LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Linda Stoltzfoos’ final moments of life were a violent contrast to the peaceful existence she knew.
An autopsy Friday morning determined that the kidnapped Amish teen, whose remains were found Wednesday after a 10-month search, was strangled and stabbed once in the neck, according to Lancaster Online.
Stoltzfoos, 18, was abducted June 21 in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, as she walked home from church. Her kidnapping, which took place less than 500 feet from the safety of her family’s home, was caught on surveillance footage.
Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, the Lancaster County coroner, ruled that Stoltzfoos’ cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation and suffocation. The stab wound was a contributing factor, the newspaper reported.
Justo Roberto Smoker, 34, of nearby Paradise, was arrested three weeks after Stoltzfoos vanished and charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Prosecutors added a criminal homicide charge in December after six months had passed with no sign of the teen.
Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said during a news conference Thursday that despite the homicide charge, she knows that Stoltzfoos’ fate became a reality to her family only after her body was found.
“I would ask that the family be given privacy during this difficult time,” the prosecutor said. “They certainly deserve that.”
Watch Thursday’s news conference below, courtesy of Lancaster Online.
The teen’s uncle, Mervin Fisher, said the family had held out a sliver of hope that Stoltzfoos would somehow be found alive. They had also been slowly preparing themselves for the worst, according to PennLive.
“There’s always a ray of hope that you cling to, even though it’s very diminished,” Fisher said. “The not knowing is a long, dark tunnel without an end. And when you find the remains, you have the end in sight.
“It brings closure, and when there’s closure, the healing process can continue.”
Lancaster Online reported that Stoltzfoos’ remains, which were found buried in eastern Lancaster County, were identified through dental records. Diamantoni told the newspaper Friday that the results of various tests, including one for signs of sexual assault, would take a few weeks.
He declined to say if there were indications the teen was raped. Adams also declined to comment on the autopsy, citing the ongoing investigation.
Adams said Thursday that Stoltzfoos’ remains were found buried behind Dutchland Inc., the water treatment supplier in Gap where Smoker worked at the time of his arrest.
“The remains were recovered behind (the) business, in a grave on railroad property, and wrapped in a tarp,” Adams said. “A preliminary review of the body by the coroner’s office indicates that the body was consistent with that of a female of the relevant age, and was found with a dress, bonnet and shoes consistent with the clothing worn by Linda on the day of her disappearance.”
Stoltzfoos was last seen walking barefoot to her house, where she planned to change clothes and grab a dessert she’d made for her youth group. She never made it home.
Adams declined to say what led investigators from the East Lampeter Township Police Department, the FBI and the Pennsylvania State Police to search the area behind Dutchland. Stoltzfoos’ remains were buried in an area of brush between some railroad tracks and the tree line of the wooded area.
Her makeshift grave was about 3 feet, 6 inches deep.
The teen’s bra and stockings were found last year, buried behind an undisclosed business eight miles away in the community of Ronks. Detectives searched that area July 10 after a witness reported that on June 23, two days after Stoltzfoos’ abduction, he’d seen Smoker’s red Kia Rio parked behind the business.
The district attorney said investigators have reason to believe that Smoker killed Stoltzfoos within hours of her kidnapping and buried her in the area where her bra and stockings — and an area of disturbed earth — were later discovered.
“Investigators have further reason to believe that Smoker subsequently moved Linda to the location behind his place of employment within several days after the homicide,” Adams said.
Detectives have searched extensively for Stoltzfoos since her disappearance. The searchers included investigators from multiple departments, specialized search-and-rescue teams and volunteers from the community, which has a large Amish and Mennonite population.
The means used to conduct the search included searchers on foot and horseback, specialized search-and-rescue teams and aerial searches using drones. The teams also utilized K-9s, submarines, all-terrain vehicles and ground-penetrating radar.
“There is simply no room for criticizing the efforts of law enforcement in this case,” Adams said. “In total, over 2,338 searchers participated in searches involving over 15,000 man-hours.”
According to the prosecutor, the property surrounding Dutchland was searched, including the general area of Stoltzfoos’ grave.
“The burial site itself is not on the business property and is not easily accessible,” she said.
Read the probable cause affidavit in the case below.
Detectives used Smoker’s cellphone records to guide many, but not all, of their searches. Adams said Dutchland was not of “significant interest” to the investigators because the phone records did not show Smoker going there the day of the kidnapping.
“I want to stress that efforts to recover the body have never ceased,” Adams said. “Since charging this case, we have maintained two goals: bringing Linda home to her family and securing a murder conviction against Smoker.”
The prosecutor said Thursday that she understands the impact the case has had on the Amish community, as well as the broader Lancaster County community and beyond.
“I know there is significant public interest in this case, and in the coming weeks, we hope to be able to share more information regarding how Linda’s remains were discovered,” she said.
Smoker is being held without bail in the Lancaster County Prison. If convicted of murder, he could face the death penalty.