On Sept. 16, Los Osos resident Suzanne Smith—missing since Sept. 10—was found in a barn on a ranch near Ragged Point on Highway 1.
It was an unnerving episode for Smith’s family, but perhaps just as unnerving for the general public was the reported breakdown of communication in the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, which didn’t begin actively searching for her until four days after her disappearance.
A general timeline of the case, as verified by both the victim’s family and the sheriff’s department, is as follows:
• Sept. 10: A missing persons report was filed by Smith’s family, at which time her vehicle was entered in the statewide missing persons database.
• Sept. 11: Smith’s vehicle was located on Highway 1 just north of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The car appeared to have been involved in a crash and was towed by California Highway Patrol. The vehicle was removed from the missing persons database system.
• Sept. 12: Jim Gowdy, a tenant at 18550 Highway 1, contacted the sheriff’s department and reported that blood had been sighted in the property’s barn. A deputy was dispatched to the scene, where blood samples and photos were taken into evidence. There was a question of whether the blood might have come from one of the ranch laborers. Gowdy was told to investigate the incident with the ranch laborers, and then contact the sheriff’s department. No return contact was made.
• Sept. 14: Bryan Smith, brother to the victim, found a tow notice in his missing sister’s home mailbox. Authorities were contacted, and a search began. It included the sheriff’s department, a search and rescue team, California State Parks rangers, and Federal Bureau of Land Management officials.
• Sept. 15: The search for Suzanne Smith was suspended. It is unclear why.
• Sept. 16, 10:30 a.m.: Gowdy notified local sheriff and emergency services that he found Smith in the barn where the blood had been sighted four days earlier. The barn is approximately nine miles from the site where Smith’s vehicle was found.
In a phone conversation with New Times on Sept. 25, Smith’s family claimed that no search was ever conducted at the site of the crash when the car was towed. It wasn’t until they contacted authorities on Sept. 14—after finding the tow notice in Smith’s mail—that the search got underway, they said. The family further alleges that no search was conducted of the barn when deputies responded to the report of blood.
Following her discovery, Smith was transported to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. To compound matters, according to the family, Bryan Smith received a call from the sheriff’s department—while his sister was in the hospital—notifying him there had been no new developments in the case.
After Suzanne Smith’s family spoke with her, they pieced together this story: After crashing her car, she seems to have caught a ride from a passing motorist who dropped her off at the Ragged Point Inn. At this point, it was most likely the middle of the night, and she apparently started walking.
When asked why Smith didn’t seek help from the motorist or the employees at the Inn, her niece, Amy Gardiner, responded: “There’s no doubt she’s not in good mental health.”
Sheriff’s Department Spokesman Tony Cipolla told New Times that while the department could have, admittedly, done a better job of handling the case, there was no reason to suspect that the blood found in the barn was in any way associated with the found vehicle or the missing persons report. And even if an initial search had been conducted at the time the vehicle was found, there’s no way it would have extended into a nine-mile radius. Also, family members say Smith admitted to hiding from the deputy who was dispatched to the scene to examine the blood, and from the ranch laborers who were coming in and out of the barn over the course of her stay.
“It’s hard to find someone who is making a concerted effort not to be found,” Cipolla said.
As of press time, Smith was still reportedly in the hospital. Her family issued a statement on Sept. 25, stating that they were considering seeking legal counsel and thanking everyone who helped in the search.
“The family wishes to extend their sincerest and heartfelt appreciation to those who volunteered in the one-day search,” the statement reads. “They also wish to thank the community, local businesses, her neighbor Jora Landis, but none more so than Jim Gowdy and his family of Cambria for saving her life.”
Cipolla stated the sheriff’s department is taking this matter seriously and is investigating why the vehicle was removed from the missing persons database, as well as why no search was initially conducted. The department is also reviewing its procedure for missing persons cases. If it’s determined that any of those protocols were violated, appropriate action will be taken, he said.
New Times intern Ana Korgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.