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Justice for Erica?

Pamela Dade Smith mourns the nine-year anniversary of the unsolved murder of her daughter Erica Heather Smith, at Lovettsville African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery on July 29, whose body was found outside Redskins Park in Ashburn. Times-Mirror/Michelle Gabro
For William and Pamela Smith, the announcement July 25 by the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office that their 14-year-old daughter's killer committed suicide has brought more questions than answers.

The family wants closure that they say will never come. They want justice. And they want his name in the public eye.

“There's no such word … closure. The closure is that he was a coward to commit the crime. He was a coward when he committed suicide without confessing to the crime … ” said Pamela Smith.

William Smith still wears a bracelet with “Justice for Erica” inscribed on it. The couple keeps a Christmas tree lit in their home year round – a Tree of Life, the tree that their daughter Erica never saw as she was murdered in July 2002.

Erica Heather Smith was found dead 11 days after her July 29, 2002, disappearance – buried in a shallow grave in Ashburn in a wooded area close to Loudoun County Parkway.

Erica's case is not closed. Because the prime suspect in her death committed suicide, it must remain open.

But there's still a lot that's not known about her killer – including his name, which Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman will not release to the public.

“He's never going to have the opportunity to be tried and go through the judicial process, so it's probably not a good thing to do right now,” Chapman said. “Plus, you have to think of the impact on his family.”

But what of the impact on Erica's family, her father asked July 28 in an exclusive interview with the Times-Mirror.

William Smith, frustrated by how his daughter's case ended, revealed details of her alleged killer during the interview.

His first name was Justin, he was in his 20s at the time of the murder and killed himself almost a year ago. The father said on the day his daughter went missing, the family scoured through her journals, finding names of friends to contact who may have known her whereabouts. Justin's name was among that list. Although Erica's family said they didn't personally know Justin, her father spoke to him on that day when he called to ask about his daughter.

Justin told William Smith that he had just returned from a European vacation and had not seen Erica. The day Erica went missing, her father said his daughter was babysitting their 10-year-old son. A 1 p.m. phone call from a male “lured” Erica out of the home with the promise of buying her clothes for her birthday, which was two weeks prior to her disappearance, William Smith said.

Justin was someone who preyed on and stalked young women, William Smith said.

“This was a total set-up for her,” the father said.

“I knew her initial friends, but I didn't known her other circle, their friends. I don't know how she could have even gotten connected with this person,” Pamela Smith said.

Chapman and investigators renewed Erica's case two years ago with the formation of a cold case team.

The team dedicated thousands of hours exclusively to this investigation, including the use of confidential informants and undercover officers.

Several hundred interviews were conducted. Financial support was sought for an evidence audit and resubmission of forensic evidence for analysis with the advancements in scientific testing. A historical timeline corroborated the link to Erica's killer, Chapman said.

But while William Smith said he was told by investigators they were 99 percent sure their daughter's killer is dead,some still wonder if the sheriff's office has pinpointed the right person. Their reluctance lies with Chapman's refusal to release the killer's name to the public.

Erica's family said the name of their daughter's killer should be released because they do believe the sheriff's office has the right person.

“We don't agree with the statements that Sheriff Chapman had made about the murder suspect's parents and his family. Although we know that the sheriff was very passionate about doing all he could to help solve this senseless, brutal murder of our beloved baby girl, 14-year-old Erica Heather Smith,” William Smith said. “May she rest in peace. We will always love her and miss her.”

It's not known how detectives settled in on the individual that killed Erica. Justin, although the prime suspect, was one of several suspects detectives were looking at in Erica's death, her father said.

“We were told by the investigators that a note wasn't found at the scene [of the suicide.] But that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Some family members could have removed it,” William Smith said.

William Smith said during the investigation, Justin refused a polygraph test and to cooperate with investigators. He eventually hired an attorney.

The sheriff said had the suspect not killed himself and the case brought before a jury, it would likely have been based on circumstantial evidence.

“There wasn't much evidence left to go through since this incident was so long ago,” Chapman said. “But we believe we still had a strong case.”

The sheriff said it was a coincidence that information about Erica's killer came to light around the 12th anniversary of her death.

It's not how he, his detectives or Erica's family wanted the case to end, he said.

“It's frustrating for us, it's frustrating for the detectives and for the family. They've hoped one day to have the opportunity to have this person tried for his actions,” Chapman said.

Erica's murder stayed in the media's light for years, including a segment on “America's Most Wanted,” after her death, in part because her parents refused to give up on finding the person who took their daughter from them.

“We prayed every day. That's what kept me strong and kept her dad strong. We prayed every single day that someone would come forward with some type of information about Erica,” said Pamela Smith. “... For somebody to take her dreams, to rob us of her life, robbing her from her life, her from going to high school, graduation, marriage, the whole nine yards.”

This story has been updated from its previous version.


Cronkite - You are spot on with the fact reporting point that you make.  Funny how chapman sees himself as a media guru yet fails at the most rudimentary and fundamental principles required of the profession.  I’ll just say again, I hope the two families on both sides of this tragedy don’t let chapman off the hook so easily.

This is yet one more egregious example of an egotistical, incompetent, politically motivated sheriff attempting to advance his own agenda. For those unaware, Chapman’s “cold case” team consists of two of his retired buddies who are his political supporters. In three years they have yet to solve a case. This particular case was worked diligently by former Sheriff Simpson’s investigators and Chapman’s buddies didn’t come up with anything new related to this case, however they did come up with three years of paychecks.

If Chapman was so sure this “unnamed suspect” was the one who committed this horrible crime there is a concept for cases called “Closed/Exceptionally” which is frequently employed in instances such as this.  This spin game being played by Chapman smacks of nothing more than him making yet another desperate attempt to try and make himself look good in light of the current horrible situation at the Sheriff’s Office…. Morale as low as its ever been, extreme lack of faith in and distrust of leadership, continued departure of experienced personnel, etc.

Sheriff Chapman please stop playing the spin game and worrying about your own interests and think about what you are putting the Smith family
through. What are you trying to hide?  Just when it didn’t seem possible you have reached a new low and continue to make the once proud and respected LCSO the laughingstock of northern Virginia law enforcement.  This is truly amateur hour.

It is my hope you that given this latest embarrassment that the Republican politicians in this county now understand that to support this sheriff is a mistake and the smart ones will distance themselves from this incompetence. Families such as the Smiths deserve so much more than to have to deal with a self-serving narcissistic sheriff.

How dare Sheriff Chapman declare this case closed when he himself states that only circumstantial evidence exists to link his suspect with the murder!  Inactive, maybe, closed, no way! As the parents of Erica Smith I would be incensed that the case was closed in this fashion.  “99% sure” that this person is guilty is a telling statement.  It means that investigators have hit a roadblock.  Chapman, on the eve of an election year, is attempting to cover up the failure of his highly touted cold case squad that to date has solved ZERO cold cases.  He undoubtedly wants to dangle this to the public as another illusion of his success, when in fact it is simply another disguised failure of his administration.  I hope the Smith’s don’t settle for this response.  They deserve a 0 answer one way or another or the simple honesty of admitting that, “Yes, we have looked at all evidence but still haven’t conclusively been able to solve this case.” Instead he closes it?!  As the parents of the suspect, I would equally be upset that, even though not mentioning names, Chapman is saying my child is a murderer without the benefit of a fair trial and the return of a guilty finding.  never mind that the lengthy and stressful investigation probably had something to do with his suicide.  The failure to mention the name of the suspect is more to protect chapman from a lawsuit than an attempt to extend any courtesy to the family I assure you.

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