Missing Morris man's body is found
Woodbridge sister mourns victim killed snorkeling in Fla. 19 years ago
April 1, 2008
The Star Ledger, NJ
BY SUE EPSTEIN
Todd Smith sold his motorcycle and trailer in May 1989, then dropped his 2 1/2-year-old daughter at his ex-wife's house. That was the last anyone heard from the Morris County resident until last month.
Florida authorities scouring cold cases and attempting to determine identities of long-forgotten "John Doe" victims hit a match. Smith had been dead since May 18, 1989, the day after he went missing. Smith, 25, was the victim of a snorkling accident near Daytona Beach and his body was never identified, until last month, said his sister, Kimberly Smith Schmalenberger.
"My mother called me crying and said, 'They found him -- they found Todd,'" Schmalenberger, of Woodbridge, said yesterday, as the family prepared to hold a memorial service 2 p.m. Sunday at the Trinity Reformed Church in North Plainfield. "I dropped to my knees. The only other time I've ever done that was on Sept. 11, 2001."
Nearly two decades of mystery surrounding Smith's disappearance was ended by Kari Larson, a forensic technician in Volusia County, Fla. She was assigned to review cold cases and found enough similarities between the snorkeling death in 1989 to a missing person report on the DOE Net work, a collection of more than 200 volunteers, including Smith's ex- wife, Carol Cielecki, who swap leads and try to help each other solve missing-person cases.
Larson contacted an investigator with the Morris County Prosecutor's Office to share information on Smith, who lived in Rockaway Township at the time of his disappearance. It took them three weeks of trading fingerprints and other information, but Smith's identity was confirmed. Cielecki had entered her ex-husband's name and information into the DOE Network files.
It turns out Smith left for Florida after he dropped off his daughter Ashley and sold his motorcycle. Schmalenberger said her brother liked to take spontaneous trips, often without telling anyone.
"He was a great guy, a real free spirit," Schmalenberger said of her brother. "We assume he took a plane down to Florida to go swimming. Maybe he had the next day off. Sometimes, he'd like to get on a plane to go somewhere, play a round of golf, and come home. But, this time, we never saw him again." Smith was a car sales manager for Honda and Hyundai who worked in Bridgewater and Morris County.
"Todd was a sports car enthusiast and an avid motorcyclist," Schmalenberger said. "He also en joyed bicycle riding with his father and loved a round of golf."
She said the investigators who visited her mother, Barbara Giles Smith, and father, Donald Smith, on Jan. 30, also visited her at her Iselin home.
"By that time, my brother (Eric Smith) was here and we made the positive identification of Todd through pictures," Schmalenberger said. "It was a shock and extremely unexpected."
She said she believes it took so long to identify her brother be cause a description of him entered into the national database for missing people in New Jersey didn't match the information Florida authorities had. Schmalenberger praised the efforts by Larson to end the mystery.
"We are eternally grateful to her for all she has done to bring much needed answers to our family," Schmalenberger said. "We are equally grateful to the DOE Network for all they do to help families get answers, as well as Debra Van Fleet, detective and supervisor with the Morris County Prosecutor's Office in New Jersey for her professionalism and kindness."
Old Bridge Police Chief Thomas Collow, who is also the president of the Middlesex County Police Chiefs Association, said it is much more common now than when Smith disappeared for law enforcement agencies to solve these types of cold cases because of the inter-departmental cooperation now possible through national databases.
"There is more availability to discuss and review the cases with the new technology," Collow said.
Schmalenberger said it was im portant to her family to have clo sure, especially for Smith's daughter, who is turning 21 this year.
"She needed to know her father didn't leave her, that he loved her," she said.
Schmalenberger said her family wants people who have loved ones who are missing to know that they shouldn't give up hope. She encouraged them to remain active with networks that pursue missing- person cases.
"Not knowing has been eating at my family and me for many years," Schmalenberger said. "Knowing is so much better."
Sue Epstein may be reached at [email protected] or at (732) 293-4925.