Erica Heather Smith vanished on July 29, 2002, after telling her parents that she was on her way to meet a friend. Eleven days later, the Ashburn teenager’s body was discovered in a shallow grave near Broad Run Creek, and for years her case yielded few promising leads for investigators to follow.
On Friday, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s department said a suspect they had linked to Erica’s disappearance and murder had committed suicide “for unknown reasons” during the course of the investigation. The sheriff’s office did not name the suspect or provide information about a possible motive for the killing.
“Regrettably, there will be nothing further that the judicial system can do given that this subject took his own life,” Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman said in a statement released nearly a dozen years to the day after Erica’s disappearance.
“We’ll never have the opportunity to go through the entire judicial process and obtain a conviction, and in the absence of that, we don’t think it’s fair to put his family through this,” Chapman said in an interview Friday. “It wasn’t the family that committed this act, it was the individual.”
Chapman declined to specify when the suspect committed suicide, noting that such information could effectively identify the individual. The sheriff added that investigators did provide more detailed information about the case and the suspect to Erica’s family.
William Smith Jr., Erica’s father, said the sheriff’s office had indicated that the suspect was a young adult in his early 20s at the time of the murder and was someone 14-year-old Erica knew.
“It’s not clear how well she knew him,” Smith said. “But this particular individual, from what we know, is one who preyed on and stalked young girls.”
Smith said the family was relieved that a suspect had been found at long last.
“This is something we’ve been praying for since Day One,” he said. “It’s such a bittersweet situation. Thank God this individual is no longer around, so he can’t commit this crime on someone else’s family member, but on the other hand, he is not going to face the criminal justice system and our family will never get our day in court.”
Chapman said the sheriff’s office’s Cold Case Unit had spent thousands of hours focused on the investigation — involving several hundred interviews, a comprehensive review of all evidence, consultation with experts and assistance from federal authorities, including the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit and Violent Crimes Task Force.
Chapman has cited the Smith family as a motivation to create the department’s Cold Case Unit, which actively reinvestigates unsolved murders in the county.
“The intent was the hope to not only solve these cases, but attempt to bring closure to the family of the victims,” Chapman said in the statement. “We also wanted to ensure the citizens of Loudoun that these cases are not forgotten, nor are those victims or family members.”
Smith said the announcement brought “a huge sigh of relief” to him and his wife, Erica’s mother, but he said his daughter’s absence remains a sorrow that his family must face every day.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever have any real type of emotional closure because of the fact that we’ll never see our daughter again here on Earth,” he said. “We’re still going to have to deal with this and struggle with this for the rest our lives.”