Justo Smoker, the man already charged with kidnapping missing Amish teenager Linda Stoltzfoos last June, will be tried in Lancaster County Court for her death.
Smoker was held for court following a preliminary hearing Friday before a district judge at the county courthouse.
While the 18-year-old woman has not been found, prosecutors don’t need a body to charge someone with homicide. Stoltzfoos disappeared June 21 while walking from church to her parents’ Upper Leacock Township home.
In a preliminary hearing, prosecutors must present sufficient evidence that a crime was committed and that the defendant probably is responsible and, therefore, that a jury or judge should hear the case at the county court level.
At the conclusion of the hearing at Lancaster County Courthouse, which lasted about 1 hour and 20 minutes, District Judge Denise Commins ruled the prosecution had met that burden.
The prosecution revealed no new significant details and testimony largely focused on details released on Dec. 21, when Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams announced the homicide charge — exactly six months after Stoltzfoos disappeared.
Three Amish men and her uncle, Mervin Fisher, were in court, but did not speak to reporters. Justo Smoker's brother, Victor Smoker, was also in the courtroom.
DNA evidence cited
East Lampeter Township police Detective Christopher Jones testified that DNA samples collected by swabbing Smoker's cheeks matched DNA samples found on Stoltzfoos' blue bra and white stockings. Pennsylvania State Police found the items July 10 while searching a wooded area near a Ronks business.
A witness and data from Smoker's cell phone had placed him in the area of the business.
Jones said there was a one-in-a-septillion chance that the DNA came from someone other than Smoker. That's 10 followed by 24 zeroes; Earth's population is about 7.8 billion.
Jones also testified that several Amish females told investigators that a car matching Smoker’s and driven by a person fitting his description drove suspiciously around them near where Stoltzfoos disappeared on June 20 and June 21.
Smoker had also purchased alcohol, packs of gloves and five pairs of shoelaces that day, and more alcohol and more pairs of gloves on June 21.
That showed, First Assistant District Attorney Todd Brown argued, that Smoker had been stalking Amish females. The stalking, paired with the gloves and alcohol, evidence he cleaned his car, DNA evidence and cell phone data, showed Stoltzfoos died "by criminal agency at the hands of Mr. Smoker," he said.
In arguing for the case not to go forward, Smoker’s attorney, Lancaster County Chief Public Defender Christopher Tallarico, said there was no proof Stoltzfoos had ever gotten into Smoker's car.
Investigators zeroed in on Smoker after obtaining surveillance video from a home on Beechdale Road. It showed his car at an intersecting farm lane near Stumptown Road, which was the road Stoltzfoos' church is on.
The intersection was the last place Stoltzfoos was seen and is just four-tenths of a mile from her home, but the footage does not show her getting into the car. Other witnesses have told police that they saw an Amish woman in a car fitting the description of Smoker's vehicle later that day.
On cross-examination, Jones told Tallarico that Stoltzfoos' DNA was not found on any of the samples taken from Smoker's car. However, Jones said there were DNA profiles recovered that were insufficient to test to see if they were from her.
Jones also testified that the FBI's analysis of Smoker's cell phone data showed him proceeding from the kidnapping area to the Welsh Mountain, a rugged, largely rural area in the county’s eastern end. That area, along with where she was last seen, has been the subject of numerous searches by hundreds of people.
Investigators continue to search for Stoltzfoos, Jones said.
Formal arraignment is next
The next step in the homicide case will be a formal arraignment, where a judge will read the charge to Smoker and he will enter a plea of not guilty or guilty. That's scheduled for March 26.
Brown said prosecutors will try the homicide, kidnapping and false imprisonment charges together. No decision has been made on whether to seek the death penalty, he said. Smoker has pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping and false imprisonment charges.
Prosecuting someone for homicide when the victim’s body has not been found is rare.
Only one such case has been prosecuted in Lancaster County, that of James D. Lewis Jr. — known as “Squirt” — who disappeared 29 years ago and whose mother’s boyfriend was convicted of third-degree murder.
At the time of Stoltzfoos’ disappearance, Smoker had been out of prison for about 16 months after serving 12 1/2 years of a 30-year maximum sentence for a string of robberies in August 2006 of which he and his brother Victor were convicted.