Some mysterious disappearances and deaths seem to draw in all manner of oddities and strange clues. In September of 1996, fifty-year-old Judy Smith, born Judith “Judy” Eldridge, was the happiest she’d been in a long time. After two unhappy, failed marriages, one which had left her divorced, without a job, and with two small children to raise alone, she had finally married her true love, a successful lawyer by the name of Jeffrey Smith, who she had dated for around 10 years. The two had met as she had been taking care of his dying father as a home-care nurse, and it had been love at first sight. In April of 1997, the two newlyweds planned a trip together to Philadelphia for a pharmaceutical conference her husband planned to attend, but it was also a bit of a getaway for the two, something they had been looking forward to, with them planning to spend the rest of the week after the conference visiting friends in nearby New Jersey and having some fun. On April 9, 1997, they arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and from there would unfold a series of strange events that would lead to tragedy and a great unsolved mystery.
At Logan, they had a bit of bad luck when Judy realized that she had forgotten her ID, making her unable to get on their scheduled flight. It was reluctantly decided that Jeffrey would proceed to Philadelphia, and that she would take a later flight and meet up with him later. The two would meet in Philadelphia that evening without a hitch, and the next day Jeffrey went to the conference while Judy went off to do a bit of sightseeing on her own, planning on visiting Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The two made plans to meet back at the hotel at 5 p.m., after which they were to meet some friends for dinner. At the time it was the most normal thing in the world, with no reason to suspect that anything out of the ordinary would happen. They parted with a kiss, and Judy headed off at 9 a.m. with the red backpack she always carried, but little did anyone know that this would be their last goodbye.
That evening, Jeffrey got back to the room at 5:30 p.m. but Judy wasn’t there. At first he just assumed that she was running late, but when an hour went by with still no sign of her, he became worried. He then thought she might have attended a party downstairs and lost track of the time, but when he checked the gathering she was nowhere to be seen. He grabbed a taxi and traced the route her tour bus had taken, hoping that somehow he would spot her, but it was in vain, and so he contacted the authorities. They were told that it was too soon to declare her as a missing person, but the situation was made more serious when the following morning arrived and she still had not. Jeffrey would complain to then Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell and John Perzel, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, about the lack of official action being taken, and detectives were put on the case. A preliminary search of the area turned up nothing, calls to hospitals were futile, and as the days wore on, flyers were posted everywhere as the disappearance became a high profile case that was splashed all over the media.
With this added publicity, over the days and ensuing weeks there were numerous sightings of the missing woman from around Philadelphia and beyond. In many of these cases, she was described as looking confused and disoriented or behaving strangely. Staff at the Society Hill Hotel claimed she had stayed there and that she was so bizarre that they called her their “weirdo of the week,” apparently masturbating in front of an open window, gesticulating while naked, speaking in gibberish, and claiming that she was going to have money wired to her from “the emperor.” These sightings ran the range, from her wandering aimlessly, to eating at restaurants and shopping for clothes, but none of them led anywhere, and police wondered if any of these tips were useful or credible at all. They originally suspected that she had had some sort of mental breakdown or midlife crisis and had run off, but as the weeks passed by, the investigation was beginning to shine suspicion on Jeffrey, with detectives starting to wonder if she had ever even been in Philadelphia at all. Talking to hotel staff showed that only one employee could corroborate Judy having stayed there, and it was claimed that police had found the very few articles of women’s clothes in the room to have been unworn, and there were no cosmetics. One detective on the case would say of this line of investigation:
I don’t think she’s in Philadelphia any longer, if she ever was. We had a lot of people searching; if she was here very long, we would have found her. Or if something happened to her, we would have found her body. She was supposedly here one night, then went off by herself the next morning. But she had friends at the convention, and nobody saw her. There were so many strange coincidences you don’t know what to think. She didn’t get on the plane with him. They meet in the lobby. They go to breakfast separately. And she doesn’t have much female stuff in the hotel room. When you look at the statistics, 85 to 90 percent of females who are murdered are killed by someone very close to them: a family member, spouse, boyfriend. Statistically, we have to look at Jeffrey Smith as a suspect, until it’s proven that he is not a suspect.
Police also claimed that Jeffrey had refused to take a lie detector test, and that he had acted “suspiciously” under questioning, although they did not elaborate. Of course Jeffrey, as well as both his and Judy’s friends and family, adamantly denied that he had had anything to do with it, or that he would ever willingly hurt his wife. They were described as happy and in love, looking forward to a future together, and furthermore Jeffrey was morbidly overweight and plagued with numerous health issues, making it seem unlikely he would have attacked her physically. In the end there was no hard evidence to charge him with anything, indeed with no body there was no evidence any crime had been committed at all. Other theories were that she had been kidnapped or committed suicide, but there was nothing to point to this, she was an unassuming, had no enemies, and was not a suicidal person. There could be found no obvious reason for why she had vanished, and the months ground on with no sign of Judy except sporadic sightings. However, this was all about to take a strange and tragic twist.
Five months after Judy had vanished, a father and son out hunting stumbled across the macabre sight of human remains out in a remote area in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. The skeletal remains of a woman appeared to have at one time been buried in a shallow grave, but some had been strewn about by scavengers. What was obvious is that the body had been wrapped in a blue blanket, and that there were noticeable punctures and lacerations to the bra, which suggested the victim had been stabbed in the chest, but the cause of death was never determined. There were also found a backpack and nearly $200 in cash, as well as a pair of Bolle’s sunglasses and a diamond wedding ring. At the time there was no connection at all made between these remains and Judy’s disappearance, so everyone was in for quite a shock.
When dental records were checked, the remains were found to be those of the missing Judy Smith, but this was baffling for many reasons. One was that the location where her body was found was 600 miles from where she had last been seen, and furthermore there was no reason for her at all to have wanted to come to North Carolina, let along hike way out into the remote, forbidding wilderness. According to Jeffrey, the blue backpack and sunglasses were not hers, although the wedding ring was. It was also seen as odd that the red backpack she had been wearing when she had vanished , and which she always wore, was nowhere to be seen. Oddly, the clothes she had been wearing when she died were not those she had last been seen with in Philadelphia, and they were also new hiking clothes, including jeans, thermal underwear, and hiking boots, that had all recently been purchased, leading police to believe that she had actually bought the clothes in North Carolina and then hiked out to that spot rather than just being dumped there. Dumping also seemed to be unlikely because the spot was in a rough area far from the nearest road. What was going on here?
Making it all even stranger was that there were found to be at least four witnesses in the Asheville, North Carolina area who claimed to have spotted Judy in town. One was a retail clerk who actually spoke to her when she had come in to do some shopping just a few days after she would have vanished in Pennsylvania, and she said of this encounter:
She seemed very alert to me. She was very pleasant. I didn’t see anything about her that would indicate that she wasn’t right in any way. She told me her husband was an attorney and that they were from Boston. And that they had been in Pennsylvania and he was at a convention. And she had decided to come down here.
Rather eerily, a camper also reported seeing her staying at a campground in the same general area where her body would be found. If this is true, then it suggests that she had voluntarily ran off to come to this place, but there was no discernible reason for why she would have just abandoned her family to come out to this remote area that she had never been to before. Police now believed that, for whatever reasons, Judy had come out to North Carolina and then met with some sort of foul play while hiking in the wilderness, but why, and who would have done it? Considering that the diamond ring and cash had been left behind, robbery didn’t seem to be the motive. Had this perhaps just been a sick individual who had preyed on her for no reason other than their sick amusement. Police would soon learn that the serial killer Gary Michael Hilton had left one of his victims tied to a tree not too far from where Judy’s body had been found, but there was absolutely nothing else to link him to her death.
Authorities for a long time still considered Jeffrey a potential suspect, but he would die in 2005 to take any secrets he may have had to the grave with him. In the end, we don’t know exactly what happened to Judy Smith. We don’t know why she wandered off to find her way to a place far from where she had said goodbye to her husband. We don’t know why she was in North Carolina, nor why she got new hiking clothes to go out exploring in the wilderness. We don’t know who killed this unassuming middle-aged woman or why. All we do know is that she went out on a sightseeing trip and ended up dead, and that the answers will probably forever elude us.
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