Electronic trail is invisible for missing AppState student Anna Smith

In an age of electronic trails, frustrated investigators have had to turn to old-fashioned interviews and ground searches in the baffling disappearance of an Appalachian State University student.

An anguished Anna Smith left her cellphone and laptop in High Point when she went home over Labor Day weekend to talk to her parents about what has been characterized as an assault she suffered the previous week in Boone.

While electronic devices are generally helpful in pinpointing a person’s movements and activities, the fact she didn’t have them in the days leading up to her disappearance meant they yielded little in the way of clues to investigators, ASU Police Chief Gunther Doerr said Friday in an interview with The Charlotte Observer.

Smith didn’t even take a debit card or credit card with her, which could be traced if used.

“It’s like there are no footprints,” he said. “That’s frustrating.”

Authorities have said the last credible sighting of Smith, 18, came at 10:26 p.m. on Sept. 2 when a woman called Mountaineer SafeRide, a van service that shuttles students around after dark, and identified herself as Anna Smith. She arranged a cross-campus ride from the Holmes Convocation Center to Mountaineer Hall near the ASU football stadium.

But Doerr said Friday that investigators are not positive it was Smith on the bus. Students aren’t required to show ID to get aboard, and other riders on the shuttle said the woman was traveling without friends. “We showed her picture to the van driver, and he said it looked like her, but he was not 100 percent sure,” he said.

Doerr said authorities believe Smith left on foot, and there is no evidence that she was abducted.

Two searches have been done, one with bloodhounds, in the rugged nature preserve near Mountaineer Hall, but nothing out of the ordinary has been found. Additional searches may be conducted this weekend, he said.

Students on the campus of 18,000 are occasionally reported missing, but they usually show up in a day or two, he said. “We have had several missing students reports over the years, but none have gone this long without being located.”

Milestones of investigation

Doerr gave this account of how the search for Smith unfolded:

Campus police were contacted about 9:45 p.m. Sept. 3 by residence hall staff when Smith’s roommate reported she hadn’t been seen since noon the previous day. Word went out that night to dorms across the campus to look for Smith in case she was staying with friends elsewhere.

ASU doesn’t consider a person missing until he or she has been gone for 24 hours. Smith’s case met that threshold, and around midnight, campus police notified the National Crime Information Center. This generated a bulletin to all law enforcement agencies within a 50-mile radius and meant that any officer in the country putting her name into the computer would be alerted she was a missing person.

Officers canvassed campus all that night.

On Sept. 4, police notified the State Bureau of Investigation, the Boone Police Department and Watauga County Sheriff’s Office. Pictures of Smith were distributed to all officers on the city’s force, said Boone Police Lt. Danny Houck.

Because Smith was known to hike, campus police did trail checks across the campus for two days.

Her cellphone and computer were turned over to the SBI Sept. 5 for analysis. Two SBI agents were assigned to help with the case and other SBI resources were offered.

As media interest in the case increased, tips about possible sightings of Smith – some of them three or four days old – began to come in. Police agencies in Watauga, Ashe, Guilford and Avery counties followed up on tips. U.S. Park Service officers checked sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway that Smith’s family thought she might go.

Officers interviewed acquaintances and examined surveillance video from residence halls and city buses.

Report of assault

Dan Smith, Anna’s father, had come up Sept. 3 to visit his daughter and brought her cellphone and laptop that she had left behind in High Point. He arrived at her dorm shortly before police were notified of Smith’s disappearance and was in the lobby when the first officer arrived.

Smith was interviewed by officers and provided the first information about the apparent trauma his daughter had shared with her parents three days earlier.

In an interview this week, Smith declined to discuss the incident because he didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation. But a family spokesman gave a few details on what was known because a posting on Facebook had discussed it.

On the night of Aug. 27, said the Rev. Dana McKim on the family’s behalf, Anna Smith had gone out with friends. Later that night, she said she had been assaulted, he 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.

Doerr said investigators began looking into the report at the beginning of the investigation. They learned that there was a gathering of about a half-dozen students off-campus that Anna Smith had been a part of. Everyone at the party was interviewed over the next few days, and Doerr said that there was no evidence that any kind of attack was sexual in nature.

He also said that leaving her phone and laptop in High Point may have been deliberate, but he wouldn’t say why. “As far as I know, she didn’t forget them,” he said.

Authorities also established that something had occurred that left Anna in an agitated state. “I don’t want to get into specifics,” he said, “but ‘anguished’ would be a good word.”

More resources

Dan Smith, who has been in Boone since Sept. 3, said he wanted more done by authorities to find his daughter. “We need additional resources,” he told the Observer. “My previous request for these resources has not been answered.”

But Doerr said every investigator and officer in his 24-member department is working on the case with help from other agencies. “When we’ve needed a resource, no one is turning us down,” he said.

University police is the lead agency running the investigation, and Doerr said he believes the department has the know-how to do it correctly. Four of his investigators, he said, came to ASU with extensive law enforcement experience in other places.

“We feel comfortable we’re doing everything we can,” said Doerr, who served as a military policeman for 22 years before taking over the ASU department 17 years ago.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer