an older article
A tale of murder and marriage
BY MOLLY WOULFE
Times Features Writer
A Hoosier's 15-year search for a vanished sister is documented in a new Lifetime movie.
"Murder on Pleasant Drive," airing at 8 p.m. Monday, recaps how Sherrie Gladden-Davis convinced the FBI and five police departments to let her help solve her sibling's disappearance. Her grit put an ex-Hammond resident behind bars for murder and cracked the "lady in the box" mystery that shocked Northwest Indiana in 1980.
Gladden-Davis of Morristown, Ind. has yet to screen the telefilm. But the soft-spoken grandmother of three, 59, hopes that movie -- based on her book "My Sister Is Missing: Bringing a Killer to Justice" (Emmis Books, 2005) -- pays tribute to investigating officers. She and niece-sidekick Dedy Weiss just ferreted out clues, she insists.
At the same time, "you don't take one of mine and walk away without bearing the scars of your actions," she said in a phone interview.
Fran Gladden-Smith vanished Oct. 1, 1991, from her New Jersey home. The feisty, thrice-divorced mother of three, 49, had recently wed John David Smith III, a boyish engineer eight years her junior.
The romance had been a whirlwind affair. Smith seemed devoted to his bride if vague about his past. Now he was vaguer than ever. Fran just walked out on him, he swore. A note read, "Going away for a few days. Don't forget to feed the fish."
Gladden-Davis didn't buy the fish story. Nor did Weiss, Fran's grown daughter. The three women were very close. Besides, why would Fran, recovering from a broken hip, leave without her car?
"Fran would never have left without telling us where she was going," Gladden-Davis said.
History of lies
The police were baffled, but there was no evidence of foul play. Undaunted, Gladden-Davis and Weiss began digging into Smith's past, reviewing yearbooks, old bills and public records for clues to this near-stranger they believed murdered Fran. Major discrepancies were reported to the police, a ploy that kept the case alive. They also went to the media, publicizing Fran's disappearance on "Hard Copy," "Inside Edition" and "20/20 Downtown."
And the women discovered their prime suspect was a chronic liar.
Among their findings: Smith, who maintained he had a degree from Ohio State, had dropped out of school after two years. A brilliant computer programmer, he had a history of conning employers into thinking he was an aeronautical engineer.
Worse, the man who swore he was a confirmed bachelor before meeting Fran had been married before. The Ohio native had wed high school sweetheart Janice E. Hartman in 1970.
Janice had vanished, too, 17 years earlier, just after the couple's divorce in 1974.
Gladden-Davis and Weiss redoubled their efforts, this time concentrating on Smith's relatives and old friends. A half-brother finally cracked. Michael Smith had watched the suspect build a coffin-like box in 1974 to store Janice's clothes after she disappeared. The box was stored for years in their grandparents' garage in Seville, Ohio.
Curious, Michael Smith pried the lid open in 1979 and recognized the ruins of his ex-sister-in-law's face. The young man wanted to call the police, but his grandfather overruled him. John Smith was ordered to remove the box. He arrived the summer of 1979, stashed the box in the trunk of his Corvette and drove away.
Closing in on a killer
Gladden-Davis and Weiss alerted the FBI. Then they set out to find the box -- solid evidence of foul play -- but Ohio authorities had no record of a Jane Doe in a makeshift coffin.
Then the pair found receipts in 1999 that showed Smith lived in Hammond in the late '70s. The amateur sleuths urged police to quiz every Indiana coroner about unsolved crimes during Smith's tenure.
Three days later, Inspector Gerald Burman of the Newton County Sheriff's Department called and said, "I think I have your girl."
In 1980, highway workers had found female remains in a box in a roadside ditch near Morocco. The Times, which reported the grisly discovery on April 24, 1980, mentioned that the victim's legs appeared to have been amputated "so the body would fit in the box."
DNA evidence showed the victim was Janice Hartman.
Smith was arrested, convicted of murder in 2001 and sentenced to 15 years to life. He is eligible for parole in February 2010.
Fran is still missing and presumed dead, a victim of foul play. But Gladden-Davis can sleep now, "knowing another woman isn't going to die tonight at the hands of John Smith," she said.
An undated letter found from Fran to Smith suggests that the couple's marriage was in trouble almost immediately. Gladden-Davis suspects Smith is a sociopath, a troubled individual with no regard for others or the law.
"My opinion is, any time a woman was going to leave him, he was a control freak ... a 'You'll leave when I say you'll leave' guy," she said.
The Lifetime film stars Amy Madigan as Gladden-Davis, Kelli Williams as Weiss and Adam Arkin as Smith. Bill Kurtis chronicled the crime on his "Cold Case" series in an episode titled "The Lady in the Box."
On a bittersweet note, Gladden-Davis recently learned through the Doe Network (International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons) that the remains of a woman found near Georgia might be a match for Fran. Certain dental characteristics match as does the manufacturing number of the orthopedic plate used for Fran's hip replacement. Proceeds from the movie will help finance DNA tests.
Gladden-Davis is praying for resolution, but determined to continue searching for her sister if tests fail to establish a positive ID.
"I come from a very, very long line of very strong women," she said. "We take our families and the love of our families very seriously."
Sherrie Gladden-Davis asks readers who may have pertinent information about former Hammond resident John David Smith III to contact her via firstname.lastname@example.org