As Amish woman slaying case proceeds, heavy hearts remain
By Dan Nephin, LNP newspaper
(Lancaster) — From almost the beginning, searchers knew something was very wrong on Monday, June 22 of last year.
The day before, 18-year-old Linda Stoltzfoos failed to return to her Upper Leacock Township home after Amish church service.
Stoltzfoos had strong family ties with her parents and eight siblings and faith. She was planning to pick up a dessert to take to a youth group meeting that afternoon: She would not have run off.
About the best that searchers could hope for was that maybe she had gotten injured and was in a field. Perhaps a broken leg?
Instead, authorities say she was kidnapped by a stranger — a crime so rare that it has happened fewer than 350 times nationwide between 2010-2017, based on FBI data compiled by the news outlet Reuters. Stoltzfoos was subsequently killed, according to Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams – likely within hours of her abduction, which happened four-tenths of a mile up the road from her home.
Susan Stauffer, president of Middle Creek Search and Rescue, recalled the emotions she and other searchers experienced in the first days after Linda’s disappearance.
“The search was heartbreaking and I honestly think I left each search crying,” she said.
The volunteer rescue group was called about 7:30 a.m. that Monday. Stauffer has been involved in a dozen searches in her 10 years with the organization, but never one so close to home: The Stoltzfoos home is about a mile and a half drive from hers, but she did not know the family before.
“It grips your heart because it’s right in my neighborhood. To think an 18-year-old girl was missing from here was very emotional. … This (search) was just different. Because it was so close to home and because of the community it hit. The Amish live a very upright life. I think a lot of them don’t know what goes on in the world.”
Tim Hoerner, president of the Hand-in-Hand Fire Company in Bird-in-Hand, which was also involved in the early searches, also recalled the impact on the community. He recalled going to the Stoltzfoos home on Beechdale Road that Monday morning. Police were already there.
“We were looking at it from, hopefully it was going to be a short-term search,” he said.
As Hoerner and others created a command center, he said, tremendous numbers of people came out, wanting to help.
The Amish are very involved in the fire company. Neighbors and friends also turned out.
“You almost can’t believe it to see when you have 400 to 600 people turn up for a search. You better have a plan in place,” he said, explaining the need for volunteer sign-ins, communications, food arrangements, debriefing and such.
“All of this was new to us,” Hoerner said. He’s taken classes on searches, “but you can’t begin to be prepared for this.”
The fire company had never worked with Middle Creek before, Hoerner said.
“We learned their ropes, so to speak. After the first day of working with them, we knew what to do and why,” he said
The search that Monday focused on the area immediately near the Stoltzfoos’ family’s home. It’s largely farms and farmland, about six mile east of downtown Lancaster.
Middle Creek conducts searches methodically, using grids mapped out with special software to guide searchers.
“There were no resources that we couldn’t come up with between the fire company and Middle Creek and the (East Lampeter Township) police department,” Hoerner said.
Search dogs. Radios. Boats and dive teams to search Mill Creek and farmer ponds. Sonar.
“As the search progressed into the next day, we looked for where she could self-hide or be hidden,” Hoerner said. Besides fields, houses, barns, sheds were searched and re-searched, as was a millrace on Beechdale.
By the second day of the local search, Hoerner said he accepted that something bad had likely happened.
Still, Hoerner said, “You try to look at life from the positive side.”
On July 10 — thanks to the help of a Beechdale Road resident’s security camera footage that captured a Kia Rio stop and a woman believed to be Stoltzfoos approach the car the day she went missing — police arrested Justo Smoker and charged him with kidnapping and false imprisonment.
The 35-year-old Paradise Township man had been released from prison about 16 months earlier after serving about half of a 12-1/2- to 30-year prison sentence for a series of armed robberies committed when he was 21.
News of the arrest rocked the searchers.
“From the standpoint of the community, no matter what, we wanted to bring closure to the family. It was really an incredible burden for them,” Hoerner said. “I think the whole community felt, we have to bring closure to them and hopefully, bring her alive but things were looking pretty gloomy.”
Based on where Smoker’s cell phone information placed him and other information, the search moved to the Welsh Mountain area some 13 miles east of where Stoltzfoos went missing.
Middle Creek led four searches there. Depending on the area, the terrain could be heavily wooded, thickets, or farm fields. The Lancaster Conservancy has a 940-acre nature preserve there, or about 1.5 square miles.
At times searchers were just five to 10 feet from each other, according to Middle Creek Chief Wesley Clark.
Being about 20 to 30 feet apart is more common.
By fall, formal searches were off. Search and rescue teams don’t just respond on their own, Clark said. Instead, they are called on by law enforcement or another official agency and act on their directives. And law enforcement doesn’t share everything it knows with searchers, he said.
The search would also become by far that organization’s largest search by far in its 27 years.
The search for Stoltzfoos was the only time Middle Creek did not find who they were looking for, Clark said.
In the end, Stoltzfoos’ body was found on April 21. She was buried about 42 inches deep on Amtrak property behind Smoker’s job, Dutchland Inc., located on Rte. 41 south of Gap. The area had previously been targeted, though the location where the remains were found is not easily accessible, District Attorney Adams said at the time of recovery.
In the May issue of The Diary, a monthly newspaper for the Amish across the country, Henry Fisher wrote, “So a group of FBI and county agents searched in vain last Wednesday April 21 until they fetched the hand-cuffed prisoner to the property where he showed them where the grave was. True to his work, the body was found wrapped in tarp 42 inches below surface. About two hours later the news appeared on the “Linda’s hotline” and spread around fast bringing a measured relief to anyone, especially to those who still carried a churning weight in their stomach of questioning grief.”
Adams has declined to comment on how investigators learned Stoltzfoos’ location.
Smoker has pleaded not guilty to charges of homicide, kidnapping and false imprisonment. He was charged with her death on Dec. 21 after prosecutors said DNA samples collected by swabbing Smoker’s cheeks matched DNA samples found on Stoltzfoos’ stockings. Pennsylvania State Police found the stockings July 10 while searching a wooded area near a Ronks business where Smoker had been seen.
Trial date has not been set.
Adams acknowledged the interest the case has had locally and beyond. Several Facebook groups about Stoltzfoos’ disappearance formed, with members from all over the world. One woman from Minnesota wrote that she cried so hard the day Stoltzfoos was found that she went into stress-induced labor and had her daughter via emergency cesarean section the day of the funeral.
“Our goal in this case has always been to bring Linda home to her family, to secure justice and to protect the community,” Adams said. “The recovery of Linda’s body and allowing the family the ability to give her a proper burial was a significant step toward obtaining justice. Our office will continue to work toward procuring a murder conviction to provide the opportunity for closure and healing for Linda’s family and the community.”
Stauffer, Middle Creek’s president, said she cried when she learned that Stoltzfoos’ body had been found and hoped it brought her family relief.
“You just can’t imagine going through this. Just to know that they have that now was just huge for me,” she said.
As they have done in the past, the Stoltzfoos family declined LNP’s request for comment.