Linda Stoltzfoos, the Lancaster County teen who disappeared 10 months ago and was the subject of a search that captivated the hearts and attention of people around the globe, will return to her home in Upper Leacock Township as soon as Friday.
She will not be there to join her family in celebrating the recent birth of a brother. Instead, her family, whose Amish faith seeks to separate them from the modern world, will gather for her funeral and burial.
The body of the 18 year old, who went missing on June 21, 2020 — Father’s Day — while walking home from church service, was found buried Wednesday near a business that employed the man charged in her kidnapping and death.
The Stoltzfoos family has not spoken publicly throughout the case and remained silent on Wednesday and Thursday as the news of the teen’s recovery spread.
Mervin Fisher, who is Linda Stoltzfoos’ uncle by marriage, has spoken about the family several times throughout her disappearance and talked by phone Thursday about how the family is doing.
“There seems to be a weight off. It’s almost a sigh of relief. It seems to be a weight lifted. This helps with closure. This helps with healing,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”
The family was working on funeral arrangements, he said.
Although a man has already been charged with homicide, District Attorney Heather Adams said Thursday, “I have no doubt, for Linda’s family, her death only became a reality upon the news of her body being recovered.”
Stoltzfoos’ body will likely be released to the family Friday, after an autopsy to determine cause and manner of death is completed, Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, the Lancaster County Coroner, said Thursday.
Ahead of that formal step, Adams said Thursday that investigators had gathered enough information to identify the body as Stoltzfoos’.
The body was found wrapped in a tarp, along with a bonnet, dress and shoes “consistent with the clothing worn by Linda on the day of her disappearance,” Adams said during a new conference.
Adams declined to say what led investigators to search the area she was found and declined to comment on claims that defendant Justo Smoker led authorities to the body on Wednesday. Nor would his attorney.
No decision yet on death penalty
Smoker, 35, of Paradise Township, was initially charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment on July 10 after investigators said they found surveillance video showing his Kia Rio at a farm lane intersecting Beechdale Road. That’s where a woman believed to be Stoltzfoos was last seen around 12:40 p.m. June 21.
Enhanced video showed a Kia drive out of view, then a male walking toward a female in white; the location is about four-tenths of a mile from Stoltzfoos’ home. Investigators traced the license plate to Smoker, who owns a Kia.
On Dec. 21, prosecutors charged Smoker with homicide, Adams recounted on Thursday, noting the “complete cessation of all routine activities led to the inevitable conclusion that she is deceased.”
Adams said prosecutors intend to seek a first- or second-degree murder conviction under the homicide charge — both of which carry a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Third-degree murder would also be a possibility for a jury to consider. That carries a maximum penalty of up to 40 years in prison.
Adams said her office had not decided whether to seek the death penalty, which is only applicable under first-degree murder.
“I’m very confident in our ability to secure justice for Linda and her family,” Adams said.
Christopher Tallarico, Smoker’s attorney, declined comment Thursday, saying “We’ll save our comments for court.”
Smoker has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Found on Amtrak property
Adams said investigators believe Smoker killed Stoltzfoos within hours of kidnapping her on June 21. Investigators now believe he initially buried her near a business on Harvest Lane in Ronks, where her bra and stockings were found by investigators on July 10. They believe Smoker then moved the body within days to where it was found this week, Adams said.
Authorities have also matched DNA samples collected by swabbing Smoker’s cheeks to DNA samples found on Stoltzfoos' blue bra and white stockings.
The body was found buried up to 42 inches deep on Amtrak property behind Dutchland Inc., located on Rte. 41 south of Gap. Smoker had worked for the business and was arrested there on July 10. This area had previously been targeted in the search for Stoltzfoos, though the location where her remains were found is not easily accessible, Adams said.
“We are all shocked and saddened by this news. Our sympathies go out to the victim’s family, and we are continuing to cooperate with law enforcement as they investigate this tragic case. As a longtime member of this community, we hope and pray for healing and closure,” Dutchland Inc. said in a company statement.
The body was discovered by a task force of FBI agents, East Lampeter Township police and Pennsylvania State Police, Adams said.
“In an odd way, it was a good day for law enforcement,” Adams said. “One of our goals from day one was to be able to know that the family can give her a proper burial, and that’s meaningful.”
Investigators had relied on Smoker’s phone records to guide their search, Adams said. Because Smoker’s cell phone records did not put him at his work the day of the kidnapping, law enforcement did not focus there, although the area was searched, she said.
“There’s simply no room for criticizing law enforcement efforts in this case,” she said.
In total, more than 2,300 people spent a collective 15,000 hours searching for Stoltzfoos, using dogs, horses, ATVs, drones, a submarine and ground penetrating radar, Adams said. Officials with Middle Creek Search & Rescue, said it was by far the largest search in its 25 years.