A year after 19-year-old Dashad Laquinn “Sage” Smith vanished, posters bearing his name and image are still plastered around town on telephone poles, community bulletin boards, and at convenience store counters. His anguished family has maintained from the start that he would never walk away from his life and his loved ones voluntarily, and police have conducted searches wherever they’ve had leads: along West Main Street where he was last seen, around UVA, and at a Richmond landfill. But while the search for Smith continues fruitlessly, there is another missing man who could hold the answer to the mystery, if anyone could find him to ask.
A police poster released just prior to the one-year anniversary of Smith’s disappearance on November 20 features pictures of Smith, a 2011 Charlottesville High School grad who was openly gay and frequently dressed as a woman, and puts emphasis on that second man, the only named person of interest in the case, Erik T. McFadden.
“His present whereabouts are unknown,” reads the poster.
McFadden, a now 22-year-old former high school track runner from Maryland who played soccer at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, according to an online profile, moved to Charlottesville sometime in 2012. He confirmed to police last November that he and Smith, who went by the name Sage, had phone contact the day Smith disappeared, and that the two had planned to meet near the Amtrak station on West Main that evening.
McFadden told police that the meeting never happened. After he spoke with police, but before they could conduct an in-person interview, McFadden stopped responding to calls.
Police weren’t the only ones flummoxed by his departure.
“We were all supposed to go to a meeting, and he didn’t show up,” said J.R. Barton, who worked with McFadden at the Sherwin Williams paint store on 29 North and recalled his former colleague as quiet but a “cool dude.” McFadden didn’t have a car, said Barton, so he would either run to work or ride the bus, sometimes bringing homecooked meals and talking about his plans to take classes in the spring.
Barton said after Smith went missing, McFadden never came to work or contacted his colleagues again.
For Smith’s family, McFadden’s disappearance and investigators’ apparent inability to locate him is frustrating.
“I don’t understand how they can’t pick him up to question him for it,” said Smith’s mother, Latasha Grooms, who lives in Louisa County. Her desperation to find her oldest child has only grown over the past year.
“He has a new brother he’s never even met,” said a tearful Grooms, urging anyone with information about Smith or McFadden to contact police.
Grooms said she believes police are following any leads they can, and mentioned a detective’s recent trip to the Tidewater area to follow up on a reported sighting of McFadden. Charlottesville Police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts confirmed that Tidewater trip, but said McFadden was not located.
“Right now, we’ve done everything we possibly could,” said Roberts, including collaborating with the FBI. But even if they locate McFadden, Roberts said, he’d have to agree to come in for questioning, since police have no evidence that a crime was committed.
“You can’t force someone if you don’t have a criminal case,” he said.
In Charlottesville, a town where it often seems that everyone knows everyone, McFadden is an enigma. Smith’s family members said they had never heard his name, and even Smith’s best friend and roommate, Kash Carson, said she’d seen him but that they’d never met.
Police have said McFadden lived with his girlfriend on 14th Street, but will not comment on how he met Smith.
Nothing has been changed on the publicly visible portion of McFadden’s Facebook page since last November, and one of his Facebook friends who responded to a reporter’s query said she was not aware of his connection to the case nor did she know where he could be found.
With the holidays approaching for a second time without Smith, who turns 21 on December 13, Grooms hopes someone will help bring her son home by offering a tip.
“He is someone’s friend, someone’s grandson, someone’s brother,” said Grooms, her voice breaking. “He’s missed and he’s loved. We want to know what happened, where he is. If anyone knows anything, please says something.”
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to a conclusion in the case. Anyone with information on Smith or McFadden should contact Detective Ronald Stayments at 970-3280 or Crimestoppers at 977-4000. A vigil for Smith will be held at 5:30pm Wednesday, November 20, at Lee Park.