By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Saturday, October 24, 2009
She was missing for at least a year, but nobody seemed to notice. Even in February, after a prison work crew found the skeletal remains of a small-framed female in a thicket near U.S. 64, no one stepped forward to claim the body.
Eight months later on Oct. 12, when authorities finally identified the remains, the medical examiner concluded the 33-year-old Rocky Mount woman had been dead at least a year, maybe longer.
Elizabeth Jane Smallwood — a woman seemingly without a family, without a history, without a home — was never reported missing.
Aside from a lengthy criminal record, Smallwood left behind few clues that might explain who she was or how her body ended up discarded under a brush pile off Melton Drive near the border of Nash and Edgecombe counties.
A pending death certificate at the Nash County Health Department reveals a void of available information about the woman.
Name: Elizabeth Jane Smallwood. Date of birth: blank. County of birth: blank. Date of death: blank. Occupation: blank. Mother’s name: blank. Cause of death: blank.
A secretary with the Nash County Register of Deeds shook her head and frowned at the incomplete document.
“So sad,” the clerk said. “We don’t see cases like this that often.”
Neither do police.
Smallwood matches the profile of six other Rocky Mount women found dead in similar circumstances since 2003. Each of the victims, including Smallwood, was known to have peddled sex to feed drug habits, according to criminal records and family. A task force of federal, state and local investigators has been probing the murders the past several months for possible connections.
Smallwood is the only woman among the seven victims never reported missing to police. It took a number of investigative leads and an extensive background check, police said, simply to identify Smallwood as a possible victim.
Authorities said they successfully tracked down Smallwood’s biological father, eventually making phone contact with him in the Georgia town where he lives. He hadn’t spoken to his daughter in years, police said, declining to release the man’s name.
No other family have been identified.
‘Wasn’t she loved?’
A full two weeks after forensic scientists matched the remains with Smallwood’s medical records, her body remains unclaimed at the morgue. Eventually, an area funeral home will be called in to take control of her arrangements.
Meanwhile, some residents in the Rocky Mount neighborhoods Smallwood once frequented are asking how a woman could go missing for more than year without notice.
“I saw her a couple times around town, but I didn’t know her,” said Jackie Wiggins, whose daughter Jackie Thorpe was one of the seven victims. “How can it be that someone would be missing for a year, and nobody would report it?”
Wiggins was among a handful of residents in East Rocky Mount who vaguely recalled seeing Smallwood now and again, but little more. Smallwood was known to hang around motels along U.S. 301, and in a few neighborhoods off North Raleigh Street.
“She used to hang around on the street with my daughter,” Wiggins said. “If I ever approached my daughter, (the other women) usually would walk away, either out of courtesy or maybe out of shame. I don’t know. Either way, I never actually talked to the Smallwood girl.”
Not many people did, it seems.
The landlord who manages the Hill Street residence where Smallwood claimed to have lived as recently as 2007 said he has no record of her living at the duplex. The man who had rented the residence the past six years moved out earlier this year, leaving the property vacant.
Former neighbors didn’t recognize Smallwood’s name when asked. Family members of other victims said her name was new to them, and a few other women who still trade their bodies for crack said last week they knew of Smallwood, but nothing more.
“A lot of the girls who work out here keep to themselves,” said Darlene Owens, who recalled occasionally bumping into Smallwood a few years ago while flagging down cars at the Sunshine Inn. “It’s a turf thing. I only sort of knew of Liz through another girl. That’s messed up that nobody said nothing about her missing all that time.”
Each of the deaths considered in the investigation is a tragedy, Owens said, but Smallwood’s seems somehow worse.
“Wasn’t she loved?” Owens said. “Wasn’t there no one close to her? That’s horrible.”
Police worked for days to track down Smallwood’s birth father, but officials would not release his identity or exact location. Multiple sources said Smallwood had children in the area, but authorities would not confirm or deny the claim.
The Telegram made several unsuccessful attempts to locate Smallwood’s March 24, 1976, birth certificate, but it is unclear where she was born or if Smallwood is her birth name. The chief medical examiner also refused to release any personal information about Smallwood, pending further investigation, a spokeswoman said.
William Solomon, a Rocky Mount attorney appointed to defend Smallwood on prostitution charges in 2007, said there was little he could share about his former client.
“I hated to see her name in the news in connection with this case,” Solomon said. “That’s about all I can say.”
Crimes didn’t define her
Aside from a criminal record that included several prostitution and drug arrests in both Nash and Edgecombe counties, little is known about Smallwood’s background.
The only insight into the victim’s personal life was offered by a 39-year-old Rocky Mount woman who shared a jail cell with Smallwood for a few weeks in the spring of 2007.
Gail Nelms said Smallwood “was a real nice girl” who had “a big heart” and cared about others.
“But she was a fighter, too,” Nelms said. “I know whoever did this must have had a fight on his hands, because she didn’t take anything from anybody.”
Smallwood was awaiting trial at the Edgecombe County Detention Center when Nelms met her. The two quickly bonded, and when another inmate started picking fights with Nelms, Smallwood stood up for her. It was good to have an ally in a place like that, Nelms said.
The two women reconnected for a short while a few months after their release from jail. Both Smallwood and Nelms were staying at the Sunshine Inn off U.S. 301, a former hot spot for prostitution in the city. Smallwood had a drug problem, Nelms said, but her addiction didn’t define her.
Nelms said she cried when she learned the few known details of Smallwood’s death.
“Nobody even cared enough to report her missing,” Nelms said. “I couldn’t believe that. We weren’t that close, and she never mentioned anything to me about family. But I wish I could have done something. It breaks my heart to know her body is sitting around unclaimed. That’s a shame.”
Nelms, like others familiar with the illegal sex trade in Rocky Mount, said Smallwood and most women wouldn’t dare step into a vehicle with a man they weren’t at least slightly familiar with. Smallwood rarely worked away from a secure motel room, Nelms said, and she didn’t take rides with strangers.
“If there is one guy doing this, I really do feel like it has to be someone who they all knew,” Nelms said. “Either way, that’s no way to die.”
For Smallwood, Nelms said, that’s no way to be remembered.