CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — On November 20, 2012, Dashad “Sage” Smith, 19, left home in Charlottesville and walked down Main Street to meet a friend. But Smith never came home — and seemed to vanish into thin air from the busy street.
The case is documented in a new episode of the Investigation Discovery series “Disappeared” entitled “Born This Way.“Shortly before disappearing, Smith changed gender on Facebook, selecting “female,” and wrote: “I am a girl now #Respect it.”
Friends and family say that Smith, who was gay, had recently began openly identifying as a woman and was using the name “Sage” instead of Dashad. But family members also state that Smith was gender fluid and did not identify as binary one way or the other, and many family members still refer to Smith using the pronoun “he.”
Police believe that Smith was en route to meet a man named Erik McFadden.
Police have released a partial timeline of the case: Detectives say that they believe Smith left home to meet McFadden at the Amtrak Train Station at about 5:40 P.M. on November 20.
One of Smith’s roommates, Aubrey Carson, woke up from a nap around this time and remembers Smith saying that she was on her way to meet a date.
Smith and McFadden also reportedly exchanged several text messages. According to police, McFadden indicated that he was at the Hampton Inn at 5:20 P.M.
After Smith left her home, McFadden sent several text messages to Smith asking for an update on location. Smith was talking on a phone to a friend during this time, so it is unknown whether the texts were read.
At 6:27 P.M., another message was sent from McFaddens’ phone: “Bye u stood me up smh.”
At around 6:35 P.M., a witness saw Smith walking on 4th Street. Other witnesses spoke to Smith at a bus stop on West Main Street — and said that Smith was headed to the Amtrak Station to meet someone.The last known activity on Smith’s phone was a 6:36 P.M. call from a number later linked to McFadden. After that, all phone activity stopped.
What happened next is unclear. Police have noted that no one actually saw Smith at the train station — but McFadden indicated to his girlfriend later in an email later that the meeting did happen. He reportedly claimed that he had been scared off by a group of approaching people that saw them together, and he just kept walking.
A few days after Smith’s disappearance, McFadden vanished as well.Smith was raised by his paternal grandmother, Lolita “Cookie” Smith, who friends called “Miss Cookie.” After graduating from high school, Smith moved into an apartment with two roommates.
But after transitioning, despite the support of family and friends, Smith’s life was not without conflict. Smith occasionally placed Casual Encounters ads on Craigslist, which police believe is how she made contact with Erik McFadden.
When Smith failed to come home on November 20, Carson was immediately alarmed.
Friends and family pointed out that it was extremely out of character for Sage’s phone to go to voicemail since she always had it with her — and always made a point of having it charged.
“Sage’s cell phone was glued to her ear,” her grandmother said. “I began to get anxious and get a little bit afraid.” She told Carson to call the police — and Smith was officially reported missing on November 21.Detectives began investigating on November 22, Thanksgiving Day. Police checked surveillance footage, pulled Smith’s cell phone records, and did a grid search. They found no trace of the 19-year-old.
Smith’s family and friends began their own investigation. Sage’s father, Dean Smith, was able to confirm McFadden’s identity after posting the unknown number on Sage’s phone on Facebook.
A friend told Dean that McFadden had been dating Sage — but that McFadden, who lived with his girlfriend, was not out of the closet.
McFadden left town a few days after Smith’s disappearance. On November 24, McFadden’s girlfriend, Esther Ayeni, actually called the police to report her boyfriend missing.
Police said that they considered McFadden a person of interest — but authorities were unsure whether he fled because he felt he had been “outed” online, or because he was involved in Smith’s disappearance.
On November 27, McFadden contacted police to say that he was in New York, and that his trip had no connection with Smith’s disappearance. When asked why he’d fled to the Big Apple, McFadden replied, “Because I’ve never been to New York before.”
McFadden did admit to a sexual relationship with Sage. But he insisted that Smith never showed up on the night in question. McFadden also told police that he would return to Charlottesville to talk to them, but he never showed up as planned.
Police encountered another twist in the case when they got a hit that Smith’s credit card had been used on December 12. But when they checked surveillance footage, they were shocked to see that it was Aubrey Carson, not Smith, using the card. But Carson claimed that they often shared each other’s cards to buy food.
Investigators stated in November 2015 that, partly due to their investigation into McFadden’s digital footprint, they no longer believed McFadden was involved.
In January of 2016, a third roommate who lived with Aubrey Carson and Smith said that Carson began to borrow Smith’s belongings. Another witness claimed to have seen Aubrey, Smith, and McFadden together in a club just a few nights before Smith went missing.
Carson insisted that she has told investigators everything she knows.
In December of 2016, authorities reclassified the case as a homicide. “What prompted the reclassification was the totality of the investigation up to this point, and the fact Dashad Smith has not been heard from since he was reported missing in November 2012,” Steve Upman of the Charlottesville Police said.
Detectives are also determined to get answers from McFadden — and anyone else with information.
“Someone somewhere at some point in time saw Dashad that afternoon. Maybe they saw him walking up the street alone. Maybe they saw him walking with someone else. Maybe they saw him get into a car, or go into a building. That’s the person we need to hear from,” said CPD Chief Tim Longo.
Sage’s family members posted a response on the Charlottesville LGBTQ and Allies Facebook group calling Longo out for “misgendering” Sage.
It read: “HER NAME IS SAGE SMITH. The constant and insistent deadnaming and misgendering of Sage will not be tolerated. These anti-trans practices by both the local media and the local police department are at the heart of the racism and transphobia which result in alarming rates of both suicides amongst transgender youth and murders of trans women of color.”
“There’s a bigger issue there,” Lieutenant James Mooney, the detective who’s stayed with the case the longest, told Splinter News. “Only a very small fraction of our community has taken interest in Sage.”
The Charlottesville Police Department has asked that anyone with information on this case call Crime Stoppers at (434) 977-4000.
A reward of $20,000 has been offered.
For more on Sage Smith, watch the “Born This Way” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared on ID GO now!
If you are in search of a missing person, make sure to enter their information into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
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Main photo: Sage Smith [Investigation Discovery]