The Disappearance of Sage Smith

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EARLY LIFE:

Sage Smith was born Dashad Laquinn Smith on December 13, 1992 to parents Latasha Dennis and Dean Smith. Not long after she was born, her parents divorced and her father was incarcerated on a drug charge. While he would eventually be let out and form a close relationship with his child, Dean and his wife would remain separated and would eventually marry new partners, resulting in Sage’s extended family growing to include numerous step siblings.

Due to an unstable home environment, Sage was primarily raised by her paternal grandmother, Lolita “Cookie” Smith. For a time, Sage and Cookie lived in Garrett Square, an affordable housing complex located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite having a fairly low income, Cookie was a dedicated parent to Sage and the two grew very close. She was also a prominent figure in the local community, serving on the tenants association and the residential patrol.

When Sage was 12 years old, she and Cookie moved to Charlottesville’s Fifeville neighbourhood, where she would meet one of her dearest friends, Shakira Washington, who lived two doors down. Eventually, she would be returned to her mother’s care, but after Latasha was deemed unfit to take care of her, Sage was then placed into the foster system.

While in her teens, Sage came out as transgender, telling her friends and family that she identified as a woman. She didn’t like labels and saw herself as gender fluid. Her family had known she was gay from a young age and, for the most part, had accepted it and were simply waiting for her to feel comfortable enough to come out. Dean had trouble initially accepting her sexuality. When she told him, he informed her that he no longer wanted any contact with her, which deeply upset Sage and others in the family. He would eventually reconnect with her after his youngest son took him aside and reminded him that he’d always told his children to be happy with themselves.

While Sage was becoming more comfortable with who she was, she found the transition to be difficult due to the harassment and bullying she and her friends experienced. Due to this harassment, she was cautious. She always ensured she didn’t walk home alone, and she would never go somewhere with a person she didn’t know.

Sage was described as being incredibly charismatic and energetic, a person who had a smile that could light up a room. She was a social butterfly and had a presence that was unforgettable. One of her passions was dancing and every weekend she and her friends would get dressed up and go out to the only queer club in Charlottesville or to the strip club located near the University of Virginia. It’s said she honed her dancing skills by making YouTube videos whilst in high school.

She was also known for being quite fashionable and liked to impress those around her. She took pride in the way she looked and would ensure she always looked her best before going out.

In 2011, Sage became the first person in her family to graduate from high school, despite struggling at times to maintain her grades. About a year later, in March 2012, she moved into her own apartment with the assistance of the foster care system, and soon invited Shakira and her other friend, Aubrey Carson, to live with her. The apartment, which was located on Harris Street, was dubbed “The Dollhouse Mansion” due to its pink walls, and the girls would often host parties.

In order to make ends meet, Sage worked at a hair salon, where she swept up hair. She dreamed of one day becoming a professional hairdresser and was taking classes at a cosmetology school in order to make this goal a reality.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

On the night of November 19, 2012, the girls held a party at the apartment, in celebration of Shakira’s 19th birthday. At some point, a girl arrived and stated that she wanted to fight one of Sage’s friends over a man, an altercation which ended up outside. Sage got involved and began fighting an acquaintance by the name of Jamel Smith, which led to the police being called. At around 11:20pm, they arrived on scene, and while Jamel filed a report against Sage, claiming she’d damaged his car, no one was arrested and the officers soon left. Not long after this, Shakira contacted some friends in Norfolk, Virginia and asked them to pick her up and take her to the coast for a few days, something they did the next morning. According to Shakira, Sage was angry with her at the time and had felt she should have intervened in the fight on her behalf.

The next morning, Sage called her father to congratulate him on the anniversary of him being released from jail. While on the call, she’d asked him for money. Sources differ on what the money was for, with some stating she wanted to get her hair braided, while others state the funds would go toward purchasing a new TV for the apartment. With Thanksgiving the next day, Sage was excited, as she would be travelling to Louisa County to surprise her stepsisters, who lived with Latasha. She was also eager to see her mother’s new house. According to Latasha, Sage never responded to any of the calls or texts she sent that day.

Around 5:00pm that evening, Sage was at home, getting ready for a date. At 5:40pm, she woke up Aubrey, who had been sleeping in the living room, to tell her she was heading out and would be back later on that evening. However, when Aubrey woke up a few hours later, she found the apartment was dark and Sage wasn’t there, with all calls made to her cellphone being sent directly to voicemail.

DISAPPEARANCE:

On November 21, 2012, Aubrey awoke to find Sage still hadn’t returned to the apartment. When she tried to call her cellphone, she found it kept going straight to voicemail, which struck her as odd, since Sage constantly had her phone on her and always had its charger on hand. Worried, she contacted a few friends, which is when she learnt that Sage’s stepsister, Keyera Morgan, had seen her the previous night around 6:30pm, on Main Street, near the intersection of west Main Street and 4th Street NW. Keyera had been walking to the bus stop when she saw Sage talking on the phone. While she was unsure who she had been speaking with, she did recall hearing her say she’d be “there” in five minutes.

Aubrey then called Cookie, who felt immediately troubled and knew something wasn’t right. She told Aubrey to wait until 10:00pm that night and to report Sage as missing if she didn’t return before then.

INVESTIGATION:

The Charlottesville Police Department started their investigation into Sage’s disappearance on November 22, 2012. They were immediately concerned about foul play, as they were aware of the sort of violence those who are transgender face, and thus worked to collect statements from her friends and family, in the hopes of developing a timeline of her movements. According to Aubrey, the department hadn’t actually taken the case as seriously as they let on, saying they’d only asked for Sage’s name, birthday and picture.

Dean was the one to inform Latasha that Sage was missing. She was nervous, as Sage always had her phone on her and would always respond to calls and messages from family. In order to not alarm her daughters, Eanna and Rashaa Langston, she stayed quiet about the news. Unfortunately, the girls soon learnt of their sibling’s disappearance after seeing a post about it on Facebook.

In order to get a better picture of Sage’s movements on the night she disappeared, investigators subpoenaed her cellphone records. As the process was slated to take a few days, so the family took matters into their own hands. They guessed Sage’s account password and soon accessed the records themselves, where they learnt her last-known contact was with an unknown person who possessed an out-of-state number. Hoping to catch a break, Dean posted the number on Facebook and was soon contacted by a person by the name of Yami Ortiz, who claimed it belonged to a man named Erik McFadden.

According to Ortiz, Sage had been dating McFadden, who was not yet openly out about his sexuality. He told Dean that he and McFadden had exchanged texts and emails, and had even met on multiple occasions, and that out of the blue, he’d messaged Ortiz on November 21 and asked him to delete his contact information from his phone. Despite thinking this was a bit odd, he’d thought nothing of it until he’d seen Dean’s Facebook post.

Dean soon learnt that Sage and McFadden had met online, most likely through one of Sage’s Casual Encounters ads on Craigslist, and had been texting and calling each other for weeks. McFadden, who was in a relationship with a woman named Esther Iveni, had paid Sage money to keep their relationship a secret. However, it’s unknown if the money exchanged was due to blackmail, prostitution or if it is unrelated to either scenario. Ortiz provided Dean with an image of McFadden, which he then shared on Facebook. He didn’t share this information with the authorities out of fear of them shutting down his own investigation into Sage’s disappearance. On November 23, Ortiz connected McFadden and made him aware of the investigation.

In the hopes of finding Sage, a group of officers conducted a grid search of Main Street and the surrounding area, which is heavily trafficked due to the nearby bus and train stations. They checked open lots, trashcans, fields, parking lots and dumpsters, and canvassed nearby businesses for surveillance footage. Unfortunately, those who had security cameras did not capture anything, and the only other camera was one that monitored traffic.

On November 24, police conducted a search of Harris Street and around the University of Virginia. That same day, they learnt about the possible connection Erik McFadden had to the investigation, after Esther called them and asked that they perform a welfare check. She was out of town at the time and hadn’t been able to reach him, so she’d wanted them to check he wasn’t incapacitated in their apartment. When they arrived at the residence on 14th Street, they found no one was home and left.

Later that day, Ortiz visited the police department and told them about McFadden, their relationship and Dean’s Facebook post. When they contacted McFadden’s work, they found he hadn’t showed up for three days. Police soon went public with the information about the possible link between his and Sage’s disappearances. They put up posters featuring both their images and descriptions on telephone poles, convenience store counters and community bulletin boards.

With Esther’s consent, investigators searched the apartment, located in downtown Charlottesville. They hoped to find any fingerprints, DNA, blood or other evidence that would show Sage had recently been at the apartment. They seized McFadden’s computer, and while there uncovered a receipt from a nearby CVS, which showed he’d made a purchase on November 22, only a few days prior. This was later proven by surveillance footage from the store. This led investigators to believe he may have left town after being outed by Dean on Facebook. They spoke to Aubrey about McFadden, who told them she’d only met him briefly during an encounter on Main Street with Sage.

Throughout the beginning of the investigation, the family held numerous vigils to help raise awareness about the case.

Eventually, investigators were given access to Sage’s cellphone records, which confirmed she’d been on call with McFadden around the time she was last seen. While the records showed her phone had been off since her disappearance, it had pinged off a tower near her apartment. However, it was noted that, given Charlottesville is a small city, the cell towers are not far apart, meaning the findings weren’t conclusive.

The records did show that McFadden and Sage had texted numerous times throughout the night, and from that police were able to develop a more thorough timeline for the evening of November 20:

  • 5:17pm – Sage sent a text, asking McFadden when he was leaving.
  • 5:20pm – McFadden responded, saying he had already left and was at the Hampton Inn.
  • 5:17pm to 5:40pm – The pair texted on and off.
  • 5:40pm – Sage left her apartment and made her way to downtown Charlottesville.
  • 6:08pm- McFadden texted Sage, asking where she was.
  • 6:12pm – McFadden again inquired about Sage’s whereabouts.
  • 6:18pm to 6:37pm – McFadden texted Sage numerous times, but as she was on a call with a friend, it’s unsure if she saw these messages.
  • 6:27pm – Upset, McFadden texted Sage again, claiming she’d stood him up.
  • 6:35pm – Keyera saw Sage walking down 4th Street NW, near the 400 block of west Main Street.
  • 6:40pm – Sage walked westbound on west Main Street.

On November 25, McFadden contacted Esther and told her he was in Washington, D.C. and needed money. She informed him that the police wished to speak with him and gave him their contact information. Two days later, he called them from New York City and explained that he hadn’t left the Charlottesville area because he was involved in Sage’s disappearance. During the call, he confirmed he’d had a relationship with Sage and that the pair had arranged to meet in front of the Amtrak station on Main Street, but said that she’d never appeared.

Investigators in Charlottesville requested McFadden travel back to town, but he immediately hung up. Later, Esther contacted them to say her boyfriend had agreed to return, so long as someone was there to pick him up from the bus station. However, an hour and a half before he was scheduled to board the bus back to Charlottesville, he emailed Esther to inform her he’d changed his mind.

McFadden’s strange behaviour confused the family, who wondered why he wasn’t cooperating with the investigation if he had nothing to hide. This led them to believe he was somehow involved.

During the first week of the investigation, Cookie claims to have tried to contact investigators numerous times. It took her leaving several messages for them to return her calls.

On November 28, investigators searched the streets and wooded areas along west Main Street, before expanding the search to include the area around McFadden’s apartment. They also held their first press conference regarding the case, where they stated it wasn’t a criminal investigation, as they had no evidence to prove that anything criminal had occurred.

On November 30, Police visited a trash expert, who helped them to determine that the garbage in the dumpster located behind McFadden’s apartment was transported to a landfill 60 miles away in Henrico County, just outside Richmond, Virginia.

Three days later, Esther came to the police department after receiving an email from McFadden, where he described the night Sage went missing. This provided a different sequence of events to the one he had initially shared with investigators. According to the email, he and Sage had met up on the night in questions and when walking down the street were approached by a group of people. Claiming Sage had enemies, he wrote that he’d walked away before anything bad could happen. This suggested that McFadden had been afraid of whomever he’d seen, but as his story had changed, police were unsure if it was the truth.

The email also alleged that Sage had been blackmailing McFadden and that she’d asked for money or else she’d tell Esther that she and her boyfriend were in a secret relationship. He ended it by writing that he was heading to the midwest, and he apologized for hurting her.

After learning of the email, McFadden shot to the top of the suspect list. As a result, police obtained warrants to search his computer, email accounts, social media and bank accounts, but uncovered no evidence.

Police searched through Sage’s social media accounts, which showed no use since the night she disappeared. Through this search, they learnt that many of her previous partners were not openly gay and thus had been keeping the information on the down low. According to one friend, one of the relationships had been with a man whose girlfriend had learnt of his meetings with Sage after discovering emails. The man had blamed Sage and had attacked her one night while she was walking home. The assault had resulted in charges being laid. However, it was later confirmed he had no involvement in Sage’s disappearance, as he had been incarcerated at the time.

On December 3, the family made a public statement, wherein they questioned the city’s response to Sage’s disappearance, saying it hadn’t gotten the attention it deserved. That same day, Aubrey was discovered using Sage’s food stamp card at a local convenience store. When questioned, she told investigators that the three roommates often shared their possessions and that she had taken the card in order to purchase groceries for the apartment. This led for suspicion to grow around Aubrey, as police weren’t able to confirm her alibi for the night of November 20.

During December 2012, three major searches occurred in relation to the case. The first was a search of the areas around Main Street and McFadden’s apartment, as well as around some nearby railroad tracks, with the assistance of officers from the Virginia Department of Emergency Association and cadaver dogs from the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association. While one of the dogs gave a “slight indication” that it had picked up Sage’s scent, the lead went nowhere.

The second search was of a sediment pond, which was scoured by a police dive team. Unfortunately, that search turned up empty.

The third search was of the landfill in Henrico County. It consisted of the Charlottesville Police Department, officers from Henrico County, personnel from the forensic and hazmat teams, two police dogs, and a retired Special Agent who had extensive knowledge of landfill searches. Despite over 12 individuals walking around the landfill, nothing of interest to the case was located.

Toward the end of 2012, a reward of $10,000 was supplied by an anonymous donor in the hopes of prompting more people with information about the investigation to come forward.

Frustrated and of the belief that the police department wasn’t taking the case seriously, the family requested to speak with the then police chief. This meeting took nine months to occur. While waiting for the meeting, they went public with their concerns about the lack of developments in the investigation.

A new eyewitness in the case came forward in February 2013, saying they’d seen Sage at a local café on the night she went missing. The witness, Monica Williams, contacted police to say she’d seen Sage at the Wild Wings Café on Main Street around 7:00pm on the evening of November 20, 2012. According to Monica, she was alone and waiting for someone at the bar. This information caused police to re-examine their timeline, as the café shares a building with the Amtrak station. This led them to look into the possibility that Sage could have had enough time to meet up with McFadden, before seeing Keyera and Monica, which would mean McFadden was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, the café didn’t have any surveillance cameras, and when investigators spoke to the manager, they said they’d seen a group of individuals in the establishment, but were’t able to confirm is one of them was Sage.

In May 2013, investigators upped their efforts to locate Sage. They contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in the hopes of getting their assistance in getting word out about the case, and uploaded her dental records to a national registry, should her body be located.

2013 was the last time Erik contacted Esther. He’d reached out to her on and off via various emails, but given he abandoned them after one use, investigators were not able to trace his movements.

The family held a vigil to mark the first anniversary of Sage’s disappearance.

Investigators have travelled to Tidewater twice in relation to the case. The first was regarding a reported sighting of Erik, while the second was following a report that Sage had been seen in the area.

The disappearance of 18-year-old Hannah Graham from Charlottesville raised concerns for Sage’s family. The search for the missing girl turned out to be the largest and most expensive in Virginia’s history, and Sage’s family wondered why they’d not received the same support and attention from the community. They felt there was a bias toward them, given Sage’s race and sexuality.

Around the second anniversary of Sage’s disappearance, police once again took to the streets in order to distribute flyers to local businesses and along Main Street, with a particular focus on where she was last seen. That same month, they announced that McFadden was no longer considered a suspect in the investigation, as a more thorough look at his digital footprint didn’t line up with someone who had the time to commit a criminal act that night. They also stated that he hadn’t the means to harm Sage, as he didn’t drive or own a car, and he lived in a heavily populated area where residents would notice something out of the ordinary.

In January 2016, police got a call from Chincoteague, Virginia, some 300 miles away, of a possible sighting of Sage. However, when they arrived, it turned out to be her former roommate, Shakira. While there, they interviewed Sharkira and learnt that Aubrey wasn’t being completely forthcoming with what she knew. Shakira also informed them that she had become unsettled about Aubrey using Sage’s food stamp card and other personal belongings.

Keyera was also re-interviewed, which led to further suspicion falling on Aubrey. Keyera told them that Sage and Aubrey had been in competition with each other and that Aubrey was jealous of her roommate. When approached about these allegations, Aubrey claimed it was all a misunderstanding. However, holes in her story began to emerge. It was discovered that she’d seen McFadden more than the one time she claimed, as police learnt of a meeting between them and Sage the Saturday before November 20, 2012. They also felt her behaviour was indicative of someone hiding something, but she continued to claim she had told them all she knew.

It should be noted that police have no evidence linking Aubrey to Sage’s disappearance.

Police announced in March 2017 that McFadden was once again a person of interest in the case, this time more so as a witness than as a suspect. They also announced that, as of December 2016, the case had been changed to a homicide investigation. When asked why they’d delayed sharing this information, they cited it was out of respect for the family.

In May 2018, investigators, along with a forensic unit, took another look at Sage’s old apartment. The search took several days. It’s unknown if anything of interest was uncovered.

McFadden’s mother officially reported him as a missing person with the Charlottesville Police Department in June 2019. According to his mother, she hadn’t know he was missing until 2014 and had been under the impression that his father had filed a report with police. She and McFadden’s stepmother are currently under the impression he may be deceased. According to investigators, they have information that states he may be in the following cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Joppatowne, Maryland; Atlanta, Georgia; Lake City, South Carolina; New York City, New York; Rochester, New York; and a variety of other areas along the west coast. They have also shared that he may have travelled south, possibly to South Carolina or Georgia.

Between June and November 2019, investigators received over a dozen tips related to the case.

Over the course of the investigation, people, especially Sage’s family, have been critical of how police have handled it. Aubrey claims it took investigators more than two weeks to interview her, and people have been critical of how long it took for the Charlottesville Police Department to request help from outside agencies. There’s also the fact they didn’t prevent the trash from around McFadden’s apartment from being collected, despite being advised to do so.

While investigators have said they’ve spent countless hours examining evidence and reviewing witness statements, the family has repeatedly said that those involved with the case have not been open with them, nor have they kept in contact. The department’s new police chief approached them regarding this claim and acknowledged that his officers had dropped the ball.

A petition has been started to encourage the police department to keep heavily investigating Sage’s disappearance. It asks that investigators begin to better communicate with Cookie, and requests they expand the investigation beyond its focus on McFadden. It also asks that the department publicly apologize for its mishandling of the case, especially surrounding the amount of time it took for it to be designated as a criminal investigation. Finally, it requested that the media respect the pronouns Sage went by, and urged for regular meetings with the family.

As of May 2020, Sage’s case is still being treated as a probable homicide. Investigators have teamed up with the FBI in their search for answers, and there is currently a $20,000 reward for information.

THEORIES:

1) The primary theory in the investigation is that Erik McFadden was involved in Sage’s disappearance. This is due to the inconsistencies in his story, as well as his decision to leave the Charlottesville area not long after Sage was reported missing. As aforementioned, he’s considered a person of interest in the case and investigators are looking to speak with him in order to gain a better understanding of what happened on the night of November 20, 2012.

McFadden is still missing and listed as a missing person by the Charlottesville Police Department.

2) Some have shared that Aubrey may have been somehow involved in Sage’s disappearance. Similar to McFadden, this is due to the inconsistencies in her version of events, as well as the fact she is said to have begun using Sage’s possessions not long after she went missing. Aubrey maintains her innocence and continues to claim she’s shared all she knows with investigators.

3) The final theory in the case is that Jamel Smith, the individual Sage got into a physical altercation with on November 19, 2012, may have been involved. According to investigators, he doesn’t have an alibi for the night she went missing, and he’s said to have been very upset about the fight and how it turned out. Unfortunately, police have not been able to properly question him, as he’s nowhere to be found.

AFTERMATH:

For several months after Sage disappeared, Cookie would get numerous calls from a blocked number between 1:00am and 3:00am a couple of nights a week. However, when she would answer, there would be no one on the other end. The calls stopped when Cookie lost her phone and had to get a new number.

Dean has shared that he’s filled with regret with how he treated Sage after coming out. He wishes he could have acted differently and not lost that time with his child.

Since Sage’s disappearance, Cookie has become seriously ill. She was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has undergone triple bypass surgery.

Sage’s stepsister, Eanna, wishes Sage could have been around to see the milestones she’s hit since her disappearance, including graduating from high school and getting her driver’s license.

The CUE Center for Missing Persons had a bench made up in Sage’s honour. As well, the Remember Tour recently made a stop in Charlottesville and Sage was amongst those honoured.

The family hopes that Sage’s disappearance leads to cases involving transgender youth being treated differently in the future.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Sage Smith went missing from the 500 block of west Main Street in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia on November 20, 2012. She was 19 years old, and was last seen wearing a black jacket, dark grey sweatpants, a black scarf, and grey and black rain boots with pink and purple lining. She may have also been wearing a bleached hooded sweatshirt. At the time of her disappearance, she stood between 5’8″ and 5’11” and weighed 130 pounds. She has black hair, which is usually worn in braids, and brown eyes, and was known to wear women’s clothes and wigs. Her ears and eyebrow are pierced

Currently, her case is classified as endangered missing. If alive, she would be 27 years old.

Erik McFadden was last seen in Charlottesville, Virginia on November 23, 2012. He was 21 years old. At the time of his disappearance, he stood between 5’10” and 6’1″ and weighed approximately 180 to 190 pounds. He has black hair and brown eyes.

Currently, his case is classified as endangered missing. If alive, he would be either 28 or 29 years old.

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the Charlottesville Police Department at 434-970-3280. Tips can also be called into Crime Stoppers at 434-977-4000 or the family tip line at 434-970-3381.

Image Credit: NBC News

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