Vanessa Dawn Smith and her mother, Beverly, would normally take a walk together every night after dinner. On the evening of May 31, 1997, Beverly was still cleaning up when Vanessa was ready to leave, so the 15-year-old decided to go walking alone. The sun was still shining brightly when she left her Winton, California home around 7:00 pm, and she assured her parents that she would be back well before it started to get dark. Her mother watched as Vanessa grabbed her walking stick and started heading down the street, never realizing that this would be the last time she saw her daughter.
When Vanessa wasn’t home by 8:00 pm, her parents started to get worried. Vanessa and her mother would normally walk from their home on Winton Way to Mercedes Avenue, then cut through an almond field that circled back towards their house. Art and Beverly decided to walk along the same route to see if they could find their daughter; they found their first clue just 200 yards away from their house. Vanessa’s walking stick was lying abandoned under an almond tree at the corner of Mercedes Avenue.
Vanessa always carried her walking stick when she and her mother went on their evening stroll. She considered it a form of protection against dogs and other animals that she might encounter along the way, and her parents knew there was no way she would have willingly left it behind. As soon as they saw it lying on the ground, they knew that something had happened to their daughter. They left the walking stick untouched where they found it and rushed home to call the police.
Deputies from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office responded immediately and started searching the area where Vanessa had last been seen. They scoured the route that Vanessa and her mother usually walked, but found no clues as to what had happened to the teenager. There was no evidence of a struggle taking place in the area where her walking stick had been found; the ground appeared to be undisturbed. There were no signs of foul play anywhere along Vanessa’s normal route, leading police to speculate that she might have left voluntarily.
Art and Beverly insisted that Vanessa was not the type of teenager who would run away from home. She and her family were members of a Mennonite church, and Vanessa had an especially close relationship with her mother. She never went anywhere without asking her parents for permission first, and she never failed to return home before it got dark. Art and Beverly were certain that someone had abducted their daughter.
By the following morning, a large number of volunteers showed up to help in the search for Vanessa. Family members, friends, and neighbors were all determined to bring the missing teenager home safely, and they spent hours combing through the rural area for any sign of her. Unfortunately, they found nothing that led them any closer to finding Vanessa. She had seemingly disappeared without a trace.
While the physical search for Vanessa was taking place, detectives canvassed the streets of Winton looking for anyone who might have seen Vanessa the night she disappeared. No one they spoke with was able to offer any useful information; investigators were unable to find anyone who had seen or heard anything unusual around the time that Vanessa went missing.
Detectives attempted to interview Vanessa’s friends and classmates, but some of them seemed reluctant to speak with law enforcement. This was likely due to their Mennonite upbringing and not because of any actual involvement in Vanessa’s disappearance, but it did complicate things for investigators.
The summer went by without any movement on the case. Detectives believed that Vanessa had been abducted, but they had no real leads to follow. When school started in the fall, a “Help Find Vanessa Smith” rally was held at Winton Middle School; more than 400 residents showed up for the event. In addition to discussing Vanessa’s case, the Merced County District Attorney spoke about what parents could do to help prevent child abductions.
Photo pins with Vanessa’s picture were handed out at the event, as were yellow ribbons. People were asked to tie the yellow ribbons on their car antennae to show their support for Vanessa’s family as they continued to search for their daughter.
On September 22, the governor of California announced that a $10,000 reward was being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Vanessa’s disappearance. The prospect of a financial award did bring in a number of tips, but none of them led to Vanessa or her abductor.
By the end of the year, investigators from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office admitted that they didn’t believe that Vanessa would be found alive. They believed that she had been abducted, perhaps by someone she knew or thought she knew, and had been k*illed. Beverly Smith agreed that her daughter had been abducted, but remained convinced that she would be found alive. She and her husband did everything they could to keep the case in the public eye, hoping that someone would come forward with a tip that would finally reunite them with Vanessa.
Members of the community created the Help Find Vanessa Smith Committee, and in February 1998, two members of the committee appeared on a national talk show to speak about Vanessa’s case. The national exposure resulted in a number of tips; detectives carefully followed up on each one, but none of them panned out.
In August 1998, the committee had billboards with Vanessa’s picture and case information placed along Highway 99 in Merced County. The billboards included information about the reward being offered and a phone number for people to call if they had any information. A few tips trickled in, but none led to Vanessa’s recovery.
After Cory Stayner was arrested for the mur*ders of four women in California in 1999, detectives considered him as a potential suspect in Vanessa’s abduction and presumed m*urder. He had been living in Merced County at the time of Vanessa’s disappearance, but investigators were unable to find anything connecting him to the case.
In 2004, investigators with the Merced County Sheriff’s Office officially declared that Vanessa’s case was considered a homicide. They believe that Vanessa was likely ki*lled on the same night that she was abducted, though they admit they have no physical evidence proving she is dead. They point out that there have been no confirmed sightings of Vanessa since the night she vanished, and they believe she would have found a way to contact her parents by now if she were still alive.
Over the years, Vanessa’s case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” more than 50 times. Detectives received tips from all over the country each time the episode was aired, but to date they haven’t had any real leads. Despite the passage of time, Vanessa’s case is considered open and active; investigators continue to solicit tips and believe that the case can still be solved. They believe that Vanessa was most likely abducted by someone she knew; it’s possible she even went willingly with them without realizing that they didn’t intend to bring her home.
Beverly still believes that Vanessa is alive. Each year, on the anniversary of Vanessa’s disappearance, she and officials from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office spend the day at a truck stop, where they hand out laminated posters of Vanessa to truckers. By 2002, more than 4600 trucks were driving around the country with Vanessa’s missing poster on the back of their trailer; the number has continued to grow each year. There are tens of thousands of posters out there, and Beverly continues to pray that someone with knowledge about the case will see one and finally decide to contact detectives.
Vanessa Dawn Smith was 15 years old when she went missing in 1997. She has blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair, and at the time of her disappearance she was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. She was last seen wearing a long light blue dress that had silver buttons and a white belt, white sandals, and a black cloth bun cover over the back of her hair. Vanessa has Duane’s Syndrome; one of the muscles in her right eye is paralyzed, causing her eye to drift towards the inside. If you have any information about Vanessa, please contact the Merced County Sheriff’s Office at 209–385–7444.