Sage Smith, a transgender woman from Charlottesville, Virginia, was last seen by her family on November 20, 2012, when she was 19. She was reported missing two days later, after she failed to return from a date with Erik McFadden. McFadden quickly left town and hasn’t been seen since. Local police have been blamed for bungling the case since day one.
This Sage Smith wiki takes an in-depth look into her life, the strange events in the days before she went missing, and what both police and civilian searches have uncovered so far.
|About Sage Smith|
|Known As||Dashad Smith|
|Birth||December 13, 1992 Charlottesville, Virginia|
|Parents||Latasha Grooms, Dean Smith|
Who Is Sage Smith?
Sage Smith was born Dashad Laquinn Smith on December 13, 1992, to Latasha Grooms and Dean Smith.
Raised as a boy, she grew up in a poor part of Charlottesville, Virginia. She was brought up by her grandmother, Lolita “Miss Cookie” Smith, from the age of three. The pair lived in an apartment in an area then called Garrett Square, an affordable housing complex.
Despite the rough-and-tumble neighborhood, Miss Cookie provided Sage Smith with love and security. In addition to being a dedicated parent, Miss Cookie was also a prominent figure in the community, serving on the tenants’ association board and resident patrol.
When Smith was 12, a wrought iron fence was put up around the complex, making residents feel as though they were living in a prison. It was then that Miss Cookie and Smith moved to a house in Charlottesville’s Fifeville neighborhood.
Here, they met Shakira Washington. She lived two doors down and would, like Smith, come to call Miss Cookie “grandma.”
“[Sage and I] got into an altercation,” Washington said. “Our families came out of the house and stopped it. We were together every day after that.”
At that point, Washington identified as transgender and was already asking her middle school teachers to use female pronouns.
One day, Smith went to speak to Miss Cookie, telling her there was something she needed to confess. Smith then asked Miss Cookie not to be mad.
“And she said, ‘Grandma, I’m gay.’ And I said, ‘You aren’t telling me anything that I don’t already know,’” Miss Cookie recalled.
The two of them sat there hugging for a long time.
In this loving environment, Smith was the first in her family to graduate from high school. She completed Charlottesville High School in 2011.
She then took cosmetology classes, braided hair out of her home, and swept hair at a local salon.
Sage Smith Strikes out on Her Own
Unfortunately, Miss Cookie returned Smith to her mother, who was eventually deemed to be an unfit parent. From there, Smith was shunted into foster care.
On the plus side, foster care paid for Smith to rent her own duplex apartment on Harris Street in Charlottesville.
She then asked Washington and Aubrey Carson, another childhood friend, to move in with her.
The interior walls of the two-bedroom duplex were painted “Barbie” pink. Not surprisingly, the place was dubbed “the dollhouse mansion.”
It was here that the three teen friends partied it up. Sometimes they hosted parties and other times they went to parties that catered to men on the down low.
The three of them also spent a considerable amount of time with three women named Alexis, Tiffany, and Chelsea. They hung out and had fun, dancing at Charlottesville’s only queer nightclub or hitting the strip bars near the University of Virginia.
Sage’s childhood friend Washington had started taking estrogen injections and Smith said she wanted to start, too.
To that end, Smith changed her gender on Facebook to “female.” “I am a girl now #Respect it,” she wrote to a Facebook friend on November 9, 2012.
On November 18, she wrote to a family member, “Look I am transitioning I am your niece.”
At other times, Smith and her friends were out to make some money. The men they entertained came from all walks of life; some were single, some were not. Whenever Smith or Washington hooked up with a man, either for money or for fun, they texted each other to make sure the other woman was okay.
Smith’s mother, Latasha Grooms, said she was happy to see her daughter finding her way and making close friends after years of struggling.
“He was still finding himself and was in the process of coming out,” she said, adding that Smith hadn’t asked the family to refer to her with female pronouns or as “Sage.” This appears to contradict earlier stories of Smith coming out to Miss Cookie and later openly identifying as a woman online.
That said, it doesn’t appear as though Smith and Grooms were close.
Smith’s Father Comes to Accept Her Unconditionally
Sage Smith’s father, Dean Smith, had spent several years in jail on a drug charge when she was young. After being released, he wanted to play a much bigger role in her life. Unfortunately, he struggled to accept Smith as first a gay boy and then a trans woman.
His attitude toward Smith changed dramatically, though.
One day he watched a Lifetime movie called Prayers for Bobby. The movie depicts a mother coming to terms with the suicide of her gay son. It is actually based on the true story of Bobby Griffith, a young man who killed himself as a result of his mother’s homophobia.
“Dude was like that and his family dropped him. I just felt I couldn’t do that to my child,” Dean said. “When she walked by on the street and I was at the barbershop with my boys, I would say, ‘Come here, I want you to meet my child.’”
That doesn’t mean Smith had it easy. Smith and her friend Carson were harassed, called slurs, and once chased by a crowd.
Her Facebook page also contained messages from March 2012, where a friend told her to “watch her back,” that she was a target because she had contacted the wife of a man she had hooked up with.
Sage was known to place Casual Encounters ads on Craigslist, something Washington did not approve of. This was how Smith might have been drawn into the orbit of Erik McFadden.
Did Smith Get into a Fight with the Wrong Person?
On November 19, 2012, the day before Sage Smith went missing, everyone met at the dollhouse mansion to celebrate Washington’s 19th birthday. It was during this night of festivities that a girl barged into their apartment, wanting to fight with one of Smith’s friends.
The fight, over a man, went outside. It was there that Smith and her friends saw cars parked all the way up the street. Car doors opened and a crowd of people got out. During the melee, Smith ended up getting into a fight with a man by the name of Jamel Smith. At some point, the police were called.
Police descended onto the scene at around 11:20 p.m. Jamel filed a report with police claiming Sage Smith had damaged his car. No one was arrested, however.
Washington said it was not uncommon for fights to break out, but this one was different.
“Where did it come from? It didn’t start with Sage or me,” she said. “So it was kinda weird how it ended up on Sage.”
Later that night, Jamel took to Twitter and wrote: “Been disrespected to the point of no return.”
After police left, some of Washington’s friends came down from her hometown of Norfolk, Virginia to drive her back with them to the coast.
Smith, meanwhile, felt letdown and angry at Washington for not stepping in and intervening in the fight.
“Her last words to me were, ‘I hate you,’” Washington said. “We never got to make it right.”
Sage Smith Goes on a Fateful Date
On November 20, 2012, Smith woke up and called her father Dean to congratulate him on the anniversary of his release from jail. Dean remembered the phone conversation as being friendly and upbeat.
Smith asked him for money to get her hair done or buy a TV for her new apartment. She also said she was excited about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
Around 5:00 p.m., Smith woke up her other roommate, Carson, who was taking a nap, to say that she was off to meet a man.
Smith then left to meet her date, believed to be McFadden.
A witness saw her alone at 6:30 p.m., talking on the phone. This was on the 500 block of west Main Street. This is the last confirmed sighting of Sage Smith.
She might have been seen one more time that night, at around 7:00 p.m., alone at a café.
When Carson woke up again at around 8:00 p.m., she called Smith’s phone; it went straight to voicemail.
“It is very out of character,” Carson said, adding that Sage Smith’s phone “is never off.”
Smith Never Returns Home
The following morning, November 21, 2012, Smith still hadn’t returned from her date the previous night.
Carson continued to call Smith’s cell phone, but it kept going to voicemail. Carson, knowing that Smith was very safety conscious and would have never walked alone or gone anywhere with someone she didn’t know, grew concerned.
When Washington’s phone rang at around 9:00 a.m., she assumed it was Smith calling to apologize for the other night. Instead, it was Carson. Washington told Carson to call Smith’s grandmother, Miss Cookie.
“She (Miss Cookie) said, ‘If he’s not back by 10:00 p.m., call the police,’” Carson recalled. She couldn’t wait that long, though. Around 8:00 p.m., Carson called the Charlottesville Police Department to report that her best friend, Sage Smith, was missing.
Police didn’t sound too concerned. They asked for Smith’s name, birthday, and a picture. That was it.
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When Dean learned that his daughter was missing, his first thought was that she had been abducted. Smith’s mother, Grooms, was convinced something bad had happened to her daughter, who was just a few weeks shy of her 20th birthday.
“As a parent, I knew that something was wrong from the jump because of the fact that his phone was cut off, and he was supposed to come to my house for Thanksgiving,” Grooms recalled.
Smith’s mother lived in Louisa County. She had planned to pick her daughter up in Charlottesville on November 22, so Smith could celebrate Thanksgiving with her two younger sisters.
The one thing everyone could agree on was that Sage Smith would have never let Miss Cookie, the woman she called virtually every day, worry about her.
“He loves his grandma,” said Dean.
The Investigation Begins
Charlottesville police began to investigate the disappearance of Sage Smith on Thanksgiving, November 22. The case was originally assigned to Detective Sergeant Marc Brake.
Two other detectives were added to her case: Lieutenant James Mooney and Detective Ronald Stayments. They would follow it for years.
“The police came to the house and talked to us,” Miss Cookie said. “I told them what I have been saying all along: Sage would never leave her family right before Thanksgiving and not tell anyone. Somebody must have taken her.”
Carson added: “From the start, it seemed like they didn’t see it very seriously.”
Six officers from the Charlottesville Police Department conducted a “grid search” of the commercial corridor, dumpsters, trash cans, parking lots, and fields. They also checked surveillance footage of nearby businesses.
They turned up nothing. The only camera available in the area was a traffic camera, and it too was a dead end.
Police Obtain Smith’s Cell Phone Records
On November 23, 72 hours after Smith had vanished, Mooney obtained her cell phone records. It showed that Smith had talked to a friend from northern Virginia for around 20 minutes on the day she disappeared.
The last call Smith received that day came at 6:36 p.m. from an unidentified number. After that, no more activity was logged on Smith’s phone. Police needed help identifying the number, so they gave it to Smith’s family.
Dean posted the number to his Facebook page. It didn’t take long for an acquaintance, Yami Ortiz, to identify the number as belonging to Erik McFadden.
According to Smith’s phone records, she had texted and called McFadden numerous times in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. Messages revealed that the two had met up for sex multiple times, and that McFadden had paid Smith not to rat him out to his girlfriend.
Dean, meanwhile, had discovered that McFadden worked at a Sherwin-Williams paint store and lived in downtown Charlottesville with his girlfriend.
Dean, believing that police were dragging their feet, posted McFadden’s picture to Facebook.
“That really set us back a long way,” said Mooney. He believes that Dean’s posting of McFadden’s picture on Facebook caused the younger man to take off.
“If we’d have had a chance to find him without his picture being out there, we might be talking to him instead of looking for him.”
Smith’s family took to doing their own detective work because they didn’t think the police were making Smith’s disappearance a priority. And it didn’t take long for them to gather more information than the police.
“All their information came from us,” Miss Cookie said. She referred to the efforts of Smith’s aunt, Tonita Smith, who found McFadden’s Facebook profile and began checking Sage Smith’s Facebook and Twitter for clues.
“It began to feel like we were doing their job for them.”
No Evidence of Foul Play Limits Police Resources
Less than a week after Sage Smith had disappeared, Charlottesville police Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts refused to say whether police had questioned McFadden.
“The detectives have done some interviews, but as to the content of those interviews, it would not be appropriate” to discuss them, he said.
Roberts added that because detectives had found no evidence of foul play, the tools they could use were limited.
“It’s not a criminal case. We have nothing at this point in time that indicates it being a criminal case, which makes it difficult to get warrants and things of that sort, because you have to have a criminal case to go in that direction. There’s no evidence that points us in that direction right now,” he said.
Police Get a Call about Another Missing Person
It appeared as though Sage Smith wasn’t the only person to go missing around the same time. On November 24, Esther Ayeni called Charlottesville police to say she had not heard from her boyfriend, Erik Tyquan McFadden. He had been using her place while she was out of town for Thanksgiving.
Police told Ayeni they were already looking for McFadden in connection to Smith’s disappearance. His employer confirmed to police that he had failed to show up for work for several days.
On November 26, Charlottesville police talked to Ayeni. She told them she had received a call and e-mails from McFadden the previous night. He’d told her he was in Washington, D.C. and a little short on cash.
Ayeni informed McFadden that police wanted to speak to him about Sage Smith and gave him the detectives’ contact information.
Police, meanwhile, checked out Ayeni’s apartment, searching for McFadden. They couldn’t find him; he was, as Ayeni said, out of town. He left behind a valuable trail of evidence, though, including his laptop and clothing.
A receipt from a CVS pharmacy showed McFadden had been in Charlottesville until November 22—two days after Smith had disappeared.
Erik McFadden Surfaces
On November 27, detectives got a call from McFadden. He confirmed that he was supposed to meet Smith near the Amtrak station on November 20, but said she never showed up. Moreover, McFadden said he had no idea what had happened to her.
McFadden also said he had moved on from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Why? “Because I’ve never been to New York before,” he claimed.
Detective Brake told McFadden to return to Charlottesville. McFadden just hung up.
On November 28, Charlottesville police expanded their search to include the streets and wooded areas near where Smith was last seen. They also searched the area where McFadden had lived.
The next day, Ayeni told police that her boyfriend was taking a bus to Charlottesville and would be arriving on November 29. McFadden expected police to pick him up at the bus station.
According to a police affidavit, “Brake reasonably assumed, based on the e-mail communication, that McFadden would be speaking with him at that time to explain his absence from Charlottesville and his relationship with Smith.”
On November 30, Ayeni informed detectives that McFadden had suddenly decided it would be better if he went on the run.
McFadden Goes into Hiding
In a November 30 e-mail, McFadden wrote to Ayeni, he said, “[I]m heading out. This is what happened i never did anything sexual with that guy and he was blackmailing me, he wanted me to give him money not to lie from saying we did and i did and he agreed to stop and then the next time he hit me up for money i said no…we did meet up but he had alot of enemies me and him were walking and some people sowed [sic] up and i kept walking not looking back.”
In a nutshell, McFadden had met with Sage Smith the night she went missing.
Police were able to get warrants for McFadden’s computer, e-mail accounts, cell phone apps, bank records, and Twitter account.
Fast forward to May 2013: McFadden e-mailed Ayeni from an untraceable e-mail address. He has not been heard from since.
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Charlottesville Police Bring in Cadaver-Sniffing Dogs
In December 2012, Charlottesville police made two more concerted efforts to find Sage Smith.
First, with the assistance of officers from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and cadaver-sniffing dogs from the Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association, police searched for a second time near McFadden’s house, at nearby railroad tracks, and in a deep pond.
A cadaver dog made a “slight indication” that it had picked up the scent of Smith. A dive team took over and searched the pond, but nothing turned up.
During their initial search for Smith, police had learned that the dumpsters behind McFadden’s apartment went to a landfill 60 miles away in Henrico County, near Richmond.
After searching the pond, investigators, along with officers from Henrico County, forensic and hazmat personnel, and a retired special agent who specialized in landfill searches, scoured the Henrico landfill for clues.
Police did not say what they were looking for, just that they hoped to find evidence. Police set up two tents and a light tower. Reporters said they saw at least a dozen police officers searching a specific area of the landfill. Two dogs were also brought in to help with the search.
They found nothing.
Police Department under Fire
For many reasons, the Charlottesville Police Department was criticized for the way it handled the Sage Smith case.
Too Fixated on Erik McFadden?
In the days immediately after Smith went missing, it appeared as if civilians were doing more to help locate the teen than the police were.
While the police seemed to drag their feet, the family was actively collecting information that was passed on to the authorities. In fact, virtually all of the information the police followed up on came from civilians.
The main person of interest and only figure investigated by police was McFadden. But he fled town days after Smith disappeared. The family believed local police were too fixated on McFadden and other people could just as easily have been involved.
“In my gut, it’s the friends,” Smith’s father Dean said. “I think [Aubrey Carson] had something to do with it. They all disappeared.”
Carson denied having anything to do with Smith’s disappearance and maintained she was in the apartment all night. But that cannot be verified.
Still, when Dean went over to Smith’s apartment on the day after she went missing, all of Smith’s wigs were gone. He believed Carson had taken them. She denied that, too.
Video doesn’t lie, though. On November 21, Carson was caught on camera at a gas station using Smith’s EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card.
“Your friend is missing and you’re using her food stamp card?” Dean said. “No.”
Another friend of Smith’s was seen wearing jewelry that clearly belonged to Smith. When confronted, the friend said she had gotten it from her boyfriend.
Then there was Jamel Smith, the man Sage Smith had gotten into a fight with the day before she vanished. Lieutenant Mooney said they investigated Jamel, and that he didn’t have an alibi.
Like many associated with the Smith case, Jamel has gone into hiding. Where is he?
“Is it Richmond or is it Florida? I can’t remember,” Mooney said. “One of them’s in Florida. But without evidence, we couldn’t really investigate.”
Didn’t Follow Protocol
Charlottesville police seem to have failed to follow even the most basic protocol for missing persons cases, including making requests for search and rescue and other external support in the early hours of the investigation.
In the Smith case, detectives did not even make requests for external support until December 1, 2012—11 days after Sage went missing.
Mooney said they had contacted the Virginia State Police and U.S. Marshals. The FBI also offered technical assistance. But when reporters contacted the first two agencies to confirm these claims, they discovered these agencies never had any agents working on Smith’s case.
Police protocol also advises that officers make contact with local governments and trash companies to ask for a delay in trash collection in areas where the subject was last seen or may have been abducted. The Charlottesville Police Department did not make any such requests.
Protocol also advises that investigators get consent or a search warrant for e-mails, chats, and other online communication for relevant clues. In the Smith case, police did not do this until March 11—four months after Smith vanished.
Miss Cookie said she called police and left several messages during the first week of the investigation before lead detective Brake would even return her calls.
Carson was not contacted until three or four days after Smith went missing. Carson agreed to come to the police station, but because she didn’t have a car and was staying at her grandmother’s, she asked to be picked up at her grandmother’s house. The detectives agreed. But no one came to pick her up. Carson wasn’t interviewed for another two weeks.
Confused Police Say Smith Case Not a Criminal Case
Police also stumbled when it came to communicating with the public.
On November 28, 2012, eight days after Smith went missing, Charlottesville Police Department Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts called the first press conference related to the case.
“It’s not a criminal case,” Roberts told local reports. “We have nothing at this point in time that indicates it being a criminal case, which makes it difficult to get warrants and things of that sort, because you have to have a criminal case to go in that direction.”
“I don’t know why he said that,” Lieutenant Mooney said years later. “He was our public information officer. He should have asked for the public’s help.”
Mooney went on to say that the disappearance of Smith became a criminal case after police discovered McFadden had sent an e-mail to his girlfriend admitting he had met with Smith.
“At that point, this obviously wasn’t a missing persons case anymore—something had happened,” Mooney said.
In an affidavit for a warrant to search McFadden’s computer, Mooney wrote, “These facts when considered together present probable cause to believe that Smith has been abducted, is either being held against [her] own will, or has met with harm.”
The search warrant was granted; the charge was criminal abduction.
Despite these developments, Roberts continued to say police were not working on a criminal case.
A December 1, 2012 NBC article said police do not suspect foul play.
On December 7, 2012, Roberts told Smith’s family that the city would not seek help from the Virginia State Police or FBI unless it was really necessary, and at that point, Roberts didn’t think it was necessary.
Bizarrely, in a December 2014 article, Mooney said police were still treating the disappearance of Smith as a missing persons case, not a criminal case.
“I don’t know why I would have said that,” Mooney said. “Maybe it was for a strategy.”
A Racist Double Standard?
Evidence collected in the early days of the investigation pointed to the possibility that Smith was abducted by McFadden. But police allowed the public to believe otherwise.
Mooney, however, disputed this. He said there is no protocol for a missing persons case. “There’s no standard there. The facts kind of dictate your actions,” he said.
Natalie Wilson, the co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation based in Maryland and someone who has worked with the Smith family, said it’s common for police to classify children who come from a visible minority group as runaways rather than victims of crime. For white children, the reverse is true.
Case in point, when Carson was finally interviewed by detectives, they zeroed in on a time in 2011 when Smith and Carson had left Charlottesville for a few days to go to the beach. Confused, Carson said they’d told their families where they went. The police then asked, “Well, wouldn’t Sage run away again if she had done it before?”
There are more excruciating examples of police double standards when it comes to missing people.
On September 13, 2014, Hannah Graham, 18, a white University of Virginia sophomore, went missing from Charlottesville. In less than 24 hours, the Virginia State Police had taken over the case.
In the early hours of Graham’s disappearance, Charlottesville police Chief Tim Longo