to Pleasants, phone records in the case indicate McFadden may have met with Smith, and information obtained in the investigation suggests he may have since traveled to South Carolina and Georgia. According to police, his family says they have not heard from him but have not reported him missing.

“Erik McFadden cannot be compelled to either speak with us or come anywhere with us at this point,” said Pleasants in an e-mail. “The FBI and Marshal’s service do not have jurisdiction in this case and cannot be the lead on it or on any search, however, they can and are using their resources at our request.”

C-VILLE legal analyst David Heilberg said McFadden isn’t breaking any laws by avoiding police contact.

“He’s a witness, that’s all he is,” said Heilberg, who is not connected to the case.

But former Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Deaton said declaring Smith’s case a criminal investigation rather than a missing person case could open up new avenues of investigation and additional resources, giving police probable cause to gain access to McFadden’s previously used e-mail and social media accounts and to conduct any other searches that might be relevant. “Especially since Sage has been missing for two years now—that fact makes the probable cause even stronger,” said Deaton.

Pleasants, however, said a change in status is unnecessary. “We are currently able to retrieve all needed information with it still being listed as a missing person case,” he said.

Smith’s family members are not alone in their struggle to understand why their loved one’s case isn’t receiving more aggressive law enforcement treatment or being covered by national news outlets. Natalie Wilson, executive director of the Landover Hills, Maryland-based nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation, has been working with Smith’s family to raise awareness around the case.

“We are not trying to dishonor anyone that’s missing, but with minorities, we’re not getting the awareness and attention,” said Wilson. Forty percent of all persons missing are of color, she said, and the reduced attention to minority cases is a complex issue that permeates every aspect of a case, starting with investigators and then carrying on into media coverage and public response.

“I think it’s full circle,” said Wilson. “We all have a responsibility in helping to find our missing.” She said police often classify minority children as runaways, and that media are less likely to cover such stories. But she added that communities have a responsibility to get involved and give voice to their outrage when someone disappears.

“We have to hold the gatekeepers accountable, but we are important as well,” she said. “I don’t think the minority community understands that so many minorities go missing.”

Smith’s identity as a black, transgendered woman placed her in another minority group that is disproportionately victimized, according to Donna Gasapo, an activist who has been supporting Smith’s family since her disappearance.

Gasapo is part of a group of activists who spoke before City Council on Monday, November 17, demanding an explanation for the reward discrepancy and a renewed effort on the part of city officials to demand a more aggressive investigation.

“We know this city has the resources to conduct meaningful active missing persons investigations,” said Frank Richards. “We demand no less for Sage.”

City Manager Maurice Jones said he believes police have worked hard to find Smith, and he notes the police department spent $150,000 of city funds and countless hours on the search for Smith. He did not have a comparable figure available for Hannah Graham, but he pointed to the discrepancy in media coverage both locally and nationally as contributing to the sense that not enough is being done for Smith.

“Sage’s case certainly did not catch the eye of the national or state media in the same way Hannah’s disappearance did,” said Jones.

The delay in the reward money, Jones said, resulted from confusion in the police department. An anonymous donor gave $10,000 to the city for the reward in Sage’s case and the city then wrote a check for that amount to Crimestoppers. Jones said when he was approached by police with a request for a donation in the Hannah Graham case, he told them the amount should be the same as the city gave in Smith’s case. Police told him the city had given $10,000 for Smith, not realizing the money had actually come from a donor. In an internal memo sent November 14 to Jones and city spokesperson Miriam Dickler, Pleasants explains and apologizes.

“The information we provided the City Manager was incorrect, however we did not realize that at the time,” he wrote. “We were in the midst of the Graham investigation and truly believed we were remembering the facts correctly from two years ago.”

Gasapo called the timing of the explanation “suspicious” and said it provides an opportunity for increased awareness and a chance to elevate support for Smith and her family.

“You have just shown us what this city is capable of doing in response to a missing person case,” said Gasapo. “You have shown us the extent to which resources are available. Why weren’t these things made available to us two years ago? It’s imperative for Sage and her safety that this community show up for the family now.”

A vigil for Sage Smith will be held outside the home of Smith’s grandmother at 731 Orangedale Avenue at 7pm on Thursday, November 20.

Anyone with information about Erik McFadden’s whereabouts or the investigation should call police at 970-3369 or Crimestoppers at 977-4000. The reward for information leading to Smith’s safe return or an arrest in the case is now $20,000.

Photo credit: Charlottesville police

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