An 11-day search into the baffling disappearance of an Appalachian State University freshman ended Saturday with the discovery of her body in a rugged thicket at the edge of campus, a possible suicide.
Boone police were summoned about 10:30 a.m. by a resident of Poplar Grove Road who reported a suspicious odor. Anna Smith’s body was quickly found in the steep woods.
An autopsy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem will establish the cause of death, but two people familiar with the scene said it appeared she asphyxiated herself. Boone police would not confirm the account, but said Smith’s drivers’ license and her student ID card were found with the body.
They would not say whether a note was found. Also found nearby was her red leather purse and backpack.
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Smith, an 18-year-old history major from High Point who had been in a personal crisis in her first weeks of college, was last seen Sept. 2 when she took a Mountaineer SafeRide, a van service that shuttles students around after dark, from the Holmes Convocation Center. She was dropped off in a parking lot at Mountaineer Hall about 10:30 p.m.
It wasn’t clear why she went to the dormitory, which lies near the pinnacle of the hilly campus. She was a resident of White Hall. A review of security tapes from that night did not appear to show her entering the dormitory, though the quality of the video was poor because it was dark.
Asked Saturday whether the area where Smith was found had been searched earlier, Boone police spokesman Sgt. Shane Robbins said, “I can’t tell you that.”
Two searches were done, one with bloodhounds, on a nearby 64-acre nature preserve thick with mountain laurel that the university maintains for biological study between Mountaineer Hall and Kidd Brewer Stadium. Smith’s body was found in an area on the other side of Mountaineer Hall, about 300 yards into the woods.
Dan and Laurie Smith, who have been in Boone during the search for their daughter, were informed of their daughter’s death in a meeting at the ASU campus police station that ended about 2:30 p.m. They said nothing when leaving but wore expressions of despair.
“They are certainly relieved to find Anna,” said the Rev. Dana McKim, a family friend, who said not knowing what had become of her was the worst part.
‘Anguished’ after incident
Anna Smith had been distraught from an incident that occurred a week before her disappearance.
On the night of Aug. 27, said McKim, who spoke on the family’s behalf, Smith had gone out with friends. Later that night, she said she had been assaulted, McKim said, but for unknown reasons, had only a foggy memory of what had happened to her and went home that weekend to discuss it with her parents.
Campus police Chief Gunther Doerr said investigators learned about the incident at the beginning of the search for Smith and interviewed all the students who had been with her that night at an off-campus gathering. Investigators concluded there was no evidence that if there was some kind of attack, it was sexual in nature.
But authorities concluded that something had happened that made Smith come undone. “I don’t want to get into specifics,” Doerr told the Observer, “but ‘anguished’ would be a good word.”
Excited about ASU
Dan Smith said last week that his daughter was excited about attending ASU because of its nature-intensive setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had grown up kayaking, mountain biking and camping.
She was an honor student and excelled as a swimmer. She coached the Thomasville YMCA swim team on which she had grown up competing.
“Our family is strong, and Anna had that strength,” said Dan Smith, who works as a visual arts specialist at UNC Greensboro. Smith’s wife is a nurse at High Point Regional Medical Center. They have one other daughter, who is in high school.
Smith’s family is active in the United Methodist Church, and he said last week that however events turned out, his faith would sustain him. “I know one thing,” he said. “Anna’s life is everlasting.”
Appalachian State offers around-the-clock intervention through its Counseling Center for trauma or life-threatening situations such as suicide and sexual assault.
Students in crisis are encouraged to come to the center and speak to a clinician. Students are also told that they can talk to professionals there if they are concerned about friends or bring them in if they will come.
“It is important for each of us to remember that we are not alone,” Chancellor Sheri Everts said in an email to the university community Saturday evening.
“There are always people in this Appalachian community to whom we can turn for solace, caring counsel, and assistance. I find strength in the great power of our community to support those with broken hearts and burdened spirits who have been powerfully affected by the loss of this bright young light.”