An 18-year-old Amish woman whose remains were buried in rural Pennsylvania this week, 10 months after her disappearance, was strangled and stabbed in the neck, an autopsy revealed on Friday.
The Lancaster County coroner used dental records to positively identify the body of Linda Stoltzfoos. The cause of death was asphyxia from strangulation, along with suffocation, the coroner, Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, said following the autopsy. He said the stab wound was a contributing factor in her death.
Stoltzfoos was last seen walking home from church in the Bird-in-Hand area on June 21, 2020. Her remains were found wrapped in a tarp and buried in a 3 foot deep grave along railroad tracks behind Dutchland Inc, a business where the man charged in her death had worked.
Justo Smoker, 35, of Paradise, was charged with homicide in December and is awaiting trial. Smoker was initially arrested in August, and also faces charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment. He has pleaded not guilty.
Authorities have declined to say what exactly led them to the grave, or whether Smoker had provided the information as part of a deal with prosecutors. Stoltzfoos’ body was found in the small town of Gap along Route 41, in an area of brush on railroad property behind a business where Smoker had been employed.
Authorities have said they believe Smoker killed Stoltzfoos within a few hours of kidnapping her, buried her in one location where her stockings and bra had been found, and then moved her several days later to the grave discovered on Wednesday.
Officials previously said that the suspect’s DNA was discovered on the victim’s stocking.
Mervin Fisher, an uncle to Linda Stoltzfoos, told Pennlive that the family had held out hope that she would be found alive, but had been preparing themselves for the worst.
‘The not knowing is a long, dark tunnel without an end. And when you find the remains, you have the end in sight,’ Fisher told Pennlive. ‘It brings closure, and when there’s closure, the healing process can continue.
Lancaster County DA Heather Adams said at a press conference that the surrounding area where the remains were found Wednesday had already been searched by police.
She did not comment on what led to the discovery of the victim’s remains.
Local resident Debbie Matteoda said: ‘For the family I feel terrible because they keep all this hope all this time that maybe she will show up, but then again it’s a closure.’
‘It’s sad,’ said Krista Hanna. ‘I hope that the family feels peace a little bit and the search is over and they know now what happened.’
Last month, a county judge ruled that prosecutors had presented enough evidence for a homicide trial against Smoker in the disappearance of Stoltzfoos.
Time of Linda’s disappearance
June 21, 2020: Linda fails to return home from church
June 22: She is reported missing
July 11: Justo Smoker, 34, of Paradise Township, is charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment
December 21: Smoker is charged with criminal homicide
March 5, 2021: Judge rules there is enough evidence to charge Smoker with killing the teen
April 21: Human remains are found
April 22: Lancaster County DA Heather Adams says officials are confident the remains are that of Linda
Prosecutors have said friends and family report that Stoltzfoos was happy with her life and had never expressed any desire to leave. In fact, they say, she had made plans to join others in a church youth group that day.
Smoker was initially charged with felony kidnapping and misdemeanor false imprisonment.
But in December, he was charged with homicide, with prosecutors alleging that the passing of time, along with the complete cessation of all routine activities led to the inevitable conclusion that Linda was deceased and that Smoker caused her death.
Adams said then: ‘Smoker’s conduct on and around the time of Linda’s kidnapping, along with physical evidence, supports the allegations that he kidnapped and murdered her.’
Stoltzfoos was reported missing on the evening of Father’s Day by her father after she failed to return home from a youth group she had been set to attend. Investigators say Stoltzfoos never made it to the social gathering that night.
Surveillance footage observed by authorities captured Stoltzfoos walking alone on Beechdale Road, a route she typically took home after church. A red Kia Rio that matched Smoker’s vehicle registration number was also seen in the footage.
In a rural location in Ronks where they believe the victim might have been taken and where the vehicle was seen parked June 23, authorities found items of Stoltzfoos’ clothing buried in a wooded area, prosecutors said.
‘Smoker became a person of interest in the kidnapping after police received information about a red/orange vehicle seen in the Gap area on the afternoon of the abduction,’ the East Lampeter Township Police Department said in a press release in July last year.
‘Multiple witnesses in the area reported seeing an Amish female in the passenger seat of a vehicle driven by a male. Witness descriptions of the driver and vehicle are consistent with Smoker and his vehicle.’
The FBI offered a reward of $10,000 in July for information leading to her recovery.
Christopher Tallarico, the county’s chief public defender, argued in March there was no proof that Stoltzfoos had ever gotten into Smoker’s car, and he elicited testimony that her DNA wasn’t found on samples taken from the car.
East Lampeter Township Detective Christopher Jones said DNA profiles recovered were insufficient to test.
Hundreds of volunteers showed up to search for Stoltzfoos, according to a Facebook page that details search efforts and includes photos and videos from the scene.
For hours, volunteers scoured fields and streams for Stoltzfoos. In the evening, 15 horses with riders were dispatched to help search for Stoltzfoos.
Smoker has an extensive criminal history stretching back to 2005 and has spent the majority of his adult life behind bars.
He had been a former high school wrestling all-star who had a 3.0 grade point average and earned a place on the Lancaster-Lebanon wrestling all-star team in 2003 before turning to a life of crime.
The 35-year-old was sentenced to serve 12-and-a-half years to 30 years in prison following a string of armed robberies in 2006.
Smoker pleaded guilty to the robberies, during which he and his brother, Victor, used a BB gun to rob four different businesses between Aug. 8 and Aug. 13, 2006.
During the trial, Smoker was revealed to have been adopted at age seven after he was found ‘living on the street, just trying to survive’, his defense attorney said.
‘They raised me better than this,’ Smoker told the judge of his adoptive parents. ‘I’m sorry for what I did and the people I hurt, including my family.’
His adoptive father said Smoker had been ‘trouble since we got him.’
The judge told Smoker at the 2007 hearing that he could have imposed a sentence that would have kept him in prison for twice as long, if not the rest of his life, Lancaster Online reported.
But, the judge said he issued a sentence that ensures ‘society is protected, but that you could still come out and lead a reasonable life.’
Smoker ended up serving nearly the minimum on that sentence and was released on Feb. 28, 2019.
Bird-in-Hand is known for its large Amish population, and tourists come to visit the Amish Village heritage museum.
Pennsylvania and Ohio have the highest concentration of Amish communities, with 50 Amish groups in each state.
The Pennsylvania Amish are known to be private people who believe that God has called them to a simple life of faith, discipline, dedication and humility.
Shunning technology, they believe that the Amish religion should be practiced, not displayed, and translated into daily living rather than focused on tangible symbols or complicated religious rituals.
Stoltzfoos’ disappearance came a month after a 21-year-old US Air Force airman was arrested for allegedly killing Mennonite Sunday school teacher Sasha Krause, 27, in Arizona.
Both the Amish and Mennonites belong to the Anabaptist denomination of Christianity and dress in similar garb, but unlike the Amish, the Mennonites allow the use of some modern technological advances in their daily lives.