Love, hope and waiting: Families stay strong for missing loved ones
EDITOR'S NOTE: In an average year two or three persons go missing in Tennessee, statistics show. A year ago, two went missing within four months of each other.
When added to the now 12-year old missing person case of Antonio Taylor, the trio make a statistical anomaly.
In June, the T-G published a series of articles detailing the investigation of these cases and the frustration of the families with unanswered questions. We followed up this week.
When she saw her brother recently he was smiling broadly, says Kristy Smelcer.
He sat next to her and put his hand on her leg and said, "Why are you all so sad?"
It was one of three dreams Kristy has had this year in which Bobby Smelcer has appeared, a bittersweet comfort.
"It was like he couldn't comprehend sadness, in his mind he had moved on and he was happy."
Bobby, then 52, went missing on Nov. 21, 2010 and has not been seen since.
He is one of three missing people in Bedford County. Antonio Taylor, then 21, has been missing since Sept. 20, 1999. Harris Middle School teacher Shelley Jones Mook, then 24, was last seen Feb. 28.
In June, the Times-Gazette profiled each family and later that same month arranged a luncheon for the group, who had each expressed a desire to meet the others. Since that time the families have become fast friends, and have joined forces to organize searches and prayer vigils for a group they now term "The Shelbyville Missing."
"The families of Shelley and Antonio are wonderful and amazing, with whom we share a common bond -- one that you don't want to share with anyone," said Karen Harris, one of Bobby Smelcer's four sisters.
"It is comforting to be able to talk with someone who knows what you go through day by day. I know how hard this is for our family, and my heart aches for theirs."
"We have become good friends," said Lillie Buchanan, grandmother of Taylor, who credits the other families for including him in each public outreach.
When we talked to the Smelcer family in June, they spoke of Bobby in both the present and past tenses, still hopeful that maybe -- just maybe -- he would walk through the door, annoyed that so much fuss had been made over his disappearance.
The first anniversary of his disappearance came in November, just two weeks after the family patriarch, Grant, was laid to rest by his children. It was the first family funeral since Bobby's disappearance, and the family's grief seemed doubled.
"I didn't cry at the funeral until they mentioned my dad, and then I felt like maybe I was at his funeral too," said Jennifer Smelcer, the younger of Bobby's two daughters.
"I have a comfort that dad is not in pain, that he's gone to a better place," said Kristy. "But we don't know what's happened to Bobby."
"This year has been a long one," added Harris, citing the many letdowns, disappointments and frustrations the group has faced.
"I think I've cried more this year than in my entire life. I was his baby sister. I just miss him. I miss him so bad," said Kristy.
'Always in my heart'
On the Friday afternoon just before Christmas, Jennifer's neat home was lacking any holiday decorations. The last time she had packed away her tree, her father had only been missing a few weeks.
"It feels like if I put my tree up, it makes it more real that my dad's gone," she said. "I usually love Christmas, but not anymore."
Their smiles continue along with their grief, even as life goes on for everyone around them.
Compartmentalization becomes a well-used tool in their coping. Harris speaks of mentally adding up the holidays and family celebrations, a stack that grows with the passage of time. "It is a reminder to me of the time ... that we have lost with our brother. Times we will never be able to get back.
"If you think about it too much, it gets the better of you. Bobby is always on my mind -- always in my heart."
Over the Christmas holiday, the Taylor family took Antonio's sons Damion and Anthony to see the billboard on Madison Street which bears their father's photo.
"Antonio would have really been proud," says Lillie Buchanan of the teenagers. "They are doing good in school, they are mannerable [sic] and respectful boys."
Change of mind
Earlier this year, the Smelcer family contemplated the who and what of the crime they feel surely occurred. They were angry and wanted to see justice take its course, for Bobby's sake. Not anymore.
"At this point, I don't even care who did it any more. I don't care who did it, I just want my dad back," said Jennifer.
"No questions asked," agreed Kristy.
"I pray for them. I'm praying for the person who did it," continued Jennifer.
"I'm not saying what they did was okay. I'm not, but I pray for your soul."
"At this point in time, there is probably not any evidence left, anyway. If you get down to it, he's a skeleton," said Kristy of the likely condition of Bobby's remains.
Looking for closure
Beulah Holman, Bobby's 89-year-old grandmother, fears she won't live to learn of what became of Bobby.
"I'm sure that someone carried my grandson off," said Holman. "That's what I pray for, something, some kind of a lead."
She's not quite ready to forgive whoever harmed Bobby.
"I just pray that whoever done this to Bobby, I hope and pray that they will have to suffer as much as his children, grandchildren and grandmother," she said.
"He deserves to be found. He's not a piece of trash to be thrown away, he deserves a funeral, deserves somewhere he can get rest," said Jennifer. "We as a family, as a community, deserve somewhere we can go to pay respect, or if I'm having a bad day and just want to go sit and talk to him."
"I can't change what's happened, let's go ahead and see about putting him where he needs to be."
With the passage of a year, even the hopes of local investigators that Bobby would be found alive have faded.
"According to the family it was not uncommon for Bobby to disappear for days," said Sgt. Brian Crews, the Shelbyville police detective who has been lead investigator in the case. "However, it is highly unlikely he would stay gone for this amount of time without contacting someone."
"This case has been quite a challenge from its onset. If you are familiar with the 'The First 48 Hours" you understand the statistical disadvantage the Smelcer case provided us.
"Five days passed before law enforcement was ever contacted in regards to Bobby missing," Crews said. "I'm afraid during that lapse of time crucial evidence or leads may have been lost.
"With that being said, we have not given up hope that one day we will develop the lead that will enable us to piece this puzzle together."
What seems certain to the families of the missing is that there are at least three people in our small community who are capable of murder -- of taking the life of someone vital.
In Bobby's case, the family tends to think his murderer was someone he knew.
"If someone is capable of doing this, they will do it again," said Kristy.
In August, the families organized a search with over 100 volunteers taking part.
Bedford County Search and Rescue coordinated logistics for the search, and volunteer groups from Coffee County and Smyrna were on hand, as was the United Auto Workers search and rescue group from Nashville.
Volunteers brought horses, cadaver dogs and water cadaver dogs to assist in the search of locations mentioned in tips made to the families over time.
"Each time we have organized searches, we have that glimmer of hope, that we will find Bobby and other Shelbyville Missing family members, but when the day is done and the planned search is completed, we have come away empty-handed and it is a hard pill to swallow," said Harris.
"You get so revved up, so hopeful and then reality sets in."
Trained cadaver dogs showed interest in three areas, most of which were in quarries, according to Kristy.
Independent searches can be beneficial, but law enforcement and the families tend to disagree on the relevance of the findings.
"I am not aware of any evidence or leads that were gathered during the family-organized search that took place earlier in the year," Crews said in an interview by email.
"There was a container found in Smith Equipment's quarry," said Kristy. "There was a lead that came in years and years ago that Antonio was put in a container in that quarry."
SPD sent divers to the site.
"As for the dive at the rock quarry there was some junk discovered underwater but nothing unusually suspicious about the debris," Crews said. "The dive itself was not the result of a conclusive lead but rather the fulfillment of a request by the [families]."
According to Kristy, cadaver dogs also hit on a location in Estill Springs.
"Law enforcement says the cadaver dogs are just hitting on urine ... We really want to get back on that property. I have talked to many [cadaver-sniffing] dog owners. They don't hit on urine," Kristy said.
According to Crews, the site did not pan out as a viable lead.
"The Estill Springs site was searched after Kristy received contact from an unsolicited psychic. Once again, this search was not done as a result of a conclusive lead but rather the fulfillment of a request from the Smelcer family.
"The terrain was an obstacle to navigate; however, the site was searched with the assistance of two cadaver dogs. "According to the K-9 handlers the dogs hit on a specific area. This area was swamp land that retains water approximately 12-16 inches deep year-round.
"It was an area that would be impossible to dig a hole and bury a body [in] but not so deep that a person would not notice a body on the top of the ground. The area was also an unrealistic distance from the roadway."
This week, Crews will turn the cases over to new partner, Detective Sam Jacobs.
"I will remain the lead investigator but Sam is going to take the case and re-interview everyone."
"Hopefully this will provide us with a fresh perspective and may lead to something that may have been previously overlooked."
As winter takes over the landscape, hunters and hikers are in the woods more often than at other time of the year, and may find evidence of interest to the investigations,
"I would still like to encourage property owners and hunters to be on the lookout for any suspicious findings they may come upon -- and if anything is found by them [don't] hesitate in contacting the police department," said Crews.
The experience has shaken the all the families, but many report a strengthening of their faith.
"All that has happened in our family has brought me closer to our Savior," said Katrina Newman, a sister of Bobby. "As we get older in life, we realize what is important -- life is short.
"When you lose a family member, all the material things mean nothing. This Christmas I enjoyed celebrating the real meaning."
"We just need closure," said Buchanan. "It's been a long time coming, but we still have that faith and belief that one day God is going to reveal what is hidden. We have to keep that faith -- we have to be patient and wait on God."
Mook's family adjusts
Debra Sikora, mother of Mook, continues to guard her privacy -- and that of granddaughter Lilliana -- fiercely. Sikora took a leave of absence from her job and moved to Shelbyville for several months this year as the investigation into Shelley's disappearance continued.
After a custody hearing in the fall, Sikora returned to her home in Erie, Pa., with Lilliana.
According to postings on social media by family and friends, she is adjusting well to her new school and surroundings. Attempts to contact Sikora for input on this story went unanswered.
Rewards for information concerning the disappearances of Smelcer and Taylor are $5,000 and $3,000 respectively.
Contact the Shelbyville Police Department at 684-5811 or anonymously at Crimestoppers at 685-4300.
The reward for information concerning the disappearance of Shelley Jones Mook is $20,000. Contact the Bedford County Sheriff's Department at 684-3232 or the Tenn. Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-TBI-FIND.
A candlelight prayer vigil for The Shelbyville Missing will be held Friday, Jan. 13 at 6:30 p.m. on the courthouse square.
- Tales of loss lead annual top story list (01/01/12)