Loudoun County Crime Solvers Cold Cases
Here's some background on this homicide...
Northern Va. Teen Vanishes
In the summer of 2002, 14-year-old Erica Heather Smith had just completed the eighth grade in Ashburn, Va., a suburb of Washington D.C. She was enjoying her summer vacation, and all of the freedom that came along with it.
Erica lived at home with her father, William "Pete" Smith, and her mother, Pamela Dade. As a child, Erica was known to be exceptionally sweet. She had always loved being around family and friends. She'd played soccer and basketball, and had been a cheerleader in middle school.
As the years went by, Erica started to bloom. She was looking forward to getting her driver's license in a few years, and like most teenage girls, she began spending all of her time holed up in her bedroom, chatting on the telephone.
Pete says he would occasionally pick up the phone and hear a male's voice on the other end -- but to Erica's parents, this was just another normal sign that their little girl was growing up.
On July 29, 2002, Erica was at home babysitting her 10-year-old brother, Billy, while their parents were at work. Around lunchtime, Erica told her brother she was heading out to meet a friend, and that she'd be back in a little while.
But by nightfall, Erica still hadn't returned -- and even more troubling, the friend she'd supposedly gone to meet told Erica's parents she hadn't talked to or seen Erica that day.
Pete and Pam were panicked. When they found a list of phone numbers upstairs in their Erica's bedroom, they began calling every number, desperate to hear from anyone who might know where their daughter could be. But no one seemed to know anything.
With fear closing in around them, Erica's parents called police.
With no leads, and no suspects, homicide investigators began looking into Erica's personal life for clues -- and what they found shocked even veteran cops.
A Parent's Worst Nightmare
Erica's parents were panicked, desperate, and clinging to the hope that their daughter would come home soon.
But after eleven days, the search for Erica tragically ended in a secluded area of Northern Virginia, just outside Redskins Park.
Cops say two hikers were walking through the woods when they stumbled upon a shallow grave. Buried beneath the dirt were the remains of a teenage girl.
On August 19, 2002, Erica was laid to rest, only days before she was supposed to start her freshman year of high school.
The Secrets She Kept
It turned out that Erica had kept a diary, and in those diaries, cops found names and numbers of several guys with whom she'd apparently had sexual encounters. To cops, it was clear that Erica was living a lifestyle that was completely different from what her parents thought.
While Erica's parents thought she occasionally talked to boys on the phone, cops learned the reality was much more intense. They say 14-year-old Erica was known to chat on the phone with guys as old as 21 -- then sometimes go meet them at a gas station near her house.
There was so much Erica's parents didn't know about their daughter -- but eventually, Pete and Pam found the strength to read Erica's diary for the first time, hoping the entries inside would shed some light on her unexplained life and death.
Pete and Pam were shocked by how little they knew about Erica's secret life.
"As a mother that's sad. That's sad because I thought I knew my daughter, but I didn't," said Pam after reading the diaries.
But Erica's situation isn't as unique as it may seem.
Best-selling Author Sheds Light On Erica's Case
Police say this appears to be a manufacturer's label or tag, but they haven't been able to identify it.
When it comes to teens and the secrets they keep, few people understand them quite like Rosalind Wiseman, author of the New York Times Bestseller "Queen Bees and Wannabes." The book is the basis for the hit movie "Mean Girls."
Rosalind has spent nearly 20 years working directly with teens just like Erica, and has made it her goal to help parents and teachers understand the hidden world of teenage girls.
She sat down with AMW to read Erica's diary and to provide her expert insight into what Erica might have been going through leading up to her murder.
"This was a girl who really, really needed attention badly," says Rosalind. "One of the ways she felt really validated was in her relationships with, or the drama, that she was having in her interactions with guys."
One of the most heartbreaking entries for Pete and Pam to read was a section where Erica wrote about being pregnant -- a claim her friends later revealed to police was a lie, and something she told several boys whom she was seeing to keep them from leaving her.
"I cannot stress to you enough how so many girls get into this situation and are really desperate for the validation they get from relationships with boys," says Rosalind. "She would have absolutely said whatever she needed to say to have made her feel like she was getting affirmed, liked, felt attractive by the guy that was talking to her."
Erica's parents, along with police, can only wonder if Erica's false pregnancy scares may have been the motive for her murder.
Erica's friends told police that in the weeks leading up to her murder, she was anxiously waiting for an older guy she'd been seeing to return from a family vacation in Europe.
Cops believe she may have told him the same thing she told other boys about the possibility of being pregnant. Cops fear that a young man who suddenly gets news that he's having an unexpected child brought into the equation might have a motive for murder.
One of Erica's other boyfriends told cops that the morning she disappeared, she had called him, bragging that the older guy was back from Europe and was taking her on a shopping spree at a local mall that afternoon.
Just a short time after that phone call, Erica walked out of her house, never to return again. She was found wearing the same clothes she left the house in that day, leading cops to believe the person who came to pick her up is possibly the guy who'd just returned from Europe.
Cops say they haven't pinpointed who this person is -- but they believe several people who knew Erica at the time of her murder do.
Police Track Important Clues
Police have tracked many leads in this investigation, and so far have come up empty-handed. But there are several clues that could be important.
Near Erica's body, police found a small sticker that resembles a manufacturer's tag or label. Police believe it could have come from a European company, and are hoping someone in the public can help them identity the source of the sticker.
Another key piece of information is where Erica's body was found: it's an area between Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway, near Redskin Park. Police believe that Erica's killer may have been to this spot several times.
Although that area has become more developed since the murder, it used to be a secluded party spot. Police are hoping to talk to anyone who used to spend time there in 2001 or 2002 because they may be able to provide information that will lead to the identity of Erica's killer.
Pete and Pam will forever be haunted by the secrets Erica kept. But they carry on, hoping each day will bring them closer to finding out who murdered their child. Cops hope someone in the public can help them bring some peace to Erica's family.
Murder , Loudoun County , VA ; Jul 29, 2002
(Information valid as of August 3, 2009)
Police say 14-year-old Erica Smith left her home one afternoon and never returned.