Mandy Lemaire was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and lived here for the first ten years of her life. In 1990, the family packed up their belongings and moved to rural Tazlina, Alaska, which had a population of around 240. Mandy was a well-rounded young girl who enjoyed reading mysteries and the Babysitter Club book series. Her father, Dave, commented: “We’re a close family. She spent more time fishing and hunting with me than most kids ever do in their lifetime.”1
On Friday the 22nd of August, 1991, 11-year-old Mandy left her home to meet a friend half way along a ¾ mile stretch of deserted road that separated their two homes. The plan for the girls was to walk back to Mandy’s home to play together. Mandy had intended on taking her bicycle but at the last minute, she changed her mind after discovering that she had a flat tire.
Mandy’s friend arrived at the arranged destination, mid-way through the road but Mandy hadn’t yet arrived. Her friend waited for several moments before continuing walking in the direction of Mandy’s home, hoping to intercept her along the road. However, Mandy was nowhere to be seen. Upon learning that Mandy hadn’t arrived, her family immediately began searching for her, scouring the plethora of trails that ran between the family’s home and the highway between Glennallen and Copper Center. The search for Many was unfruitful, so her family contacted police to report her missing.
As police searched for Mandy, her family and the community did the same. They continued focusing their attention on the dense woodland, speculating that Mandy may have been scared by a moose and ran into the forest. They knew that Mandy hadn’t simply gotten lost; she had known the roads and trails of Tazlina like the back of her hand. Moreover, they didn’t believe that she had gotten into a car with a nefarious person. She had been taught of stranger danger.
Her father, Dave, commented: “What I am saying is the only thing we haven’t done is ripped trees out of the ground to look under the roots.” He struggled to hold back tears as he said: “We wanted to be certain she wasn’t here, even if it meant finding a body. That would have been much more comforting than to think that she is in someone’s hands.”
In an attempt to retrace Mandy’s last known movements, a sniffer dog was brought in to the area. He was able to follow Mandy’s scent along the deserted road to where she was scheduled to meet her friend. Here, it abruptly stopped.
The search in the immediate vicinity was unfruitful and by Sunday, Alaska State Troopers called off the ground search. They were now working on the theory that Mandy had possibly been kidnapped. Sgt. Geoffrey Engleman stated: “There was nowhere left to search in the immediate area.” Investigators in Alaska also called in the assistance of the FBI.
As the days continued to trickle past, the outcome of Mandy’s disappearance was looking bleaker and bleaker. But still, her family still held onto the hope that Mandy would be coming home safe and well. As a beacon of hope, David and Mandy’s mother, Valerie, decorated his daughter’s bedroom with welcome home balloons and ribbons.2 That night, they grilled salmon. As Dave said: “It was her favourite meal and it’s just a way for me to keep my mind of it.”
Labor Day weekend was a sombre one, but the community all bounded together to try and find Mandy. They set their sights on a 3-square-mile grid between Mile 11 of the Richarson Highway and the Cooper River. The area had already been searched, but as Cherie Ansell, the search coordinator, said: “We didn’t feel comfortable about how the ground had been covered. So we came back and literally searched it hand to hand. . . . We wanted to be 100 percent sure instead of 90 or 95 percent sure.”3
On the 1st of September, a group of searchers came across a gruesome scene around a mile away from Mandy’s home in a deserted wooded area dotted with ramshackle cabins and old cars. It was the lifeless body of Mandy. It took them just seconds to take in the carnage. She had been shot once in the face and once in the top of the head. There were bruises on her arms and a cut near her lip which suggested she had put up a valiant fight for her life.
Dave was searching in nearby Chitina when he got the word that his daughter’s body was found. He recalled: “I was angry and relieved. Whatever monster did this not only tormented a little girl but also her father, mother and family and this community.” Over at the medical examiner’s office, it was discovered that Many had been sodomized before she was shot dead. There was also evidence that she had been bound with rope.
The area had already been searched which led investigators to speculate that the killer was local, and disposed of Mandy’s body after the search. As one local, Rocky Ansell, commented: “It is hard to imagine a tourist just randomly heading down that road.”
The discovery led to a pervasive fear quivering in the air. The spectre of a sadistic child killer loomed overhead as parents forbid their children from walking any area roads alone or even walking to school alone. That same week, a counselling team from Anchorage travelled to the tight-knit community to chat with students at local schools.
The entire community was anxiously hoping that the case would be cracked right away, but on the 4th of September, Lt. John Glass announced that they were not close to making an arrest. That same day, two men attempted to lure an 8-year-old girl to their car while she was playing outside her South Anchorage home. The girl refused to go and she immediately ran inside and told her aunt.
An overwhelming sense of fear overcame the community that the two men could have been Mandy’s killer, attempting to take a second victim. However, investigators soon enough announced that they didn’t think there was any correlation between the two cases.4
Towards the end of the month, investigators revealed that they were following up on some significant leads, but they refused to elaborate. While they were following up on these leads, Crimestoppers aired a segment on the case, hoping that it would rejog the memory of anybody who may have seen something suspicious on the day that Mandy vanished.5
In November, it was announced that there had been an arrest. 61-year-old retired pipeline worker, Charlie Smithart, was arrested at his home in Copper Center. Smithart had been among the members of the community to help search for Mandy after she was reported missing. He even drove a trooper through the maze of roads in the dense woodland where Mandy’s body would ultimately be found. He was charged with first-degree kidnapping, first-degree sexual assault and first-degree murder.
The arrest came as a complete shock to the entire community. Smithart was known as a jack-of-all-trades in the area and had lived a quiet life in the garage next to his mother’s home. One local, Jean Huddleston, said: “The whole valley is in shock, his family is very well known.” Others even suggested that investigators had arrested the wrong person, with Ed Church, who had known Smithart for 20 years, stating: “This is a bunch of crap. They are completely on the wrong track. There’s no way on earth he could have done this.”6
Smithart professed his innocence as well. In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, he stated: “I know I’m innocent. If you were innocent, wouldn’t you know?” He said that when Mandy vanished, he was at his garage apartment watching The Price is Right. He then said that he had impotent for years and was incapable of penetration, stating: “I’m incapable of getting an erection… It’s an impossibility. I’ve had no sex because of it. I tried six months ago, but it didn’t work. So I gave up.”7
During the investigation, detectives had learned from local man, Dave DeForest, that he had seen Smithart’s pickup truck in the vicinity of the area where Mandy had ben kidnapped from around the same time she vanished. Investigators began zoning in on him as a suspect. They eventually obtained a search warrant for the pickup truck and found trace evidence that indicated Mandy had been inside the pickup truck, including two blonde hairs that looked similar to hers. The car was said to be filled with hairs and extremely dirty, as if it hadn’t been cleaned in a prolonged period of time.
While looking into Smithart as a suspect, investigators spoke with one of his now-adult daughters. She revealed that her father had molested her as a child. She further commented that her two sisters had been molested as well, and a third “had made herself fat and ugly during her adolescence so that the defendant would not find her attractive.”8
The case against Smithart was built on circumstantial evidence. The key eyewitness during the trial was Dave DeForest, a construction worker who knew Smithart and who claimed he had seen his pickup truck on the afternoon of the 22nd of August, turning onto the road Mandy had disappeared from. DeForest was a convicted felon who came to Alaska while on probation for an attempted burglary in New York.9
DeForest’s credibility was questioned by the defence. He had provided prosecutors with a time card to bolster his account that he had left his employer’s garage that day to run a 45 minute errand around the same time he allegedly saw Smithart’s pickup truck. However, he provided his employer with a different time card which suggested he was in the shop all day on the 22nd of August.
Defence attorney Andrew Lambert suggested that DeForest was Mandy’s killer, not Smithart. He revealed that DeForest told investigators he was using a grinder to clean grease from his truck on the day Mandy was abducted. Curiously, Mandy had a grease spot on her left shoulder blade and in it were tiny metal flakes. None of these flakes matched anything in Smithart’s truck or apartment. It was also revealed that DeForest often hung around with teenagers and had recently just married a 17-year-old.10
Two teenage witnesses then testified that they had bee approached by Smithart in the days or weeks leading up to Mandy’s murder. Both had been walking along deserted roads when he pulled up alongside them and waved. In one incident, when another car came along, he sped off. In the other, he asked if the teenager wanted a ride and when she said no, he sped off.11
While DeForest’s credibility had been hit hard, another witness would bolster his claims: Smithart’s cousin. She said that she had seen Smithart’s pickup truck driving along Old Copper Valley School Road at around 5PM on the day Mandy vanished. This was near where Mandy’s body was ultimately found. This contradicted Smithart’s claims that he was watching television ad visiting friends between 3PM and 7PM that evening.12
Ultimately, the jury sided with the prosecution and found Charlie Smithart guilty of the murder of Mandy Lemaire. As the verdict was announced, he said: “I could expect no less of an all-white jury. I’m innocent and if I die tomorrow I’m still innocent.” He was sentenced to 114 years in prison. In 1999, however, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the conviction. They announced that the defence should have been given more leeway to attack DeForest’s testimony and convince the jury that he was the real killer.
In December of 2000, Charlie Smithart died in prison from lung cancer, having never faced his second trial. As dictated by Alaska law, that meant that the charges against him were dismissed. The opinion on his guilt still remains very much polarized today, with many believing he truly was guilty but others believing that the true killer escaped justice. Mandy’s family commented that Smithart would be facing “appropriate punishment” from God.
- Anchorage Daily News, 27 August, 1991 – “No Trace of Tazlina Girl”
- Anchorage Daily News, 29 August, 1991 – “Search Brings Back Memories of Other Missing Children”
- Anchorage Daily News, 3 September, 1991 – “Searchers Find Body of Girl”
- Anchorage Daily News, 4 September, 1991 – “8-Year-Old Flees Kidnap Attempt”
- Anchorage Daily News, 28 September, 1991 – “Girl’s Killing Yields Leads”
- Anchorage Daily News, 27 November, 1991 – “Man Arrested in Lemaire”
- Anchorage Daily News, 28 November, 1991 – “Suspect Says He’s Innocent of Girl’s Killing”
- Anchorage Daily News, 23 August, 1992 – “Circumstantial Evidence Murder Case Hangs on Two Hairs and Some Tiny Red Fibers”
- Anchorage Daily News, 19 June, 1993 – “Witness Identifies Smithart Trucker”
- Anchorage Daily News, 22 June, 1993 – “Smithart’s Attorney Questions Credibility of Witness”
- Anchorage Daily News, 26 June, 1993 – “Teens Say Smithart Approached Them”
- Anchorage Daily News, 24 June, 1993 – “Cousin Says Smithart Was Near Murder Site”