LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Authorities in rural Pennsylvania marked the 10-month anniversary of the abduction of Linda Stoltzfoos in a grim way, by recovering human remains they believe belong to the Amish teen.
The remains were discovered Wednesday during a search in eastern Lancaster County, according to the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.
“The Lancaster County Coroner’s Office has been called to the scene,” prosecutors said in a news release. “The scene will be forensically processed, and the remains will then be released to the Lancaster County coroner for official identification and determination of cause and manner of death.
“The Stoltzfoos family has been notified of this update and are understandably still processing this information. We ask that the family be given privacy during this difficult time.”
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Though an identification has not been made official, Stoltzfoos’ uncle, Mervin Fisher, confirmed to multiple reporters that the remains are those of his 18-year-old niece.
“You’re never ready for news like this,” Fisher said, according to CBS 21 in Harrisburg.
Fisher told Lancaster Online that the family had been hoping for closure in the case.
“It’s not the news we wanted, but progress is moving forward to bring Linda to rest,” he said.
District Attorney Heather Adams and her staff are working closely with the FBI, the East Lampeter Township Police Department and the Pennsylvania State Police, all of whom are involved in the recovery efforts.
Stoltzfoos, 18, of Bird-in-Hand, made national headlines following her June 21 abduction, which took place as she walked home from church. Bird-in-Hand is a small, peaceful community just east of Lancaster that includes a large Amish and Mennonite population.
The teen’s abduction was captured on security camera footage near her home.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that multiple law enforcement agencies and community groups have put in more than 15,000 hours searching for Stoltzfoos since June.
On July 10, authorities arrested Justo Roberto Smoker, 34, of nearby Paradise, in connection with Stoltzfoos’s abduction. A homicide charge was added in late December after prosecutors determined that the “passing of time, along with the complete cessation of all routine activities led to the inevitable conclusion that Linda was deceased and that Smoker caused her death.”
Smoker is charged with criminal homicide, kidnapping and false imprisonment. He remained Wednesday in the Lancaster County Prison, where he is being held without bail.
A probable cause affidavit in the case alleges that East Lampeter Township police officers responded to the Stoltzfoos home about 2:23 a.m. June 22, after the teen’s father called to report her missing.
“Lloyd (Stoltzfoos) noted that after the church service, Linda was going to walk home and change her clothing before going to youth group,” East Lampeter police Detective Christopher Jones wrote. “Lloyd reported when Linda did not come home after youth group, they checked her room and did not locate her church clothing.
“This led Lloyd to believe that Linda never made it home after church.”
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The farm where the church service had been held is a mile from the Stoltzfoos farm. The service ended at noon, and Linda Stoltzfoos’ youth group was expected to last from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.
A fellow church congregant, Lillian Ebersole, told investigators she had helped with dishes after the church service and had spoken with Stoltzfoos, who left for home between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m.
“The two spoke out in front of the barn before Linda indicated she was going to head home,” the affidavit states. “Lillian reported that Linda was carrying her shoes in her hand, walking away barefooted the last time she observed her.”
Ebersole described her conversation with the teen as a good one, and described Stoltzfoos as “a very content person who was happy with her lifestyle.” The girl had never had a cellphone or a boyfriend.
Ebersole was the last person to see Stoltzfoos before she vanished.
Three of Stoltzfoos’ friends were also interviewed, and they indicated they’d all spent time together two days before she disappeared. The teen was in a good mood, had acted normally and promised to see them all at Sunday’s youth group.
“The girls indicated that Linda never showed up at youth group and they just figured she was sick,” Jones wrote.
All agreed with Ebersole that Stoltzfoos was content and would not have left without telling anyone. The teen, who worked in the community and tutored Amish children with learning disorders, had several activities and trips planned for the upcoming weeks that she was looking forward to.
“She was abducted a mile from the church,” East Lampeter Township police Lt. Matthew Hess told People last year. “This kidnapping occurred so close to home and so close to church. It’s just shocking that it happened in broad daylight.”
The red sedan
Isaac Esh, who lives along Stumptown Road, told detectives that between 12:30 p.m. and 12:45 p.m. June 21, he was sitting on his porch watching traffic when a red sedan drove east past his home, heading away from the location of Stoltzfoos’ final church service.
The driver turned around on nearby Red Lane.
“When the vehicle turned around on Red Lane, it paused for approximately one minute before traveling back west on Stumptown Road, again directly in front of Issac’s residence, and heading toward the area of Linda’s church,” Jones wrote.
The car would have passed on the road where Stoltzfoos was walking home.
Esh told investigators that the driver, who he described as a white, possibly Hispanic, man with dark hair and dark skin, was alone in the car at that time.
Security footage obtained July 8 from the 500 block of Beechdale Road, near the Stoltzfoos home, showed the red vehicle moving south, away from Stumptown Road, at 12:42 p.m. the day Stoltzfoos disappeared.
A forensic examination by FBI officials determined the car was a Kia Rio with a rear spoiler and stickers on the trunk, the affidavit states.
Detectives conducting a police record check learned that Smoker, who worked for a water treatment supplier in nearby Gap, owned a red 2007 Kia Rio. Smoker lived about six miles from the area where Stoltzfoos was last seen.
That same day, July 8, the investigators traveled to Smoker’s workplace and spotted his Rio in the parking lot.
“The vehicle appeared to be reddish/orange in color, with a missing front passenger side hubcap and damage to the passenger side rocker panel,” Jones wrote.
The detective compared those unique traits of the vehicle to the car spotted in the surveillance footage. They appeared to match, he wrote.
A driver’s license photo of Smoker showed that he also matched the description Esh had given of the driver he’d seen on June 21.
Investigators interviewed Smoker at his home on July 9.
“Justo reported he did not know Linda Stoltzfoos and could provide no information about her disappearance,” Jones wrote.
He also denied being in the area of her abduction when it took place, according to the detective.
The day after Smoker’s first interview, a detective enlarged and watched the video of the red Rio. In the footage, the car pulls off onto the side of the road and out of the camera’s view at 12:36 p.m.
Four minutes later, the investigator spotted who he believed to be Stoltzfoos as she walked home. In the video, her white apron could be seen.
“A second person, believed to be Justo Smoker, then appears into the camera view from the area where the vehicle pulled off and is observed crossing on foot from the west side of Beechdale Road across the road toward the person wearing white at 12:41:18 hrs.,” the affidavit states.
After encountering the teen, “there appears to be motion toward the head area of Stoltzfoos consistent with placing something over her head,” Jones alleges.
The two people are then seen walking toward the car and out of the camera’s view. The vehicle is then seen traveling south toward the camera position.
It drives right past the camera.
Read the entire probable cause affidavit below.
“The vehicle observed is a red, four-door Kia Rio with black trim, a rear spoiler and an ‘LCM’ emblem/sticker on the left trunk area,” the affidavit states. “A white object is observed in the front passenger seat area.”
The vehicle was next caught on camera as it traveled past the Weavertown Mennonite School. In that footage, the missing hubcap and damaged rocker panel are apparent.
“The video then shows the vehicle quickly turn into the parking lot and pull behind the Weavertown Amish Mennonite Church,” Jones wrote. “The vehicle is then out of sight for approximately five minutes before returning to Church Road and continuing east.”
Two days after Stoltzfoos’ disappearance, a Pennsylvania state trooper went to a business in Ronks, about five miles from the abduction area, after a man reported a suspicious vehicle. According to the man, he saw a man matching Smoker’s description drive a red car onto the property twice that afternoon.
Each time, the driver parked the car near railroad tracks behind the business. Though the trooper was unable to intercept the car, the witness had taken a photo of the vehicle’s license plate.
It was the number registered to Smoker, the affidavit states.
On July 10, a state police forensics team searched a wooded area behind the business and made a chilling discovery: A woman’s bra and a knotted pair of dark-colored stockings had been buried six to eight inches in the ground.
“The articles of clothing were identified by members of Linda Stoltzfoos’ family, who identified all articles of clothing as being similar to clothing she wore on the day of her disappearance,” the affidavit states.
The teen would have knotted the stockings to carry them home as she walked barefoot that day, her family said.
Jones wrote that the Pennsylvania State Crime Lab analyzed the clothing for evidence and found DNA on one of the stockings.
The DNA evidence matched Smoker’s genetic profile, according to the findings.
The woman with ‘pleading eyes’
On June 29, investigators spoke to an Amish couple who were taking a walk in Gap around 1:30 p.m. the day Stoltzfoos disappeared. Issac and Sarah Stoltzfus told the detectives they saw a reddish-orange car pass by with an Amish woman in the passenger seat.
“Sarah noticed the Amish female was wearing a white apron and black head covering,” according to the affidavit. “Sarah then waved at the Amish female, who did not wave back.”
The couple, who are intimately familiar with the Amish traditions and culture, noted that the women who attend the churches around Gap do not wear black head coverings. It was also odd for an Amish woman to be riding in a vehicle in her church clothing.
The woman’s failure to wave back also raised the couple’s suspicions.
“Sarah said she was within several feet of the passing vehicle and was able to clearly see the Amish passenger,” the court document states. “Having since seen photos of Linda Stoltzfoos, Sarah believes the Amish female in the vehicle was Linda Stoltzfoos.”
Issac Stoltzfus told police the driver of the vehicle was a white man with dark hair and a dark beard and mustache.
A third witness located the same day as the Stoltzfuses, Gideon King III, told authorities he was driving his horse-drawn buggy about a mile from where the couple believe they spotted the abducted Stoltzfoos.
Like the other witnesses, he was startled when he saw the woman in the car.
“Gideon immediately believed (it) was strange because the female should not have been traveling in a vehicle wearing her church clothing, and females in the area did not wear black head coverings to church,” the affidavit states.
King does not know Sarah Stoltzfus and was unaware of her observations on the woman, according to Jones.
Police officials told People that witnesses said the woman had “pleading eyes” as the car passed by.
In July, state troopers found another witness, Amos Fisher, who was traveling in an enclosed carriage in Gap on June 21 when he also spotted the car.
“Fisher reported the driver’s side window was down and the driver was a Hispanic male with curly black hair,” the detective wrote. “Fisher also observed a passenger in the vehicle with a black head covering.”
On July 15, Fisher spotted a photo of Smoker in a newspaper and recognized him as the driver he’d seen, the affidavit states.
Cellphone records obtained by FBI agents working on the case showed that Smoker was in the area of Gap that the witnesses described at the times they indicated. The records also showed that Smoker had been in the area where Stoltzfoos’ bra and stockings were found.
Surveillance images from the area of the business in Ronks showed a red Kia Rio in the area the day the clothing was discarded.
A state police corporal interviewed Smoker a second time on July 10, according to court documents. While he initially denied it, Smoker ultimately admitted driving on the back roads between the communities of Leola and Ronk on the day Stoltzfoos vanished.
Beechdale Road, where the apparent abduction took place, is between the locations Smoker described, Jones wrote.
When shown a still image of the car in the security footage, Smoker said it looked like his.
“Smoker admitted that he drank both liquor and beer during the day while driving in the area,” according to the detective.
The suspect said he was the only person who drove his car that day but denied ever having a passenger, despite the video evidence to the contrary.
Detectives also learned during the investigation that Stoltzfoos may not have been Smoker’s first target. Multiple teenage Amish girls told police that as they walked on a road in Upper Leacock Township the night before Stoltzfoos’ abduction, a man in a red car drove by slowly, watching their group.
“The girls observed the red car stop at the intersection of Hess Road and East Eby Road and remain there, in the wrong lane of travel, with its four-way flashers activated,” the affidavit states.
Smoker’s cellphone data places him in the area at the time indicated by the girls.
Another witness told police that about 30 minutes after the group spotted the suspicious vehicle, a red car passed her four times in that same area. She became so concerned that she walked to a group of fishermen for safety before heading to a nearby barn to get out of the driver’s view.
“(She) then observed the red vehicle pull over into the field and wait just north of the barn she was in,” the document states.
Security footage from a business on that portion of Hess Road showed Smoker’s vehicle in the area that night.
Detectives tracked Smoker’s movements on June 20, the day before Stoltzfoos disappeared, and found records showing he bought beer and liquor in Lancaster and Gap that afternoon. Shortly after 5 p.m., he went to a Dollar General store in Paradise and bought two pairs of reusable, long-cuffed latex gloves.
“It was noted that during a search of Justo Smoker’s apartment, car, storage unit and work locker, the two pairs of heavy rubber gloves were not located,” Jones wrote.
Smoker went back to the Dollar General the morning of the abduction and bought a pack of eight pairs of nitrile disposable gloves, three pairs of black shoelaces and two pairs of black boot laces. The laces were all about 21 inches in length.
That same morning, he was caught on surveillance footage at Walmart in Lancaster. In the video, he wore a pair of gray sneakers with white soles.
The shoes and laces were not found in the search of Smoker’s belongings, and investigators could find no pair of shoes or boots in need of new laces, according to the affidavit.
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A witness also told authorities that he spotted Smoker washing his red Rio behind his residence around 3:30 p.m. the day Stoltzfoos vanished. The man said Smoker was “specifically wiping the inside of the vehicle,” records state.
A Facebook message sent from Smoker’s account that day corroborates that he washed his car.
When the Kia was seized by police and processed for evidence, detectives could tell that the floor mats had been removed from the front two seating areas.
“A bottle of opened bleach was also located within the trunk,” Jones wrote.
The detective wraps up the affidavit by pointing out that in the more than five months since Stoltzfoos vanished, she’d had no contact with family or friends, co-workers or students. She packed no belongings that would indicate she was leaving on her own and had not accessed her bank account.
Her photo had been distributed internationally, with no sightings of the missing woman being reported.
“Based upon the totality of the evidence obtained throughout this investigation and detailed herein, all evidence leads to the inevitable conclusion that Justo Smoker killed Linda Stoltzfoos during the commission of her kidnapping and discarded her body,” the affidavit concludes.