September 23, 2010, 1:37 p.m. Updated September 23, 2010, 2:39 p.m.
For more than six years, family members, friends and investigators held out hope that Lesley Smith would be found safe.
She had disappeared from her parents’ west Lawrence home with their minivan the night of Jan. 26, 2004, leaving behind many of her own belongings.
The case baffled investigators and family members in both its early stages and years later as they still looked for clues.
But the resolution they didn’t want became a reality Thursday. Coroner’s investigators used dental records to identify Smith as the body discovered Tuesday inside a vehicle the 1990 brown Plymouth Voyager belonging to her parents that was pulled from Clinton Lake.
“To have it come to a conclusion like this is very disappointing and discouraging,” said Sgt. Jim Martin, of the Lawrence Police Department’s investigations division.
The big break in the missing-person case turned out to be a new piece of side scan sonar equipment used by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Tuesday’s search of the lake turned up several objects that parks employees thought to be vehicles underwater, and a Douglas County Sheriff’s underwater search team was called to investigate.
Typically vehicles in the lake are stolen, sheriff’s officials said.
The team eventually pulled the minivan, which was 19 feet under the water, from an area 175 feet from Boat Ramp No. 1 inside Clinton State Park in the northeastern part of the lake. The body was sent to the Douglas County coroner’s office for an autopsy, and medical investigators used a forensic dental expert to identify Smith.
The autopsy determined drowning to be the cause of death, sheriff’s and police officials said. Based on that, plus an investigation of the vehicle and the circumstances of her disappearance, investigators do not suspect foul play.
“There was nothing to indicate that there was anything suspicious,” Martin said.
As investigators consider the case closed, the circumstances of finding the body still leave the family with as many questions as Smith’s disappearance, said her father, Jack Smith, of Ottawa.
“I’d like to have more answers,” he said. “It might take awhile or whatever. Right now I’m very curious.”
Lesley Smith, who was 38 at the time, had lived with her mother and stepfather, Marilyn and Gary Anderson, who live in west Lawrence.
According to news reports, the Andersons last saw Smith watching TV that night at their home. Marilyn Anderson said she found a note from Smith the next morning that alluded to medication and said, “I love you so much.”
Smith had taken antidepressants and had been seeing a therapist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. The Andersons have said they didn’t believe she left on her own because she left many of her personal belongings, like her driver’s license, credit cards and asthma medication.
“This case went on for nearly six-and-a-half years, and it was a difficult case for us because this individual essentially left no trail behind as to where she’d gone,” Martin said.
Police conducted several searches in the region looking for the vehicle. They checked wooded areas. They conducted air searches.
Sonar was used to search area lakes and the Kansas River, Martin said.
“Early on at that time there was some type of sonar used in 2004, but it wasn’t the technology that it is today,” he said.
Smith’s name was entered into a national database for missing people, and John Hanson, the lead detective in the case, would periodically check in with the database to see if anything developed. Investigators also took a DNA sample from Marilyn Anderson in case anything turned up in a national database.
In past interviews with the Journal-World, the Andersons talked about their own exhaustive searches. They even consulted psychics. In a 2007 interview the Andersons talked about time passing not making it any easier to deal with the disappearance.
“Nothing ever showed up on this, so it was a very mysterious case,” Martin said. “It just seemed like she had disappeared off the face of the earth. It was very difficult for the family. It was hard for us.”
Once they received the coroner’s report identifying Smith, detectives notified the Andersons Thursday morning.
“It’s a conclusion for them,” Martin said. “It’s not what they wanted, but they’ll at least not have to worry and wonder what happened to their daughter.”
Martin said some things would never be known about the case, including Smith’s mental state. He said the coroner’s report determined there was no foul play in her death.
Beyond the coroner’s investigation, Martin said investigators would not comment further about how the vehicle ended up in the lake.
“The case is now closed for both us and the family,” he said. “And, unfortunately, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
The Andersons also declined to comment about the case Thursday. Funeral arrangements for Smith are pending.
“It’s good and bad,” her father Jack Smith said. “It’s good to have finally found out, but it’s bad because it’s not the outcome that I wanted. It’s kind of mixed feelings.”