No body, no crime.
Through his involvement with homicide prosecutions in which no body was found, former Washington, D.C., federal prosecutor Thomas A. (Tad) DiBiase would come across people who shared that belief.
And it’s flat-out wrong.
Although Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams hasn’t publicly said if investigators consider Linda Stoltzfoos’ disappearance a homicide instead of a kidnapping case, many people are wondering if she’s dead.
Adams declined comment for this article.
Friday marked two months since the 18-year-old Amish woman vanished.
Prosecutors said they believe Stoltzfoos was abducted as she walked from an on-farm church service to her home near Bird-in-Hand in Upper Leacock Township on June 21.
They said she was seen on Beechdale Road, less than a half-mile from home on that same road, about six miles east of downtown Lancaster.
Nineteen days later, police charged Justo Smoker, 34, of Paradise Township, with kidnapping and false imprisonment. He’s being held at Lancaster County Prison without bail
Chris Tallarico, the county's chief public defender, is representing Smoker. Tallarico declined to comment.
Police said they arrested Smoker in part based on a homeowner’s video surveillance that showed Smoker’s car near a person believed to be Stoltzfoos.
Her bra and stockings were found buried near where Smoker’s vehicle was seen later that day, which “lends only to the conclusion that she suffered harm,” Adams said last month.
There’s no indication Stoltzfoos and Smoker knew each other.
No-body cases rare
Given the circumstances of Stoltzfoos’ disappearance and speculation that she might be dead, LNP | LancasterOnline looked into the challenges of prosecuting no-body homicides.
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.
In York County, Duane Frey, 51, was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Hopethan Johnson, a drug dealer, in May 2002. Frey confessed to the killing, telling police he dumped Johnson's body into the Susquehanna River.
Johnson's body was subsequently found in 2008 — not in the river, but in a wooded area in York County.
“The reason the cases are so difficult is because in a homicide your best piece of evidence is a body,” DiBiase said.
David Rudovsky, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and expert in criminal law, said prosecutions without proof of death are unusual, “but where there is strong circumstantial evidence that the missing person cannot be living courts have sustained convictions.”
2003 case in D.C.
DiBiase prosecuted his no-body case in 2005.
Marion Fye went missing from her Washington, D.C., home in 2003, leaving behind her five children, purse and credit cars, keys and a driver's license, the Washington Post reported. People said they heard a scream and a gunshot in the house.
In June 2005, prosecutors charged her boyfriend, Harold Austin, with her death. He was convicted, given a 40-year sentence in 2006 and died in prison.
DiBiase went on to prosecute other no-body cases and has written the book “No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Guide to Investigating, Prosecuting and Winning Cases When the Victim is Missing.”
He’s consulted on more than 40 no-body cases and runs the website, nobodycases.com, where he maintains a list of such cases. He had not heard of the Stoltzfoos case until contacted for this story.
DiBiase discussed other challenges prosecutors face.
“The body can tell you how the murder happened. Were they shot? Were they poisoned? Were they strangled?” DiBiase said. A body's location can also help investigators. And a body can indicate when death happened.
“Just not having that body really makes it a difficult challenge,” DiBiase said.
But it can be done and has been done successfully many times.
According to DiBiase's list of 538 cases in the U.S. through March, prosecutors won convictions about 86% of the time compared with a conviction rate for all murder cases of 70%, based on Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than half of the cases were tried after 2000.
The conviction rate is high, DiBiase said, because only the strongest no-body cases go to trial and the suspect is often obvious, such as a husband or boyfriend.
One hurdle: Prosecutors have to prove to a jury that a person is dead.
Most no-body cases start out as missing person cases, DiBiase said. Many missing person cases involve children or teenagers, and most missing people are located in a day or so, DiBiase said.
But when a person who would not otherwise be expected to leave does vanish, it raises the possibility of foul play.
Proving a case
So how do prosecutors prove someone is dead and hasn't willingly left their life behind?
They point out that very inconsistency — that the person would be unlikely to leave their family and friends behind.
What else did that person leave behind? Personal items? Have their bank or credit cards been used? Any unusual cash withdrawals? People are more likely to leave behind digital clues if they chose to walk away from their lives.
Based on what DiBiase knows about Stoltzfoos, it should be easy to prove she is no longer alive, he said.
Investigators have said the young woman neither did nor said anything to indicate she was planning a sudden departure, had “no change in lifestyle or demeanor” before her disappearance and had no unusual withdrawals or other banking activity.
Stoltzfoos had told numerous people about her plans for that Sunday, police said, and she had made a dessert and was planning to return home from church to change clothes, get the dessert and walk back to her youth group that usually runs from 2-11 p.m.
When to charge someone
DiBiase suggests investigators search as long and as hard as possible to turn up a body.
He offers different advice depending on where the death is believed to have occurred: A body will decompose faster in steamy Florida than in dry Montana.
If it gets to be four to five years out, he suggests prosecutors should likely move forward if they have a suspect.
“Here, I would clearly say, just keep searching for the body,” he said, noting Smoker is in jail on kidnapping charges.