UPDATE: Sheriff: Suspect in Erica Smith murder committed suicide
However, that suspect, according to Sheriff Mike Chapman, committed suicide during the investigation, which detectives renewed two years ago with the formation of a cold case team.
Chapman said the suspected killer knew Erica, however his identity will not be released.
“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.”
Erica Heather Smith was found July 29, 2002, murdered – buried in shallow grave in Ashburn in a wooded area close to Loudoun County Parkway.
Her family said they did not know the suspect who killed their daughter.
“I knew her initial friends, but I didn't know her other circle, their friends. I don't know how she could have even gotten connected with this person,” Pamela Smith said.
“This was a total set-up for her,” the father added.
Erica, according to her father, left her home 11 days before her body was found to visit a friend in the neighborhood. She told her father she would shortly return.
“...When we heard about this individual and his suicide we were shocked … It's a bittersweet feeling. We're happy that this individual is no longer here to do harm to someone else's family, but the bitter part is that we weren't able to put him in the position where he would be facing justice. We wanted our day in court to deal with this individual … as a family to put a face to this piece of garbage that committed such a heinous crime against a child, against our daughter, our beautiful baby girl,” said William Smith.
Chapman announced the findings after detectives comprehensively reviewed documents and evidence collected over the last 12 years, according to a statement released to the media.
Erica's family, who were told of the development on Monday, said Friday the announcement still doesn't bring them closure.
“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. I look at it like this, at least we now have a face to go along with that. We're not always out there worrying,” said Pamela Smith.
It's not known how detectives settled in on the individual that killed Erica.
“We were told by the investigators that a note wasn't found at the scene. But that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Some family members could have removed it,” William Smith said.
“Even his mother, you think that she would have some kind of compassion to come forward and say 'hey, my son did this,'” Pamela Smith said.
The sheriff said it was a coincidence that this 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.
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.”
Erica's murder stayed in the media's light for years 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 Williams. “... For somebody to take her dreams, to rob us of her life, robbing her from her life, her from her going to high school, graduation, marriage, the whole nine yards.”
Two years ago, when Chapman announced the creation of the cold case team in conjunction with the first Child Victim Awareness Day, he dedicated the day to Erica.
Child Safety Day in now an annual event. The next event will be held Aug. 2 from noon to 4 p.m. at The Village at Leesburg.