Monday, December 27, 2021

The Churchgoer and the Killer

Amish Teen Kidnapped, Raped and Murdered on her Way Home from Church

By Robert A. Waters

In the middle of a clear day, on Stumptown Road in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, Linda Stoltzfoos vanished. That Sunday morning, the eighteen-year-old Amish girl had been walking home from church. She planned to change clothes, then attend a youth group meeting from 2:00 until 11:00 p.m. When Linda didn’t come home that night, her father reported her missing.

Bird-in-Hand is a township of about 400 souls. Most residents are Amish. Neat farms dot the landscape, and cars mingle with distinctive Amish buggies on its roads. Crime of any sort is almost non-existent, much less an abduction. For that reason, many lawmen thought Linda might have run away.

As soon as word went out, the Amish community showed up in force to scour the fields, pastures, and woodlands for one of their own. In addition to hundreds of searchers, investigators from the East Lampeter Township Police Department, Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, and even the FBI, joined the desperate hunt. Linda was described as being five-feet, ten inches tall and weighing about 125 pounds. She wore a tan dress, a white apron and cape, and a black head covering.

K-9 teams followed scents and horsemen beat through woodland trails and streams. As the day wore on, helicopters, drones, and dogs joined the search. That evening, more than a hundred people held an impromptu prayer vigil.

Friends told investigators that the teen was happy with her lifestyle and would never run away. She didn’t own a cellphone, nor did she have a boyfriend. She worked as an assistant at a local school, helping to tutor students with learning disabilities. Linda was last seen walking away from the church barefoot, holding her shoes in her hand. She would likely have walked along Stumptown Road to get to her home.

A resident, Isaac Esh, told investigators he’d been sitting on his front porch at about 12:30 p.m. when he saw a red sedan drive past his home. Police reports state the car was “traveling East on Stumptown Road coming from the area of Linda’s church then turned around on Red Lane. It paused for approximately one minute before traveling back west on Stumptown Road.” Esh described the driver as a “white man with dark skin.”

Several other witnesses reported seeing an “Amish girl” riding in a bright red Kia Rio compact car with a distinctive spoiler on it. Fortunately, several homeowners in the area had surveillance video cameras pointing toward the highway. Footage confirmed the tips. One witness thought the car’s movements suspicious enough to write down the license plate number. A records check revealed the car belonged to Justo Roberto Smoker, 35. Detectives felt sure it was the same vehicle spotted by witnesses. Smoker was employed by Dutchland, Inc., so investigators drove to the business. There they saw the car sitting in the parking lot. Comparing the rear spoiler and a distinctive “LCM” sticker on the back, cops knew they had a match.

Meanwhile, searchers located some of the girl’s clothing, including her bra and stockings buried behind Dutchland, Inc. Semen stains found on the stockings matched Smoker’s DNA profile. Linda, however, was still missing and lawmen were not hopeful that she would be found alive.

Detectives arrested Justo Smoker and charged him with criminal homicide, felony kidnapping, and false imprisonment. In addition to the witness identifications and surveillance videos, his cellphone records proved he’d been in the area at the time Linda vanished.

As police studied the videos collected from residents of the area, they realized that one 40-second clip showed the actual abduction. As the red Kia passed by Esh's home, it stopped and sat on the side of the road for a minute, then turned back and headed toward the church Linda attended. During that moment of time, the video portrays a figure (i.e., Justo Smoker) walking across Stumptown Road as Linda came by. A legal affidavit states that “after encountering Stoltzfoos, there appears to be motion toward the area of the head of Stoltzfoos consistent with placing something over her head and two people walking back toward the parked car at 12:41.”

Smoker initially pleaded “not guilty,” but when he learned prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, he decided to make a deal. As part of the agreement, Smoker led investigators to a shallow grave in a heavily wooded area.

Exactly ten months after her disappearance, investigators from the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police, and FBI recovered Linda’s remains. Dental records revealed what they already knew--that the remains were indeed those of Stoltzfoos. An autopsy showed she’d been strangled to death and stabbed in the neck with a knife. During his confession, cops learned Smoker had moved the body from its original grave to a spot behind his place of employment.

Assistant Lancaster County District Attorney Todd Brown told reporters that after Smoker sexually assaulted his victim, he “approached Linda from behind and choked her with his arm under her neck and then with shoelaces until she was no longer breathing. He then stabbed her in the neck one time to ensure that she was dead.” The coroner said Linda was still alive when she was stabbed.

Justo may have been stalking Amish women. In the days prior to Linda’s kidnapping, there were many sightings of him driving up and down the roads as Amish girls walked along. According to his own family, he had been “trouble” all his life. Born in Costa Rica, the suspect had spent his first seven years in an orphanage. After his birth mother died, Vernon and Deb Smoker of Lancaster adopted him and his brother. While still in high school, Smoker developed a drug habit and committed a series of robberies to stoke his habit. Stores and farmer’s markets were his favorite targets. In his crimes, he used a BB gun that looked like a real firearm to terrorize clerks.  Justo received ten years in prison for his crimes and was released on parole in 2019.

Smoker pleaded guilty to third degree murder, kidnapping, abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence and possession of an instrument of crime. He received 37 ½ to 71 years. In addition, he will serve 17 ½ years for violating his parole.

Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth thundered from bench that the “senseless killing of Linda Stoltzfoos is contrary to all we hold dear in a civilized society.”

As his mother wept in the courtroom, Smoker turned to the audience and said, “They raised me better than this.”

Sunday, December 19, 2021