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Cops ID Killer In 1983 Cold Case Of Northern California Woman Found Floating In River

Restaurant owner Joette Smith disappeared on a Sunday night in 1983 and was found 36 hours later floating in a river. Cops say DNA has tied Eric Drummond to the crime.

By Jax Miller
5 Infamous Cold Cases of Murder

Authorities in California believe they’ve cracked the case of a restaurant owner found dead nearly 40 years ago.

Joette Marie Smith, 33, the beloved owner of the Buffalo Gal’s restaurant in Ben Lomond, California — about 30 miles southwest of San Jose — was last seen sometime before midnight om March 27, 1983, according to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

She was found two days later, floating in the nearby San Lorenzo River.

Witnesses told investigators that, on the night of her disappearance, Smith had first enjoyed a quiet night of eating popcorn and watching the TV series “The Thorn Birds” with her roommate, Rachel Devereaux, according to a 1983 article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The pair shared a studio apartment just across the street from Smith’s restaurant.

Devereaux said she and Smith — a single woman devoted to her business — stayed up for the 11 o’clock news, after which Smith made some phone calls and Devereaux retired for the evening.

Joette Marie Smith

When Devereaux woke up at around 3:00 a.m., Smith wasn’t there — which wasn’t atypical for her, according to the Sentinel.

“It wasn’t unusual for her to go out. She would often go over to the restaurant,” Devereaux said in a 1983 interview. 

According to the Sentinel, Smith walked to one nearby bar, found that it was already closed, and walked to another one, Henflings Bar, which was also closing. There, she purchased a pack of cigarettes but refused a ride home from a woman server she knew, telling the woman she would walk home because it was a pleasant evening.

She never made it home.

Smith’s body was found about 36 hours later, at around 11:10 a.m. March 29, 1983, by a local man playing with his dog by the river. Smith was still wearing her pearl necklace and a single nylon stocking and boot, while the cape she was known to wear was found nearby, according to the victim’s friends.

Although authorities didn’t say in their recent release how she died, the Sentinel reported at the time that she died of strangulation.

“Numerous items of evidence were located at the crime scene,” according to the sheriff’s office. “For the next several years, sheriff’s detectives interviewed dozens of people and investigated several leads and tips, but no viable suspect was identified.”

In 1988, there was movement in the case when, according to the new release, investigators identified a suspect named Eric David Drummond — a man with an “extensive history” of violent crimes, including sexual assault convictions in California and Nevada.

Authorities believe Drummond had once asked Smith out on a date while at her restaurant, but she rebuffed his advances.

Following Smith’s murder, Drummond “abruptly” left California, according to Santa Cruz County officials.

“While there was circumstantial information tying Drummond to the crime, no criminal case could be brought against Drummond without further physical evidence,” they wrote

Authorities reopened Smith’s case earlier this year, taking a fresh look at her clothing using scientific technology that wasn’t available in the 1980s. From there, experts were able to develop a male suspect's DNA profile.

In August, authorities directly obtained a DNA sample from now-64-year-old Eric Drummond and determined his DNA matched the sample from the crime scene evidence. However, the murder suspect subsequently decided to commit suicide.

“Unfortunately, while the final investigative steps were being taken to obtain an arrest warrant, Drummond chose to end his own life in the hills of Sierra County,” according to the sheriff’s office. “While Drummond will never face criminal charges or a jury of his peers, the sheriff’s office is confident that the evidence in this case would support a conviction of Drummond for the murder of Joette Smith.”

Friends described Smith as a “remarkable woman” who was hospitable, happy and “full of vigor,” according to the Sentinel. Born and raised in a Polish Catholic family in Nebraska, she moved to Santa Cruz about 10 years before her death.

Rachel Devereaux said that, at the time of Smith’s death, they had been planning a “large celebration” for the eighth anniversary of the Buffalo Gal’s restaurant.

“The sheriff’s office extends our condolences to the family and friends of Joette Smith,” said authorities. “We wish to remind the community of Santa Cruz that the sheriff’s office will continue to investigate each of our homicides.”

Smith’s obituary shows she is interred in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.

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