In December 2001, I was hobbling around on crutches thanks to a recent car accident. I was visiting friends when I got Lisa’s call. She was sobbing, barely able to get the words out. “Nancy got killed.”
This is the story of Nancy Smith, a young woman I met in the final years of her life. Her unsolved murder, eighteen years later, still eats at her family and friends, tingeing our fond memories of her with quiet, haunting questions. What didn’t we see? What did we miss?
Meeting Nancy Smith
I met Nancy Smith in the fall of 1999. I’d talked my friend and coworker, Lisa, into registering for an accelerated Master’s Degree program at Marist College that our employer would pay for (“It’s a free degree, Lis!”) We would be a part of a small cadre of adult students who would stay together while the instructors rotated through, and eighteen months later, we’d have our Masters in Public Administration and a golden ticket to promotion, or so we imagined. Our classmates quickly dwindled in number as people dropped out, the time commitment proving too much for many.
Nancy, though, was in it for the long haul.
Barely thirty, she was almost ridiculously responsible. She owned a home and had a solid career at the local hospital. She took her education seriously: when a professor was late and the rest of us hoped for a free night off, she got mad. She was paying for this degree, this education, and she was going to get every minute of it. When it came to group projects, she was all business — if you didn’t carry your weight, you were going to get an earful.
For all her single-minded determination, she knew how to have fun. Through barbecues and birthday parties, not to mention a memorable vacation to Key West, we grew close to Nancy and each other. Nancy had a love for music, especially if it was cheesy. She returned from a trip to Vegas showing off a picture of herself smiling broadly, bracketed on either side by the blond twins of the 80s group Nelson. She loved David Cassidy, and I still think of her every time I hear a Billy Squier song.
A handful of us took a self-defense course. It was designed to teach us how to defuse situations through eye contact, body language and the like. Not surprisingly, I was critiqued as being too aggressive, too likely to escalate confrontations. But I’ll always remember Nancy’s response to that class. By the time her turn on the mats came up, tears were pouring down her face. She couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, just paced in a circle with her head down, shaking out her hands and fighting panic. That’s how much she hated confrontation. And that’s where my mind went when Lisa called me that morning. Only then did I wonder why she was so afraid.
We graduated in January 2001. Nancy was glowing with pride in her cap and gown. She had less than a year to live.
A Shocking Crime
The evening of December 4th, Nancy’s mother spoke to her on the phone. The next day, she got a call from Nancy’s job. She never showed up for work. Lenore and Ed Smith went to Nancy’s house and found their daughter in her bed, still in her pajamas. She almost looked like she was sleeping, if it weren’t for all the blood.
She had been stabbed over a dozen times, strangled, and struck in the head. She was 32.
Nothing was missing. The weapon was left at the scene.
Police believed from the start that it was someone she knew, since there was no sign of forced entry. For some reason I thought of the end table crowded with glass figurines in her living room, and how, as an acknowledged klutz, I was afraid of bumping into the furniture and disrupting the fragile little gathering of treasures.
Nancy was cautious and wouldn’t have let just anyone in her house, but as far as we knew, she wasn’t seeing anyone.
Let me say it right now: Nancy and I were friends, but we were hang-out friends, not confidants. She wouldn’t have told me her secrets, and I told the state police investigator as much during my interview. Even as I racked my brain for something that might help, I realized that I knew next to nothing about her personal life. I knew she had a sister, and a much-adored nephew who called her NeNe. I knew about her job, her music tastes, her drink preferences. But I don’t know if she had a secret lover, if her relationship with her parents was solid. I don’t know why the thought of confrontation made her cry. I wish I had asked.
An Ongoing Case
I recently spoke with Detective Sergeant Chris Sager at the New Windsor Police Department. He took over Nancy’s case a few years back — most of the previous investigators have retired or moved on. The case, he says, is still active, despite the small department’s lack of resources. Flyers looking for tips on the murder are still posted throughout New Windsor, and a $20,000 reward is still being offered.
Sager, who knew Nancy as a child, has a whole wall of his office dedicated to her murder, which he notes has no statute of limitations. He thinks about her every day.
I can’t say I think about her every day, but I do think about her more often as time passes. Nancy was just a year older than I was, but while I groan and limp my way through middle age she remains thirty-two forever, smiling at me from old photos. Even to the cynical old broad I’ve grown to be, there’s an unfairness to this that angers and upsets me seventeen years later.
I want this contemptible killer found and punished. I want Nancy’s family to have that closure. More than anything, I want to know why someone felt it necessary to take her life, to snuff out everything she was and everything she wanted to be, the plans she had for the future, the life she might have had.
Damn it, I want to know why.