January 6, 1982 — August 22, 1998
It was an ordinary midsummer day — the Saturday before school was scheduled to start —when Tera Smith went missing from Shasta County, California.
She has never been seen again.
August 22, 1998
The last time Tera Smith was seen by what I term “a reliable witness” was when her sister saw Tera leave the house at around 6:00 pm to go jogging. Tera was due to start a shift working at Oasis Fun Center at 7:00 pm, and it seemed she was trying to fit in some exercise before she went to work.
Oasis Fun Center was a business located near her home that Tera’s parents owned and operated. By all accounts, up until this Saturday in August, Tera had been a reliable daughter, a reliable employee, and a reliable student. There was nothing in her past to indicate that she would literally “run off” just before a shift at her job on the last Saturday before the school year started.
The last person “known” to have seen Tera Smith was Charles “Troy” Zink, a twenty-nine year-old convicted rapist with a wife and a child. When he was finally questioned by law enforcement, Troy claimed that Tera had asked him for $2,000, and when he refused, she got angry and asked to be dropped off at the intersection of Old Alturas Road and Old Oregon Trail which he says he did at around 6:30 pm on that fateful August Saturday.
At that point the temperature was still in the mid to upper 80s and the humidity was in the upper teens to lower twenties. There was a wind from the south, and sunset was still an hour-and-a-half away. Still nice weather for a run, but also too far from where she needed to be at 7:00 for her to be able to get there on time.
At the intersection of Old Alturas Road and Old Oregon Trail
On August 25, 1998, sixty-hours after she had gone missing, the Record Searchlight finally reported on her disappearance, the headline read:
Family Hopes for Return of Teen-ager
Approximately half-way through the article was this bit of information:
A 29-year-old male acquaintance told detectives that he gave Tera a ride and dropped her off the intersection of Old Alturas Road and Old Oregon Trail.
At the time of Tera Smith’s disappearance, I lived just 5 miles — an easy seven minute drive — from the intersection where she ostensibly went missing. I say ostensibly because the only source for that information is the convicted rapist. Troy Zink admits he was the last person to see her before she disappeared, and if I were a betting woman, I would bet he was also the last to see her alive.
That particular crossroads was not unfamiliar to me. I drove through it several times a week to shop at the nearest “big” grocery store, and despite having driven through that very intersection on several hundred occasions, I had never, ever, seen anyone dropped off there.
So on August 25, when the local newspaper reported as fact that Tera Smith had been dropped off at that intersection, I had no reason to think that was the truth.
The media and law enforcement responses
One of the things that hampered the investigation into Tera Smith’s disappearance was that both the media and law enforcement seemed to move slowly on the case.
As later reporting would reveal, Tera Smith’s parents first reported her missing at 9:47 pm not even three hours after she was due at her job. Despite their quick attention to filing a missing persons report, law enforcement waited thirty-six hours long hours before they began to look into it.
The newspaper waited even longer, and it wasn’t until the Tuesday morning newspaper was delivered that the larger community learned of the disappearance.
It’s now an accepted truth (or trope if you prefer) that when a murder isn’t solved in the first forty-eight hours after it occurs, it might not ever get solved.
Looking back on that August of 1998, it’s hard to understand why law enforcement took no action when Tera Smith was first reported missing. By the time they did begin to look into her disappearance, the clock had already run down forty-one hours of the first forty-eight.
The local newspaper, the Record Searchlight was even slower to take action, not distributing their first report of Tera Smith’s disappearance until she had been missing for nearly sixty hours; the reports that followed after that were to my mind, muted and did not convey the urgency we now know they should have.
The things that don’t make sense
There are really too many to count, but I will hit what for me are the highlights:
Tera left behind everything
Her journal, her clothes, her wallet, and all of the ephemera that is important to a teen-age girl — all of it was left behind. Except for the clothes on her back and the shoes on her feet, she took nothing.
Having once been a teen-age girl myself, if I were planning to leave, there are things I would definitely take with me. The idea that she was, at 16, going to step out of her parents home, shake down an older man for $2,000, and then head off into the great beyond to never return is a completely unrealistic narrative arc.
The alleged drop off:
The intersection of Old Alturas and Old Oregon Trail is about as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get and still be in town. There are no businesses, what residences there are are few and far between, and it isn’t near anything Tera would have been going to. It wasn’t close to the high school she attended, her parent’s business where she was expected to arrive for work, or the bus station which was the only way out of town.
The Judge Judy test:
Judge Judy is widely known for having said the following:
If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.
and there is a lot about what has been reported that makes no sense.
If Tera were a runaway as law enforcement initially tried to pretend, why did she only take the clothes on her back and leave absolutely everything else behind?
Just to go to the grocery store, I take my wallet, a coin purse, a cloth to clean my glasses, my keys, and a hairbrush. All of this in addition to any random stuff that might be in there from the last time I went out.
A teen-ager might have a pair or two of favorite earrings, an address book, and some makeup.
Waiting for no good reason
As reported in the Record Searchlight:
Sheriff’s Department major crimes investigators started working on the case Aug. 24, some 36 hours after Tera was reported missing. Fourteen officers, including FBI agents and a Redding police officer, are investigating the case full-time.
Those 36 hours during which nothing was done might have yielded clues, or at least headed off misdirections. Instead there was time for suspects to create diversions and clean up any crime scenes.
Law enforcement claimed they were watching every move Troy Zink made, but despite that eagle-eyed attention, he still managed to get his truck detailed and the tires changed.
From where I sit, it doesn’t seem they were watching him as closely as he needed to be watched.
What were they waiting for?
This, for me, is the $64,000 question.
The fact that law enforcement waited to do anything until she had been gone at least forty-one hours flabberghasts me. I know that if it had been a sheriff deputy’s daughter, there would have been no delay, and while they might not have found her alive, they would have found her body.
Further, there is no way that the Shasta County Sheriff’s office would have taken a convicted rapist at his word if they had been asking him the whereabouts of one of their daughters.
Troy Zink has never had to face justice for whatever happened to Tera Smith on that now long ago day in August 1998.
He did serve time for possessing guns that were found while searching his business and home as a result of the investigation into Tera’s disappearance. As an already convicted felon, he was not allowed to have them around, even if they did, as he claimed, “belong to his father.”
There was no indiction on the day that Tera went missing that it would be the last time those who loved her and cared about her would see her.
Like her family, I tend to think that she died the day she went missing, and while an earlier and more professional search might not have resulted in her being found alive, it might have resulted in her body being found so that she could be brought back to her family, and they could properly mourn their loss.
The Record Searchlight