UPDATED: Details in Sage Smith disappearance come to light

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Sage Smith. Photos courtesy Charlottesville police Sage Smith. Photos courtesy Charlottesville police

This updated and expanded story, which appeared in print Wednesday, January 7, includes reporting from a previous, shorter piece on the Sage Smith investigation that ran online on December 24. To read the original post, scroll down for the next page.

More than two years after Dashad Sage Smith* went missing, recently unsealed court documents offer information about the case that until now was unknown to the press and public. The records, which include search warrant affidavits and court orders, detail Smith’s potentially contentious relationship with Erik McFadden, the last man Smith had phone contact with, and show the extent to which police tried to track down McFadden in the months that followed.

In a six-page document attached to a March 2013 search warrant affidavit, police make their case for gaining access to McFadden’s phone records and bank and e-mail accounts, laying out what they’d learned of his interactions with Smith and others before and after Smith, who is transgender and was 19 at the time, disappeared on November 20, 2012.

According to the documents and further explanation from Charlottesville Police Detective Sergeant James Mooney, Smith’s own phone records gave investigators their first clues.

Police were able to confirm the phone number associated with the last incoming call to Smith’s phone, the documents show, and Smith’s father, Dean Smith, posted the number on Facebook with a plea for help. Soon after, he was contacted by a man who said he recognized the number as belonging to Erik McFadden. The documents state the man told police in an interview he’d exchanged texts and e-mails with McFadden and met him for sex on multiple occasions, and that on November 21—the day after Smith went missing—McFadden had called the man asking him to delete McFadden’s contact information from his phone. He didn’t think much of it, the man told police, but became concerned when he saw Dean Smith’s Facebook post. The man said he told McFadden on November 23 he was talking to police, and he never heard from McFadden again.

Erik McFadden. Photo courtesy Charlottesville Police Department
Erik McFadden. Photo courtesy Charlottesville Police Department

The documents say phone records show McFadden also had an ongoing sexual relationship with Smith. The two had been communicating for several weeks leading up to Smith’s disappearance, and planned to meet the night of November 20 for sex.

“It’s pretty graphic sexual stuff,” Mooney said of their communications. “It was about money, too.”

They had met on Craigslist, said Mooney, and from their text messages, it appeared Smith had asked for and received some kind of payment from McFadden already. “The suggestion is blackmail,” Mooney said, though he added he couldn’t be sure from their back-and-forth if the exchanges added up to blackmail, prostitution or neither.

The police documents also introduce someone who has been critical to the investigation from the early days: McFadden’s girlfriend at the time, a UVA student who called police four days after Smith vanished to report she hadn’t heard from McFadden, who was staying at her 14th Street NW apartment while she was away with family for Thanksgiving. Once police told her about McFadden’s possible involvement in the Smith case and his sexual relationships with other people, she became a key link between McFadden and investigators. She turned over the belongings he left in her apartment, including his computer and clothes, according to the documents, and she initially encouraged McFadden to talk to investigators. He did so, briefly—that’s when he told a detective he had planned to meet with Smith near the Amtrak Station on West Main Street on November 20, but that he “got stood up.”

But then McFadden stopped talking to police, and never showed up for a planned meeting with a detective in Charlottesville. His girlfriend forwarded investigators an emotional e-mail McFadden sent her on November 30, which is reproduced in police documents, in which he provided a different account of the evening Smith went missing.

McFadden told her he “never did anything sexual with that guy and he was blackmailing me.” He goes on to say in the e-mail that Smith threatened to harm McFadden’s girlfriend, and that Smith had “a lot of enemies.” He and Smith met that night, he said, but some other people showed up and McFadden “kept walking not looking back.”

McFadden said in the e-mail he was “going somewhere out mid west” and told his girlfriend he was sorry for hurting her. “even ir [sic] we dont see each other again i wanted you to know i really really cared and loved you,” he wrote.

Police used McFadden’s differing statements and his sudden departure, paired with Smith’s disappearance and uncharacteristic silence, to make the case for gaining access to McFadden’s phone records, e-mail accounts, bank records and even his Twitter account.

“These facts when considered together present probable cause to believe that Dashad Smith has been abducted, is either being held against his own will or has met with harm,” reads the six-page attachment to the March 2013 search warrant. “It is reasonable to believe that Erik McFadden has knowledge of these circumstances and the previously requested searches will yield evidence of such.”

But those records didn’t advance the case any further, said Mooney. McFadden has surfaced a few times since, he said, sending e-mails to his girlfriend from Yahoo accounts he then abandoned. But Mooney said police are still treating Smith’s disappearance as a missing persons case, and don’t have enough evidence for an arrest.

“If we were to charge this guy, I don’t think we could get a conviction,” he said. “I don’t think it goes beyond a reasonable doubt for an abduction. There’s still a possibility [Smith] just went off on his own. Same with Erik McFadden. He could have just been running from his lifestyle.”

That explanation doesn’t satisfy Smith’s grandmother. As she faced her third Christmas without her grandchild, Lolita Smith said she was frustrated and angry that police haven’t charged McFadden with a crime.

“He was the last one that had contact with Sage, but he’s just a person of interest, and there’s nothing they can do about that?” Lolita said. “I don’t understand that. They pick people up for less than that all the time.”

She said she’s not sure what to think about the blackmail allegations.

“I’m not saying he didn’t do it, but I’m not going to say he did, either,” she said. “I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened.” But she doesn’t think it should have any impact on the urgency of the case.

Despite the efforts police made to look into McFadden, Lolita still feels they didn’t press hard enough in the investigation from the start.

“Don’t tell me there’s nothing y’all can do,” she said. “Y’all are the police.”

She can’t let go of a last sliver of hope that her grandchild is still alive. The two of them used to have a habit of catching up on the phone in the early hours of the morning, Lolita said. For months after Smith disappeared, Lolita would get several calls a week from a blocked number between 1 and 3am. She’d pick up and hear nothing.

“Either somebody was playing a very bad joke on me, or that was him letting me know, ‘Hey granny, I’m still around. Don’t give up on me,’” Lolita said. The calls stopped when she lost her old phone and got a new one with a new number.

She just wants closure now.

“If Sage has gone to be with our maker, then I need to know this,” Lolita said. “Just not knowing where my grandbaby’s at is killing me. It’s eating me alive.”

*Like most publications, C-VILLE refers to people by using the gender of their choice. In Smith’s case, we’ve had to rely on what others have told us, which has led to some ambiguity. Smith often presented as a female and used the name Sage. Police have used Smith’s legal name, Dashad, and referred to Smith as male throughout their investigation, while some of Smith’s friends use the name Sage. Smith’s family uses both names, but Lolita Smith has said she’d like people to refer to her grandchild as female. We’ve avoided pronouns where possible, and left peoples’ quotes intact.