Police are looking for Erik T. McFadden for further questioning in the case of missing Charlottesville teen Dashad "Sage" Smith
Two weeks after Dashad Smith vanished without a trace, police remain tight lipped about the progress of the search, and the teenager's grandmother is struggling to cope.
"I'm so lost," says 53-year-old Lolita Smith, sitting and crying in the living room of the duplex she inhabits on Orangedale Avenue. Known to friends and family as "Cookie," Smith describes a world come undone since Dashad's pre-Thanksgiving disappearance.
The oldest of her 14 grandchildren, Dashad has always had a special connection to the grandmother who raised him for about five years of his early childhood. She says he called her nearly every day.
"He's a very caring person," says Smith, speaking through tears about the missing 19-year-old. "He's always trying to help the underdog."
A 2011 graduate of Charlottesville High School, Dashad was last seen on November 20, just two days before Thanksgiving. Police have placed his last sighting at around 6:30pm in the 500 block of West Main, but the young Dashad– who often presented as a woman and went by "Sage"– was spotted several times that Tuesday evening, says his cousin Kenneth Jackson.
"People saw him downtown on the red phone at CVS," says Jackson, referring to a phone the drugstore lets customers use.
"They saw him again up in the middle of town near the train station. Then they saw him on the Corner around midnight," insists Jackson, who says he spoke with a witness who told him Dashad appeared frightened when she saw the teen walking with a companion near downtown.
That alleged witness, whom the Hook messaged through Facebook, did not respond to the request for comment, but Jackson says the witness asserted that Dashad was with a white male companion.
That description doesn't match the appearance of the man police say they want to question.
He is 22-year-old Erik McFadden, and according to police, Dashad had phone contact with McFadden on the day of the disappearance and had made plans to meet near the Amtrak station on West Main. After telling police the meeting never happened, McFadden, who, according to his Facebook page attends Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, left town. An official with the University declines to confirm his enrollment.
Two days after the scheduled meeting, Dashad's mother, Latasha Groomes, reported her son missing after he failed to show up for Thanksgiving dinner. Groomes did not respond to a Hook reporter's messages passed to her by police and by the administrator of the "Find Dashad 'Sage' Smith" page, which had surpassed 2,600 subscribers on Friday, December 7.
In the wake of the disappearance of the transgendered teen, family members say the case has failed to garner the level of media or police attention bestowed upon the disappearance of an upper middle class white, blond female.
"We don't want special treatment, just equal treatment," declared a frustrated Kenneth Jackson to Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones in a December 6 conference call.
Jackson contrasts police response to Dashad's disappearance with the wide-ranging investigation into the October 2009 disappearance of Morgan Harrington. In that case, which UVA Police turned over to Virginia State Police within 24 hours, images of searchers with bloodhounds and helicopters filled the airwaves, and the story went national as search organizations clamored to comb properties around Charlottesville and Albemarle.
In Dashad's case, Jackson doesn't believe thorough searches have been conducted, and he fears that with weeks already elapsed, the chance to recover evidence is diminished.
"Dumpsters have already been emptied; it's rained," says Jackson, who fears clues might have already washed away.
Jackson told City Manager Jones that family members would like the Charlottesville Police to obtain FBI and State Police assistance, conduct a citywide search, and ask property owners to search their land– as well as set up meetings between potential witnesses and the case's lead detective outside of an interrogation room.
"There are people who may know things who aren't willing to go to the police station," says Jackson.
In a separate phone interview with the Hook, Jones defends Charlottesville police and says investigators have been working diligently.
"From the very beginning of this case, the police have taken the disappearance of Mr. Smith very seriously," maintains Jones. "They're taking all the investigative steps they can to bring Mr. Smith back. We've been in contact with his mother on an almost daily basis."
Charlottesville police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts asserts that the City would refrain from seeking investigative assistance unless it were deemed necessary, something he says is not currently the case.
"We've done a lot that I can't discuss in the investigation," he says. "I don't want to compromise the case itself. He's still missing, and we're still investigating."
While there is no crime scene and no definitive proof of foul play involved in Dashad's disappearance, Lolita Smith says there's no way that her grandson would have left his family without word. She recalls again their particularly close relationship that made her, she believes, the first relative to know when Dashad came out of the closet several years ago.
"I always knew, in my heart of hearts, that Dashad was gay, but I was waiting for him to acknowledge it, to bring it to me," says Smith. "He came and said, 'I got something to tell you, and I don't want you to hate me.'"
"I said, you are still my grandchild, and I don't love you any less," she recalls. "He knew he could tell me anything."
Dashad's father, Dean Smith, agrees that his son wouldn't have done anything to cause his grandmother anguish. "They have a real deep bond," says Dean Smith, noting that while he initially struggled to accept his son's sexual orientation, he eventually came to terms with it and encouraged Dashad to "be himself."
He spoke with Dashad, he says, for more than half an hour at around 5pm on November 20, the day he disappeared, and Dean Smith says his son expressed excitement about going to his mother's house for Thanksgiving. "He said, 'I'll call you tomorrow,'" the father recalls. "Then he didn't call."
With his December 13 birthday approaching and no information on what may have happened to Dashad, his family's fear and grief have mounted, and for his grandmother, it is almost unbearable.
"I have been questioning God," she says through sobs, wondering how she will cope if Dashad never comes home. She also expresses confusion, she says, over the fact that Dashad's two closest friends have not reached out to her, and have, she says, left town rather than helping with searches or attending the vigil that was held in downtown's Lee Park on Wednesday, November 28.
Without answers, there's nothing to do, she says, but wait and pray.
"I just miss him," says Smith. "I want him back. It's getting harder and harder every day to just hold on to the belief that he's coming home."
Another vigil for Dashad "Sage" Smith took place on Saturday, December 8, beginning at grandmother Lolita Smith's house at 731 Orangedale Avenue. Attendees walked from there to the Amtrak station to bring attention to the case.
Anyone with information about the case should contact Crimestoppers at 434-977-4000.