"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 28, 2019

Judy Smith's Final Destination: A Bizarre Murder Mystery

Judith "Judy" Eldridge did not have a particularly easy life. She was born in 1946 into a working-class family in Massachusetts. When she was just out of high school, she entered into a marriage which failed almost immediately. Her husband abandoned her when he fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Her second marriage, to a thoroughbred racetrack worker named Charles Bradford, produced a son and daughter, but this union also soon ended. Judy Bradford found herself divorced, without a job, and with two small children to raise alone.

Fortunately, she was more than equal to the challenge. She managed to care for her youngsters while simultaneously putting herself through nursing school. She worked hard, got herself out of welfare, advanced rapidly through her chosen profession, and brought up two fine children. She was the classic single-mother success story. Judy Bradford was a smart, assertive, take-charge sort of person who took pride in her street-smarts and ability to look after herself.

While working as a home-care nurse for a dying Boston man, Judy became acquainted with her patient's son, a successful lawyer named Jeffrey Smith. A romance soon developed between the two. After being together for ten years, the couple finally married in November 1986. The long wait for the wedding bells appears to have been Judy's idea. After so many years of independence (not to mention two failed marriages) she was understandably uneasy about a third trip down the altar. However, when she finally did take the plunge, it seemed like she had finally found domestic bliss. The pair had every reason to expect a long and prosperous life ahead.

Instead, what soon followed was deep tragedy and inexplicable mystery.

On April 9, 1997, only five months after their wedding, the Smiths headed for Logan International Airport. They were planning to attend a pharmaceutical conference in Center City, Pennsylvania, where Jeffrey, a expert in health-care law, was to moderate a panel. At the airport, Judy realized she had forgotten to bring her photo ID, so she was unable to get on their plane. The pair decided that Jeffrey would take their scheduled flight alone, while Judy would follow him on another flight that left later that day. She made it to their Philadelphia hotel at around 10 p.m. The couple shared a room service pizza and went to bed.

The next morning, Jeffrey left their room to grab some breakfast in the hotel restaurant. According to his later story, Judy was just about to step into the shower. Their plan was that she would spend the day sightseeing while he attended the conference. That evening, they would meet with friends for dinner.

When Judy failed to return to their hotel room during the day, her husband assumed she was merely touring the city. However, when nightfall arrived with no sign of her, Jeffrey became alarmed and contacted the police. A detective informed him that it was too soon to launch a search. Chances were that she merely stayed out later than she had planned. She would probably turn up alive and well at any moment.

The next morning, Judy was still missing. This time, Jeffrey and his friends not only phoned police, they contacted various media outlets and the city's mayor. This barrage of publicity had its effect. Six detectives were instantly assigned to track down this missing tourist. Judy Smith had been transformed into a high-profile case, and an intensive search was made for her throughout the city. Posters with her photo and description were plastered everywhere. Numerous "sightings" of the vanished woman were reported in and around Philadelphia, but police generally dismissed them as unreliable. Not the slightest trace of Judy was ever found in the metropolis. Police had no idea where Judy Smith could be. Indeed, despite the fact that her plane ticket to Philadelphia had been used, detectives began to wonder if Mrs. Smith had ever truly been in the city at all. In an article about the case in the August 31, 1997 "Philadelphia Inquirer," Detective Anthony Buchanico was quoted as saying, "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." Another investigator noted, "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." Yet another detective mused, "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..."

From these quotes, you can probably guess the trend of the detectives' thinking. However, Judy's family and friends expressed outraged disbelief at the hint that Jeffrey could have been behind his wife's disappearance. They all described him as a gentle, honest, affectionate man who would never hurt anyone. Judy's daughter Amy told the "Inquirer," "If he says she was in Philadelphia, she was there. It makes me mad that there's any doubt at all about that." In any case, Jeffrey was a severely overweight man with a number of health problems. Even if he had been emotionally capable of disposing of his wife, he definitely was not physically able to do so.

Jeffrey himself was equally adamant that his wife would not have disappeared voluntarily. "She was happy," he insisted. "And even if she did want to run away, why would she go to Philadelphia to do that?" He could only theorize that while touring the city, Judy somehow became disoriented and wandered away somewhere outside of Philadelphia, perhaps to be put into some sort of institution without anyone knowing who she was.

Could she have been the victim of a street crime? In any large city, that's always a dangerous possibility. However, it seemed unlikely that someone so brave and feisty could have been harmed or kidnapped without anyone noticing. Judy Smith was never afraid to make a loud scene.

Did she go off to start a new life and career? Some of Judy's friends told investigators that she found marriage somewhat confining, and that Jeffrey wanted her to socialize more than she liked. They believed she genuinely cared for her husband, but giving up her independence was hard. However, no one who knew her believed she would abandon her children. Plus, Judy was an outspoken person, not one to keep her feelings to herself. Those who knew her believed that if she wanted out of her marriage, she simply would have said so. Her personality also ruled out suicide. "She's not the type to quit," said one friend.

Jeffrey Smith's suggestion that she had become mentally confused was also seen as improbable. Just two weeks before her disappearance, Judy had a physical, and was completely healthy.

In short, there was no obvious reason for Judy Smith's disappearance. Amy Bradford sighed, "Rationally, I know something must have happened to her. But I try to think that she left on her own and she's OK, even though I know she wouldn't do that. But I try to think she did, because that helps my peace of mind."

Sadly, Judy Smith was not "OK." Just one week after Amy's hopeful words were published in the "Inquirer," a couple of hunters in a remote, isolated area in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest came across something horrifying: human remains. A woman's corpse had been wrapped in a blanket and buried in a shallow grave. Animals had later dug up parts of the body, scattering them around the scene. Some personal effects, including a backpack and shirt containing nearly $200 in cash, were found there as well. Dental records were able to establish that these bones were all that was left of Judy Smith. Holes in her bra and cut marks on the bones led investigators to suspect she had been stabbed, although the cause of her death could not be positively determined.

This grim discovery transformed Judy's disappearance from merely mysterious to bafflingly bizarre. How did the dead woman travel 600 miles from where she was last seen? No evidence could be found of her taking a plane, bus, or rental car. And why North Carolina, considering that she had no ties to the area, and had never expressed a desire to visit that region of the country? Adding to the puzzle was the fact that when she died, she was wearing hiking clothes that were completely different from the ones she had on when she vanished.

Several people reported seeing a woman matching Judy's description in the Asheville area. A clerk at a local store believed she had talked to her in April. The woman seemed pleasant and completely normal, saying that her husband was a Boston attorney, attending a conference in Philadelphia, and "during that time she had just decided to go to the Asheville area." An employee at the Biltmore Estate, the owner of an Asheville campground, and a local deli owner all claimed to have interacted with her. She may even have applied for a job in a doctor's office. Investigators found these accounts credible, but they did absolutely nothing to solve the riddle of her death. Police believed she had gone to North Carolina voluntarily, and that she had been killed where the body was discovered. But what on earth was she doing there, and who would have wanted her dead?

Although police could never bring themselves to completely rule out Jeffrey Smith as a suspect, he died in 2005 almost certainly completely ignorant of how his wife came to her gruesome end. The sheer weirdness of this relatively recent case has given it a fair amount of fame on the internet. True crime devotees and armchair detectives have offered a great deal of online speculation about Judy Smith's disappearance and death, but to date, that is all anyone has: speculation.


  1. Usually, there is some connection between the last known part of a person's life, and the situation in which their body is found. Not in this case. This is one of the most baffling mysteries I've read here.

  2. This mystery has always intrigued me.


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