LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Justo Smoker cried Friday as he addressed the family and friends of Linda Stoltzfoos, the Amish teen he kidnapped and murdered last summer as she walked home from church in Pennsylvania.
Stoltzfoos, 18, of Bird-in-Hand, was less than a half-mile from her family’s home June 21, 2020, when Smoker, 35, of nearby Paradise, forced her into his car and drove off. Her autopsy indicated she was sexually assaulted, though Smoker has denied that allegation.
Smoker “approached Linda from behind and choked her with his arm under her neck, and then with shoelaces until she was no longer breathing,” Assistant Lancaster County District Attorney Todd Brown said in court. “He then stabbed Linda in the neck one time to ensure that she was dead.”
PennLive.com reported that there was blood in Stoltzfoos’ esophagus, which suggested she was still alive when she was stabbed.
The sexual assault evidence was one of several details of the crime that came out only as Smoker was sentenced Friday to serve 35.5 to 71 years in prison for the murder. He pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, kidnapping, abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence and possession of an instrument of crime.
The plea spared Smoker from a possible death sentence.
Watch Lancaster County authorities speak about Justo Smoker’s guilty plea below, courtesy of Lancaster Online.
Smoker will also have to serve up to 17 1/2 years for violating the terms of his parole by killing Stoltzfoos. Convicted of armed robbery and burglary charges in 2006, Smoker had been sentenced to 12 1/2 to 30 years in prison.
He was paroled 16 months before the murder.
Prosecutors worked this time around to ensure that even without a death sentence, Smoker is likely to die behind bars. The maximum he faces, including the time for his parole violation, is 88 years in prison.
“This sentence was specifically structured in a way that practically ensures that Smoker would never be released, and (it) amounts to the functional equivalent of a life sentence,” Brown said in court.
‘Linda was a light’
Those in court Friday learned for the first time that Smoker sought a plea deal in April so authorities could return Stoltzfoos’ body to her family. Defense attorney Christopher Tellarico told the court Smoker asked his lawyers to stop fighting the charges.
“It was a point where he could come forward. The solution had some redemptive value,” Tellarico said, according to PennLive.com.
Prosecutors said they agreed to the deal because they believe they never would have found the teen’s body without Smoker’s help. Smoker led detectives to where he’d buried her remains.
Her remains were recovered April 21, exactly 10 months after she vanished from Bird-in-Hand, a community just east of Lancaster with a large Amish and Mennonite population. Smoker had buried the teen in a tree line along railroad tracks behind his place of employment.
The convicted killer apologized during the court hearing, to both the Stoltzfoos family and his own.
“I thought I would know what to say, but what words can I say other than I am sorry?” Smoker said, according to Lancaster Online. “To Linda’s family, the community and my supporters.”
He said he cannot undo the damage he has done and acknowledged that his words can be of little solace to Stoltzfoos’ loved ones.
“I know Linda was a light,” Smoker said. “Because of me, the world is dimmer.”
Stoltzfoos, a timid young woman who worked in the community and tutored Amish children with special needs, was the oldest of eight children.
“I robbed her family of time and memories,” Smoker said, according to reporters in the courtroom. “I robbed my own family of time and memories.”
The convicted killer turned to his family, seated in the back row of the courtroom.
“I was raised better than this. I am better than this. I was loved better than this,” Smoker said, according to Lancaster Online. “I am sorry.”
Samuel Blank, who spoke in court on behalf of Stoltzfoos’ family, said the family, who was not in court Friday, agreed with prosecutors’ decision to accept a plea. Their main concern throughout their ordeal was bringing their daughter home.
“Everybody is thankful not to have to go through a trial and revisit these horrible things,” Blank said.
He assured the court, and Smoker, that their absence was not for a lack of forgiveness toward the man who murdered their daughter.
“They are not here because it is too hard for them,” Blank said, according to PennLive.com. “The family can and will forgive you, Justo.
“For some, it will come soon, but others may need to work on it for some time, and maybe daily. The Bible does teach us we are to forgive.”
‘Contrary to all we hold dear’
Court records indicated that Stoltzfoos was walking home to change out of her church clothes shortly after noon that Sunday, which was Father’s Day. She had planned to pick up a dessert she’d made for her youth group, which was meeting from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. that afternoon.
She never made it home. Her parents called the police early the next morning after realizing she was missing.
Authorities were able to identify Smoker as Stoltzfoos’ killer within three weeks of her abduction, in part due to witnesses who spotted a beat-up red Kia Rio in the area just before and just after the kidnapping.
Some of the witnesses saw Stoltzfoos, still in her church clothes, in the passenger seat of the car. The witnesses, who are Amish, immediately knew something was wrong.
A neighbor’s home security camera captured video not only of the Kia Rio, but also of a man abducting Stoltzfoos and driving away with her in the car. The camera was about 334 yards from the spot where Stoltzfoos was taken, prosecutors said.
The footage was grainy, but enhancement of the video showed details of the Rio, including a sticker on the back, a missing hubcap and damage on one of the car’s rocker panels, that helped detectives tie the vehicle to Smoker.
The witnesses who spotted Stoltzfoos with her abductor also identified Smoker as the man they’d seen, according to court documents.
Smoker was initially arrested on charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment. The murder charge was tacked on in December after prosecutors determined that the victim’s lack of communication with her family and community meant she had been killed.
Smoker’s defense attorney said his client decided in April to do the right thing and tell authorities where Stoltzfoos’ remains were buried.
Smoker had first buried the young woman behind a business in Ronks, about 5 miles from Stoltzfoos’ home. Within days of the murder, police responding to a tip of a suspicious red car found the teen’s bra and stockings buried there.
Smoker’s DNA was found on the undergarments, court records stated.
The man who had seen the suspicious car in Ronks took a photo of the license plate the second time the vehicle showed up. The plate was registered to Smoker.
Smoker told detectives he decided to move Stoltzfoos’ body from the first site because he realized how close it was to where she lived. He moved her remains to a piece of Amtrak property located behind Dutchland Inc., the water treatment supplier in Gap where Smoker worked at the time of his arrest.
“Investigators searched the immediate area described to them by Smoker but were unable to locate the remains or any site indicative of a grave,” prosecutors said in a news release. “Officers then escorted Smoker to the scene, and within a short time, Stoltzfoos’ remains were recovered wrapped in a tarp and buried in a hole approximately 42 inches deep.”
Details of the condition of Stoltzfoos’ remains were also released for the first time Friday.
“Stoltzfoos’ body was found wrapped in plastic, which had been secured by duct tape,” the news release said. “Her body was clothed, with her hands and feet tied together with multiple bindings.
“A thin rope connected each of the bindings together and was looped around her neck. Her sash and apron were wrapped tightly around her face and her mouth was covered by duct tape.”
Lancaster County Judge David Ashworth said Friday that the “senseless killing of Linda Stoltzfoos is contrary to all we hold dear in a civilized society.” Ashworth acknowledged, however, that the plea agreement was the best possible outcome, particularly for the Stoltzfoos family.
“Absent the plea agreement, in all likelihood, Linda Stoltzfoos’ body would never have been recovered and the outcome of a trial of the defendant would have been uncertain,” the judge said, according to Lancaster Online. “With the plea agreement, a conviction is certain, the community is protected and, perhaps most importantly, the family of Linda Stoltzfoos is afforded some measure of closure.”
‘Trouble since we got him’
Ashworth described Smoker as “a predator of the worst kind and an extreme danger to the community.” The judge urged the state parole board to sentence Smoker to the maximum for his parole violation, citing his belief that the convicted killer cannot be rehabilitated.
Tallarico sees his client in a more favorable light.
“I still have a hard time coming to grips that the person I’ve come to know is the person charged with these heinous crimes,” Tallarico said, according to Lancaster Online.
Smoker’s life has been troubled, however, since the day he was born in 1986 in Costa Rica. At least part of his first seven years of life were spent in an orphanage, where he was physically and sexually abused, Tallarico said.
Watch Fox43′s look at Smoker’s past below.
Court transcripts indicate that the children’s birth parents would leave them alone, sometimes for weeks at a time, and Smoker had developed a habit of theft to help feed himself and his siblings.
Smoker’s biological mother died while he was in the orphanage, his attorney said. He was adopted at age 7, along with his two siblings, by Vernon and Deb Smoker of Lancaster.
Smoker graduated from Pequea Valley High School, where he maintained a 3.0 grade point average while wrestling on the school team. He was named to the Lancaster Lebanon all-star team in 2003.
His parents said he developed a drug habit in high school, however, and by age 21, he was in prison for committing several robberies with his younger brother, Victor Smoker. The pair used a BB gun to rob several stores and farmers’ markets in Lancaster County.
At Smoker’s May 2007 sentencing hearing, Deb Smoker told the court her son had “been trouble since we got him.” Still, she and her husband and their extended family stood by him and asked the judge for mercy, according to a 2007 Lancaster Online story.
“We’re all here for Justo,” Deb Smoker said.
Judge Joseph Madenspacher told Justo Smoker at the time that he could have sentenced him to twice as long as he did for the robberies. He instead handed down a sentence in which he said, “society is protected, but (Smoker) could still come out and lead a reasonable life.”
Smoker’s apology during the 2007 hearing mirrored some of what he said Friday.
“They raised me better than this,” Smoker said of his parents, according to Lancaster Online. “I’m sorry for what I did and the people I hurt, including my family. But I’m glad they’re here.”
Victor Smoker was released from prison in 2016 after nearly a decade behind bars. Justo Smoker was paroled in February 2019.
According to court records, the Smoker brothers exchanged several text messages in the hours immediately after Justo Smoker abducted Stoltzfoos. The content of the texts have not been made public, and Victor Smoker has never been connected to the crime.
Read the criminal complaint against Smoker below.
Tallarico said last week that Justo Smoker had suffered a blow shortly before he was released from prison when his sister died in jail, according to PennLive.com. He was also evicted from his home the week before the murder.
Smoker, who suffered from depression, had a habit of drinking until he blacked out and had been drinking heavily the day of Stoltzfoos’ abduction and murder.
“There’s really no logical explanation for what happened,” Tallarico said. “He wishes he could take it back.”
Ashworth told the defendant that depression and alcoholism were no defense for murder.
Smoker agreed, according to PennLive.com.
Prosecutors have also said that Stoltzfoos may not have been Smoker’s first intended target, which indicates planning in advance.
Multiple teenage girls told police that as they walked on a road in Upper Leacock Township the night before Stoltzfoos’ abduction, a man in a red car drove by slowly, watching their group.
“The girls observed the red car stop at the intersection of Hess Road and East Eby Road and remain there, in the wrong lane of travel, with its four-way flashers activated,” court records state.
Another witness told police that about 30 minutes after the group spotted the suspicious vehicle, a red car passed her four times in that same area. She became so concerned that she walked to a group of fishermen for safety before heading to a nearby barn to get out of the driver’s view.
“(She) then observed the red vehicle pull over into the field and wait just north of the barn she was in,” the document states.
Security footage from a business on that portion of Hess Road showed Smoker’s vehicle in the area that night.
Smoker also purchased two pairs of heavy rubber gloves the night before the murder, and those gloves were never found. The morning of the crime, he went to Dollar General and bought a pack of eight pairs of nitrile disposable gloves, three pairs of black shoelaces and two pairs of black boot laces. The laces were all about 21 inches in length.
The laces were not found among Smoker’s belongings after the murder, suggesting that they were the laces used to kill the teen. Shoelaces and zip ties were also found binding her hands behind her back when her remains were found.
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