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.