Friends and family have attended vigils and held protests. Here, from left: Smith's grandmother, Cookie Smith, cousin Kenneth Jackson, and Jackson's partner and Smith family friend Bemeche Hicks.
"He was my first grandbaby," says Dashad Smith's paternal grandmother, Lolita "Cookie" Smith. "We had a special relationship."
At the Preston Avenue Shell Station, a few blocks from the apartment Dashad "Sage" Smith last occupied on Harris Street, his name is familiar and his disappearance is on people's minds.
"He used to come in here every day," says a woman working the register, as another cashier nods. "He was quiet," the woman recalls. "Never caused any problems like some customers. I sure hope they find him."
It's been more than seven weeks since anyone saw or heard from Smith, a 2011 Charlottesville High School grad who was last seen on November 20 walking along West Main Street near the Amtrak station.
"I just don't know how much more I can take," says Smith's grandmother, Lolita "Cookie" Smith, one of several family members whose grief over their loss is compounded by frustration over their fear that Smith's case is not being investigated as vigorously as it should be.
Stuck in limbo, filled with dread eclipsed occasionally by hope that Smith will be found alive, members of Smith's family have vocally criticized the investigation at candlelight vigils and protest rallies outside the police station, demanding that state and federal resources be utilized and suggesting that Smith's case would have been handled more aggressively had he been white, blond, and female.
Family members' questions about a search of a Richmond landfill conducted a month after Smith disappeared, and why police haven't located the person of interest in the case, have not been answered to their satisfaction, nor do they understand why larger scale searches of the entire city have not been conducted.
Smith's family members are not the only ones grieving and questioning.
To be young, black, and gay is to be at the tiny center of a minority Venn diagram. Populated by few, it can be a lonely place, says Kash Carson, who, like Smith, knows firsthand, and who first met Smith when they were in elementary school. The two then reconnected on the social networking site MySpace about five years ago. According to Carson, whose legal name is Andre Johnson, both are gay men but did not consider themselves to be transgendered. "There are lots of different types of gay men," says Carson. "Some might not look gay; some gay men dress like girls."
The difference, Carson explains, between a biological male who is transgendered and a cross-dressing gay man, is that the former feels he is a woman and may seek to physically become one, whereas the latter does not. That said, Carson asks to be referred to in print as "she," and says Smith would have expressed the same preference, although she acknowledges that Smith frequently presented as male. For purposes of reading comprehension, and because the majority of sources interviewed for this article, including Smith's family, refer to Smith as "he," the Hook will also use male pronouns when referring to Smith.
What might seem complicated to outsiders was intuitive to Carson and Smith, Carson says, and the two built a strong bond over the years. "I don't have a big group of friends, and she don't have a big group of friends either," says Carson, 20, who attended Albemarle High School and returned to Charlottesville this past October after temporarily moving to Lynchburg for Job Corps, a federal program that offers free job training and education to low income teens and young adults.
After living with grandmother Cookie on Orangedale Avenue for several months, Smith signed a lease for a duplex apartment on Harris Street in late summer, and when Carson moved back to town, Smith invited her to stay there. The interior walls of the two-bedroom apartment were painted a Barbie Doll pink, Carson says, which prompted the roommates to dub their pad "the dollhouse mansion." They didn't go out often, Carson says, but enjoyed doing typical things– posting on Facebook, talking on the phone, playing music, dancing, and having friends over.
Smith's mother, Latasha Grooms, says she was happy to see her oldest child finding his way and making close friends after struggling in his teen years as peers criticized his emerging sexual identity and gender expression.
"He was still finding himself and was in the process of coming out," she says, noting that he hadn't asked the family to refer to him as "she" or "Sage."
The days before Smith disappeared were without incident, says Carson, who says she's not aware of anyone who would have wanted to hurt her friend. Carson, who is now staying with family in Norfolk and was reached by phone, was asleep on Tuesday, November 20 when Smith left the apartment sometime around 5pm and says she vaguely recalls Smith saying something she didn't clearly hear. When she awoke around 8pm and noticed Smith was gone, Carson says, she called Smith's cell phone. It went straight to voicemail, an unusual occurrence.
"It is very out of character," says Carson, who notes that Smith's phone "is never off."
When Smith hadn't returned the next day and his cell phone continued to go to voicemail without ringing, Carson became increasingly concerned. By that afternoon, she says, she called Smith's grandmother, Cookie.
"She said, 'If he's not back by 10pm, call the police,'" Carson recalls. Her anxiety mounting, she didn't wait that long. At around 8pm, she says, she placed a call to police to report her best friend missing.
Smith, Carson says, was safety-conscious and would never have walked alone or gone anywhere with a stranger. Both Carson and members of Smith's family express fear that Smith's female dress might have prompted aggression against him, and Carson recalls several incidents in which she and Smith were harassed and called names for their female clothing while walking on city streets. In another incident about a year ago, Carson says, they were actually chased by an aggressive crowd.
As soon as she learned Smith hadn't come home, Smith's mother was convinced something bad had happened to the then-19-year-old, whose 20th birthday passed on December 13.
"As a parent, I knew that something was wrong from the jump because of the fact that his phone was cut off, and he was supposed to come to my house for Thanksgiving," says Grooms, who lives in Louisa County and who'd made plans to pick Smith up in Charlottesville on the morning of Thursday November 22 to bring him to her home to celebrate the holiday with his two younger sisters.
Smith had spoken to his father Dean Smith for more than half an hour late on Tuesday afternoon just before he disappeared. That conversation, Dean Smith says, was friendly and upbeat as Smith asked his dad for birthday money to have his hair done or to buy a television for his apartment and said he was excited about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
All family members also agree that Smith would never have allowed his grandmother, Cookie, whom he called nearly every day, to worry about him.
"He loves his grandma," says Dean Smith.
As panic set in among Smith's family members, Charlottesville Police launched an investigation that would lead them from dumpsters along West Main to a sediment pond near UVA to a Richmond landfill. And while he's aware of the criticisms of his department, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo says the search for Smith has been among the most arduous and thorough investigations conducted during his tenure.
Department under fire
It's Wednesday, January 2, the first official work day of 2013 and the 43rd day of the search for Smith. Chief Longo is in his second floor office in the downtown headquarters, a spacious room where packed shelves stretch across one wall and an expansive desk is covered with photos and neatly stacked papers. Built like a bull and with a military-style flattop haircut, Longo may have the look of a drill sergeant but he is soft-spoken and serious as he considers the recent accusations of racial disparity levied against his department.
"I understand the sense of frustration," he says, recalling painful images from the Civil Rights era and noting that police once enforced laws later determined to be unconstitutional.
"You can't erase Rosa Parks being removed from a bus by uniformed police officers," he says, also mentioning the razing of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood and "massive resistance" to school desegregation in Charlottesville. "There's the understandable belief that that's still part of the police department or local governments in general," he says.
Longo, who holds a law degree and took the helm of the department in 2001, has been widely praised for his "community policing" approach, and most recently won accolades from the First Amendment-defending nonprofit The Rutherford Institute for "demilitarizing" his department's assault weapons by reducing their shooting capacity. But despite those accolades and many others, the Dashad Smith case is not the first time the Charlottesville Police Department has dealt with a controversy over race during Longo's nearly 12-year tenure.
In 2003, Charlottesville police undertook a controversial effort to obtain DNA samples from hundreds of black men in an effort to locate a serial rapist. (The assailant, Nathan Antonio Washington, was eventually apprehended after one of his victims recognized him working in the meat department of the Barracks Road Harris Teeter and police confirmed his DNA after retrieving a Burger King drink he'd discarded and testing it. He pleaded guilty to four assaults in 2007 and is serving four consecutive life sentences.)
In the wake of that episode, one man sued the department alleging assault and battery, illegal search and seizure under Virginia law, and racial harassment. Longo changed the department's policy for obtaining DNA samples, and says he remains committed to equal treatment for all Charlottesville citizens.
Local NAACP President Rick Turner believes Longo's sentiment is genuine, and he says his conversations with City Manager Maurice Jones about the Dashad Smith investigation have convinced him that the police are doing everything possible and utilizing proper resources in the case.
"They have a track record to dismiss issues, or not be as concerned as the African American community wants them to be," says Turner, mentioning the serial rapist investigation. "We know they have a history, but in this case, from what I hear, and when I look in the eyes of the city manager, I happen to believe that Chief Longo and his staff are doing everything possible."
Turner does say, however, that it's important for members of the African American community to be able to communicate with police without having to come to an interrogation room at the police station, a sentiment that Smith's family shares. Turner says the NAACP hopes to host town hall meetings in 2013 to facilitate that process.
Longo says he understands that need, and says he's hopeful that members of the Citizen's Advisory Panel, a board formed in 2008 to improve relations between police and the community, might also serve as a liaison for community members who are uncomfortable approaching police directly.
Among his other efforts to combat racial disparity, Longo says, he is seeking to increase the diversity of his department by hiring minorities. He regularly travels with a member of the Advisory Panel to visit the dozen colleges in Virginia that have both a large minority population and a criminal justice program to encourage students to apply for work in Charlottesville. He randomly reviews dash-cam videos, he says, and has increased requirements for documenting police stops in an effort to hold officers accountable.
He also believes the root of protecting equality lies in the Constitution, and in addition to helping develop a course for police officers on the Constitution now taught at Montpelier, he hands every new hire to his department a copy of this country's foundational document and instructs them to read it.
"We're custodians of those rights," he says. "I take that very seriously."
Would he do anything different in the investigation if Smith were white?
"No, I would not," he says, his voice rising slightly. "That is inconsistent with who I am as a person and the type of people I seek to have as part of this department."
The investigative demands made by members of Smith's family are specific: They want the local department to ask for assistance from the Virginia State Police in searching for Smith, and to request help from the FBI in locating a person of interest in the case, 22-year-old Erik McFadden, with whom, Charlottesville police say, Smith had phone contact the day of his disappearance.
"We're not asking them to hand the case over," says Kenneth Jackson, Smith's cousin and a one-time city council candidate. "We just want them to utilize all possible resources."
At a candlelight vigil on December 22, Jackson and other community members discussed the extensive national media coverage given to the Morgan Harrington case, and referred to the ubiquitous images of massive search parties sweeping the area with cadaver sniffing dogs.
Why, they wondered, isn't this case receiving that level of attention?
As extensively reported in this paper, Harrington, a student at Virginia Tech, disappeared on October 17, 2009 after leaving a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena. Her purse and cell phone were recovered the following morning and the case was handled by the Virginia State Police after the Harrington family requested that UVA Police serve in a supporting role. Her remains were discovered three months later on an Albemarle County farm by the property owner checking his fences.
While State Police headed up their own searches of certain areas, the community searches that drew thousands of volunteers were actually organized by nonprofit agencies including the Texas-based Laura Recovery Center and the Wilmington, North Carolina-based Cue Center for Missing Persons.
Contacting and mobilizing such organizations takes significant effort, says Gil Harrington, who, along with husband Dan, explored all options during the search for their daughter including hiring a private detective, something Smith's family is considering.
That, Harrington says, is an effort to be undertaken with caution.
"In these situations, there's a second layer of predators," she says. "They want to tout the story for self-promotion or for financial gain or notoriety. We did not have great experiences with that."
The Harringtons have been in contact with Smith's family and are planning to meet in coming weeks to offer their support and assistance.
While investigators in the Harrington case recovered Morgan's personal effects including her purse and cell phone, in the Smith case, police have yet to find any physical evidence.
They, do, however, have access to his phone records, and that's how they discovered Smith's connection to McFadden.
McFadden's identity and his relationship to Smith remain mysterious. His Facebook page describes him as having attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, but the school will not confirm his enrollment. McFadden wasn't part of Carson and Smith's group of friends, but Carson says she had seen him in town at least once before and recognized him from the photo that is now used in flyers about Smith's disappearance.
Carson says she had no knowledge of any meeting planned between Smith and McFadden, but, according to police, the two had phone contact in the hours before Smith's disappearance. After police made contact with McFadden, he, too, disappeared. Police say that despite their efforts to reach him, they've had no further contact from the young man.
While Jackson and others wonder why the Charlottesville Police Department hasn't publicly asked for FBI assistance in locating McFadden, the officer in charge of the case insists his department has conducted a more thorough investigation than most people may realize.
Kash Carson's call reporting Smith missing came in Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, Thanksgiving Day, according to Charlottesville Police Sergeant Marc Brake, all available officers were instructed to conduct a "grid search" along the West Main Street corridor based on the witness sighting of Smith, which placed him walking west on West Main Street between the ABC store and the Amtrak lot. Such a search includes checking trash cans and dumpsters in a designated area. Brake says the following day, Friday, November 23, he personally conducted a second grid search along West Main Street.
Simultaneously, he says, detectives began seeking information about Smith including gaining access to his cell phone records. Without any evidence of a crime, Brake says, and because Smith is an adult, obtaining warrants for such information was initially impossible, but with Smith's family's cooperation, they were able to determine that Smith had had contact with an unknown number in the hours before he disappeared.
Hoping to quickly identify the owner of that phone, police provided the number to Smith's family members, who, in turn, posted the number to Facebook, where a user recognized it as McFadden's.
"It was not necessarily the way we wanted to go about doing that," Brake notes of the Facebook involvement.
With no evidence of any crime, but with a 14th Street address for McFadden where Brake says McFadden lived with his girlfriend, police expanded the search area, and on November 28, they conducted a search of streets and wooded areas along West Main and 14th Street NW and requested cadaver sniffing dogs from the state search and rescue coordinator.
On December 1, with six dogs and handlers in from around the state, police again searched those areas, as well as the railroad tracks from Ridge Street to Shamrock Avenue, and the wooded area between Wertland and Page streets.
At a sediment pond behind the UVA Outpatient Surgery Center behind UVA Medical Center, Brake says, two dogs made a "slight indication," a sign they might have picked up Smith's scent. Although the dogs' handlers told investigators the indication wasn't strong enough to be certain, Brake says a dive team was called in to search the pond, which is nine feet deep at the center.
They found nothing.
The next search would be farther away, and far more complicated to conduct.
One dumpster, one day
It's by design that dumpsters are inconspicuous, and those along the West Main corridor are no exception. Tucked in parking lots behind buildings, often fenced off to further hide them from view, they're an ugly reminder of the waste generated in vast quantities by the restaurants, businesses and residences that line the street.
The Hook's survey of West Main from Ridge Street to the Drewary J. Brown Bridge by the Amtrak Station revealed at least 21 dumpsters operated by five different companies. The destination of trash depends on which dumpster it's thrown into, and much of the refuse collected from West Main goes to either the Van Der Linde Recycling Center in Fluvanna County, where it's sorted both by machine and by hand, or through several transfer stations and then on to landfills including one in Amelia. In fact, only five dumpsters along West Main– those operated by Allied Waste, which is owned by Republic Services– end up at Old Dominion Landfill in Richmond, where Charlottesville Police spent five days searching.
The question then, is, how did police– who have said they were not acting on a tip or specific evidence– decide to sink so many resources into a search of a single landfill in Richmond?
"Either they have specific info, or they're misinformed," says Ken Bahr, owner of Cavalier Container, who put the chance at randomly picking the right landfill without specific information at "less than 10 percent."
The answer, according to Sgt. Brake, is that West Main dumpsters were not investigators' primary interest; dumpsters in the 14th Street area were.
In that heavily student populated area, all but one dumpster the police identified are operated by Allied and go to Old Dominion. All of the Allied dumpsters, and one in particular– the one used by the apartment complex in which McFadden lived, and which Brake asked not to be identified– are emptied six days a week. According to Longo, police do not believe McFadden, who Brake says moved to the area in May, or Smith had access to a vehicle, which would have made transporting evidence far from the area, particularly a body, very difficult."
If any evidence in the case was placed into that particular dumpster on the night of November 20, it would have been removed on Wednesday, November 21, before Smith was reported missing and any searching could have begun. In other words, if that one dumpster on that one day is key to the investigation, no search of the Charlottesville area, no matter how extensive, will yield evidence.
"It's a stone we can't leave unturned," says Brake.
A very heavy stone.
Science of searching trash
According to a report from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, more than 1,000 tons of trash flows daily into the Old Dominion Landfill, a more than 130-acre facility five miles east of downtown Richmond in Henrico County that takes trash from localities around the state, as well as from out of state. In this sea of compacted detritus, 20-feet deep and covered over with dirt daily, is there a prayer of finding evidence dumped a month earlier?
The answer, Sgt. Brake says, is yes. But police learned it wouldn't be easy or cheap.
Again, Brake says, he reached out to the State Search and Rescue coordinator for advice and was given a name: Ron Olive, an Arizona-based former Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigator who is now considered the country's leading expert on forensic landfill searches, and who has successfully located human remains in landfills, sometimes years after a crime was committed.
Following Olive's instruction, Brake began the painstaking process of tracking a single dumpsterload of trash from pick-up to landfill.
First, he says, they contacted Allied and asked for access to the driver's log to establish when he picked up trash from that location, when it arrived at the Fluvanna transfer station, and, based on the transfer station's administrative records, when it left and arrived at Old Dominion.
According to Brake, records kept by Old Dominion provide information about where in the landfill any delivery is dumped, and, using GPS, police narrowed the search down to a particular trash "cell"– 3,000 cubic yards of compacted trash in an area he estimates to have been roughly 100 square feet by 20 feet deep.
Having never conducted a full scale landfill search, Brake says, Charlottesville police flew Olive in on December 9. He spent nearly two weeks training officers on proper search technique and overseeing the operation.
The phrase "landfill search" might conjure images of investigators standing atop mounds of trash, poking with a stick, hoping to find the proverbial needle in a haystack, but Brake says the process is more scientific.
In addition to hiring Olive, police hired a Maryland-based firm that specializes in landfill excavation. The first step, Brake says, was constructing a "search deck," a 50-by-70-foot flat area onto which trash can be spread into a thin layer and raked through by investigators, who must don protective gear and go through decontamination procedures each day.
During the first portion of the search, which took place from December 17-21, investigators raked through 600 cubic yards of trash, and while they didn't find any evidence of Smith, they were heartened by other discoveries: Daily Progress newspapers from the days leading up to Smith's disappearance and other Charlottesville related trash.
"It let us know we really were in the right area," says Brake. With 2,400 cubic yards of trash remaining to be searched in the target "cell," Brake says, the landfill operators have cooperated and will not place any additional trash in the search area. Brake expects to be back at the landfill with a team of investigators the second week in January and will continue the search until all of it has been scoured.
The landfill search, however extensive, is only one piece of an investigation that Brake insists is a priority for him and his colleagues.
"Ever since this case was brought to our attention, we've been full bore on trying to locate our victim," says Brake, who explains that some leads investigators are following must remain confidential to protect the investigation. "We've used resources from the federal side, reached out to the state as far as asking for cadaver dogs," says Brake. "We're staying on course. It's not going to be one that's solved quickly."
Anguish, and no answers
If there is disagreement over the best way to search for Smith, and concern over whether enough is being done by investigators, there is one thing on which friends, family, and police agree: the pressing need to find the 20-year-old. Without answers, Smith's loved ones are left languishing, unable to grieve, unable to fully live.
"The missing phase is the most hideous," says Gil Harrington. "You can't grieve because in a way that's giving up on your loved one. You try to keep hope alive and at the same time prepare yourself for the worst."
For Smith's friend Carson, whose name was not on the apartment lease and who moved to Norfolk to be with family days after Smith disappeared, the last seven weeks have been brutal.
"It's so depressing," she says, "and it's harder because I had to leave. I couldn't stay in Charlottesville and wait. I'm her best friend. How could I not know where she's at?"
Smith's mother, Latasha Grooms, who is the primary contact for police and has received daily updates since her son disappeared, says she believes police are doing everything possible in the investigation, but it doesn't make it any easier.
"I'm still feeling like I want things to go faster," she says, "but I know there are certain procedures that they have to take."
Cousin Jackson's question as to why police don't ask for FBI assistance in locating McFadden remains unanswered. Longo and Brake decline comment, but Hook legal analyst David Heilberg says with no evidence of a crime, they have no basis for bringing him to Charlottesville or asking the FBI to help do so.
"If they're doing their jobs, we won't know much about how they're attempting to bring someone to justice," says Heilberg. "Obviously, police have their suspicions, but until they have evidence for a significant enough charge, they won't be able to do much."
Finding any evidence in the case is key, and of course, as in so many criminal cases, the answer to what happened to Smith may not come from official searches or police legwork. It could very well be a tip from someone who hasn't yet come forward.
"This is such a small community, someone had to see something," says Longo, noting that tips have been slow despite a $10,000 reward for information leading to Smith.
For Cookie, Smith's grandmother and the person to whom many say he was closest, the passage of time with no sign of her oldest grandchild is taking its toll both mentally and physically, as she struggles with dark images of her grandson suffering and prays for answers– and a miracle.
"I just need to know what happened to him," she says. "This is too much for me to bear."
As the print version of this article went to press, the Hook learned that Smith's grandmother, Cookie, has been hospitalized in intensive care with respiratory difficulties, something her cousin, Kenneth Jackson, attributes to stress and grief. "I've watched her health deteriorate since Dashad disappeared," he says.
A Take Back the Night event is scheduled for Saturday, January 12 at 8pm starting at Forest Hills Park. Participants will then walk to City Hall to draw attention to the case.
Anyone with information about Dashad "Sage" Smith or the whereabouts of Erik McFadden should contact Crimestoppers at 434-977-4000.
Clarifications and corrections:
•In several places in the original version of this article, the Hook referred to Kash Carson as "he." Carson is a gay man and is not transgendered but prefers to be referred to as female.
•The proper name for the citizen council created to improve communication between police department and citizens is the Citizen's Advisory Panel.
•The 3,000 cubic yards of trash was within an area Sgt. Brake estimated to be approximately 100 square feet by 20-feet deep.