The search for Dashad “Sage” Smith continues

Dashad "Sage" Smith, a 19-year-old from Charlottesville, went missing two days before Thanksgiving last year. Photo: Rashaa Langston Dashad "Sage" Smith, a 19-year-old from Charlottesville, went missing two days before Thanksgiving last year. Photo: Rashaa Langston

The last time Charlottesville resident Dashad “Sage” Smith talked to his family was Tuesday, November 20, two days before he was supposed to visit his mother’s house in Louisa and surprise his younger sisters for Thanksgiving. He never showed. That weekend, the Huffington Post ran an article about the black gay transgender 19-year-old from Central Virginia who went missing, and Smith’s disappearance became a national story overnight.

Smith’s sexual identity has driven the media attention from the beginning—and, paradoxically, it has been part of the local LGBTQ community’s argument for why it feels his case hasn’t gotten enough attention from the police and media.

While the case still isn’t a criminal investigation, Charlottesville police have focused part of their search around Erik McFadden, the 21-year-old former Lincoln University student* Smith was allegedly supposed to meet the night of November 20. Rumors and reports guess that the two were meeting for a date, but family members and friends say McFadden was not someone Smith knew well.

When a week passed and no one had any word on Smith’s whereabouts, members of the local LGBTQ community began asking whether or not the Charlottesville Police Department was doing enough and putting as much effort into the investigation as in previous missing person cases, like Morgan Harrington’s.

“There’s a general dismissive attitude toward Sage’s disappearance,” said Amy Sarah Marshall, president of Cville Pride and organizer of the September Pride Festival. “We want to make sure this gets as much attention and value from the community as a whole as any other disappearance would.

Marshall said she wanted to see the city implement a human rights commission and develop better communication around issues affecting minority communities like hers.

“I’m not pointing a finger at any one organization or entity at all,” she said. “I think that this is a great opportunity for us as a community to look at how we can efficiently respond to someone missing.”

Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo sat quietly at last Monday night’s City Council meeting while residents spoke passionately about their missing friend and family member, even as some accused him of not doing enough because of Smith’s sexual orientation.

“That simply isn’t true,” Longo said in an interview in his office a few days later. “I see this as a member of my community who is missing, and nobody knows why. Where we are in the process, we’re really not in a position to share. And that silence, which has meaning and purpose, can sometimes be perceived as disinterest and inaction. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Longo said he understands the emotion, the concern, and the criticism, and he can’t take it personally—even though his character and motives are called into question.

“There’s no bias I have associated with the decisions I make in this case or any case. And I’m not dismissing this investigation at all, nor have we ever,” he said.

Longo said he has been in regular discussion with the Commonwealth’s Attorney about what information and evidence he can legally use in a case with no criminal suspects. He’s also maintained daily contact with the two investigators assigned to the case. Smith’s disappearance is at the top of their agenda, Longo said, and they talk to his family daily, even if they have nothing to report.

“They call me one or two times a day,” said Latasha Grooms, Smith’s mother. “They can’t tell me everything they find, and I understand that. Who wants to give a mother false hope? But I so appreciate what the detectives are doing.”

Smith’s family members are determined to stay hopeful, but Grooms said she’s certain this isn’t a case of him just leaving town on his own.

“He always calls,” she said. “And he was so excited to come see the girls for Thanksgiving.”

Grooms talked to her son every day, she said, and her 13- and 14-year-old daughters said they kept regular contact with him on Facebook.

Grooms was calm and reserved on December 1 when about 100 people turned out for a citywide search for clues. Four days later, sitting in the living room of her Louisa home, she wore a sad smile as she flipped through old photos and laughed with her daughters as she talked about his mischievous grin and the way he picked on his little sisters growing up.

“We called it his Joker smile,” Grooms said. “Even with a straight face, he still had that little smirk.”

When Smith came out as gay at age 16, his large extended family didn’t care—nor were they surprised, they said, given his skinny jeans and “dainty eating habits.”

“We always knew,” cousin Alisha Henson said with a laugh. “We could always tell.”

Smith grew up in a strict household, with a mother who valued family dinners and enforced curfews. Several of his friends had bad experiences coming out to their families, but his mother said she felt sorry for any parents who couldn’t accept their kids, and she didn’t bat an eye at the thought that her son might be different.

“It’s your baby,” she said. “You can either act as if they’re a perfect person, or you can accept them for who they are.”

His family made a point of making him comfortable at home, but Smith wasn’t always so lucky with his peers. Not quite ready to come out officially, Smith played football as a young high school student, and Grooms said the bullying was unbearable. The boys were far more brutal than the girls, she said, and he came into the locker room after practice one day to find his clothes covered in urine.

“Teenagers are so cruel,” Grooms said.

But to those who knew him and weren’t distracted by the tank tops, long hair, and makeup, Smith was a “happy-go-lucky, caring person,” who loved soccer and macaroni and cheese, and wanted to become a social worker.

Sister Eanna Langston said he “doesn’t get mad easily,” and everyone laughed when Grooms mentioned grocery shopping with him.

“I’d be in the middle of talking to him, turn around, and there he was helping a lady with her bags of groceries,” she said.

Smith’s father Dean is separated from Grooms. He’s been quiet for the past two weeks, but not at all detached.

“He always put others before himself,” he said. “He’s just a kind person, man.”

But accepting his son as a transgender homosexual was a struggle at first.

“As a father, you don’t want your son to be transgender,” he said. “But after all the trials and tribulations, Dashad and I became real close. We had that father-son bond.”

Dean Smith said he’s had a pain in the pit of his stomach since November 20, and he just wants to see his boy again.

“All his life, if my son has called out for me I’ve been there for him,” he said. “What’s hurting me now is if he’s calling out for me, I can’t hear him. I feel like I’m letting him down.”

Now that he’s missing, his family isn’t concerned about the public scrutiny or the accusations that the police aren’t doing enough—they just want him home. Grooms said she and the rest of her family are grateful for the LGBTQ community’s efforts in reaching out and spreading the word, and for the officers working hard on the case. Family, friends, and police all say they want the same thing: to keep the story alive, and to bring him home safely.

“Times like this really show how much your child is loved,” Grooms said.

*An earlier version of this story called Erik McFadden a 21-year-old Lincoln University student; McFadden has not been enrolled at Lincoln University since spring 2011.

  • Denise Tarver

    We are praying for Sage and his family all around the country! Provo, Utah

  • Frances Loper Corwin

    Prayers from Alabama for Sage to be found safe.

  • Kristina Davis

    Praying for SAGE to come home safely, until then we will continue searching and getting his story out to EVERYONE EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!

  • Edward N Virginia

    The reader is confused:

    One Commentator says about City Police: “There’s a general dismissive attitude toward Sage’s disappearance”

    And, the Parent of the dear lost child says that she is grateful for “the officers working hard on the case” [ about which Chief Longo reports that two investigators are assigned the the case]

    These two views are completely incongruous.

    Wouldn’t it be the journalist’s task to help the community know what information is accurate about such a critical incident, and for such an important topic: whether City Police are professionally trustworthy or not?

    Opinions matters. Verified facts matter more.

    • leingles

      You’re right to notice conflicting opinions in this story, Edward. There aren’t a lot of facts available on the details of the investigation, and that’s not unusual. We won’t really know the quality of the police work until there’s a resolution, but until then we think it’s our responsibility to talk to as many people as possible and present their points of view.

      What do you guys think?

      • Edward N Virginia

        Thank you for recognizing the incongruities and opening this up to conversation.

        Journalism working well can do much more than what we individually can do. Historically, journalism has helped to protect for us all, including for the most vulnerable among us, access to the guarantees of our Constitutional Bill of Rights.

        Speaking hypothetically: If the work of journalism were to find that a law enforcement agency discounted some populations out of some prejudice or bias, THAT might be cause for high profile public investigations, suspensions/terminations, mandatory re-training, etc.

        Thank you for continuing work on the issues of police and others responses to missing persons. Since data show that @ 2,300 Americans are reported missing every day – EVERY DAY! – and only a tiny fraction of those are stereotypical abductions or kidnappings by a stranger, there is apparently a lot the public ought to know: responding, protecting, preventing, etc – 2,300 EVERY DAY! Thanks for helping us to learn more.

        And, how about this:

        the story that you’ve provided tells us something shocking that seems to beg for further journalism: “Smith played football as a young high school student, and Grooms said the bullying was unbearable. The boys were far more brutal than the girls, she said, and he came into the locker room after practice one day to find his clothes covered in urine.”

        WHAT!? what school(s) is that? who let that go on? why wasn’t that corrected? has it stopped or is it continuing?

        Over the past years UVA, Charlottesville Schools, and Albemarle Schools had access to $6 million for interventions the including prevention and response to bullying ( That’s a LOT of money. What has it accomplished? how will effective interventions be sustained when the award end(ed)? and have these been effective with youth at highest risk, including lgbt youth?

        Can local journalism find out and help us understand?

        Recent research tells us of grossly disproportionate involvement of lgbt youth in juvenile justice, not because they are bad youth but because systems have failed, or even abused, them:

        “These high rates of involvement in the juvenile justice system are a result of gay and transgender youth abandonment by their families and communities, and victimization in their schools—sad realities that place this group of young people at a heightened risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Despite the disproportionately high rates of gay and transgender youth entering the juvenile justice system, our nation’s schools, law enforcement officers, district attorneys, judges, and juvenile defenders are not equipped to manage the unique experiences and challenges that these young people face. As a consequence, the system often does more harm by unfairly criminalizing these youth—imposing harsh school sanctions, labeling them as sex offenders, or detaining them for minor offenses—in addition to subjecting them to discriminatory and harmful treatment that deprives them of their basic civil rights.”

        There are local efforts to describe, understand, and respond to racial disparities in local juvenile justice; but are they also discussing disparities involving lgbt youth? Issues of lgbt youth – once they are in justice systems, foster systems, or other state custody – are not well understood in Virginia, despite the fact that national research (BJS, 2010, Sexual Victimization…) found that ‘non-heterosexual’ youth in state custody report sexual victimization (rape, abuse, etc) about 10 times as much as ‘heterosexual’ youth in state custody, and that two of the 13 facilities in the US with worst records were in Virginia. JLARC was asked by legislators to comment on the national study, and flimsily ‘commented’ about possible problems with data collection. Yes, we must understand any bias in data, but, PLEASE: these are Virginia children being sexually victimized while in the custody/care of the state, which means, all of us taxpayers!

  • Fail

    Transgender homosexual?
    Get you terms straight

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