On a spring day in 1980, road workers on a lonely stretch of highway in northwest Indiana came across a four and a half-foot long handmade plywood box. Inside they discovered the rotting remains of a woman whose legs had been cut off to make her fit inside.
More than 20 years later, investigators connected this case to a man from rural Ohio named John Smith. The woman in the box was his ex-wife, Janice Hartman, and her disappearance bore chilling similarities to that of another vanished woman, Betty “Fran” Gladden Smith. Fran had married Smith 10 years after the box was discovered.
Smith and Hartman were just out of high school when they got married in 1970, according to “Relentless With Kate Snow” on Oxygen. At 19 they eloped and ran off to Detroit, Fran’s daughter, Dedy Rodriguez, told “Relentless” producers. A few years later they returned to rural Wayne County, Ohio, where Janice worked as a go-go dancer and police informant about drug-related crimes, according to court documents.
In 1974, Smith and Hartman were divorced after Hartman allegedly suffered an attempted rape, according to court documents. Three days after that, Hartman disappeared.
“The story Smith gave was that she went to Florida, she packed a small red suitcase and she took off,” assistant prosecutor Jocelyn Stefancin told “Relentless” producers.
This was highly out of character for Hartman, especially since she was very close to her family, who never heard from her again.
Smith’s story also varied wildly depending on who he was telling. His brother, Michael, testified that John said his ex-wife had entered a witness protection program because she was about to turn some people in for drug-related crimes, according to The Daily Record, an Ohio newspaper.
Shortly after John told him that, however, Michael found him in the gas station their grandfather owned, where he was building an oddly-shaped plywood box that he claimed was for Hartman’s belongings.
The box, which was nailed shut, remained in the gas station’s garage for five years, according to the Daily Record. In spring 1979, Michael’s grandfather was cleaning out the garage and called Michael to take care of the box. Michael took it home and pried it open. Inside, he discovered Hartman’s mutilated body, her legs cut off to make her fit inside the box.
Michael Smith testified that he wanted to call police, but his grandfather punched him in the face at the suggestion of betraying a family member, according to the Daily Record. He instead called John, who picked up the box and drove off with it.
A year later, road workers discovered the box lying at the edge of a cornfield in rural Indiana, according to Fox News. It was on the far side of a 20-foot ditch beside a stretch of highway so remote, hours sometimes went by without a single car on the road, according to The Daily Record.
Police took the box to the coroner, who measured it at 53 inches in length and determined that the killer had likely cut the corpse’s legs off with an electric saw, according to the Munster, Indiana Times. Beyond that and some basic physical descriptions of the woman, investigators could determine next to nothing about her identity or that of her killer.
About 15 years after Hartman’s murder, in March 1990, Smith took a second wife: Fran Gladden Smith, 49, according to "Relentless." Fran married him after dating for just two months. A year and a half after their wedding, she disappeared.
As with Hartman, John told Fran’s family she had run off to Florida, Rodriguez told producers. And again, though Fran was very close with her family, they never heard from her again.
At the time of Fran’s disappearance, there was not enough evidence in either case for John to be arrested. However, Rodriguez and her aunt, Sherrie Davis, were deeply suspicious of Smith. They spent the next nine years searching for evidence against him, and helped investigators identify Hartman’s body and connect her death to Smith, according to Rodriguez.
In 2000, Smith was arrested in Escondido, California, where he was living with a third wife, according to the Los Angeles Times. He stood trial for Hartman’s murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
However, Fran Smith’s family never found enough evidence against him to press criminal charges for her disappearance.
To learn more about Sherrie Davis and Dedy Rodriguez’s relentless fight to bring Smith to justice, watch “Relentless With Kate Snow.” New episodes Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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