What Happened to Sage Smith?
In 2012, Sage Smith's life was finally coming together.
Sage had grown into a confident young woman at 19-years-old — the first in her family to graduate from high school, and the first to escape her complex childhood. Sage was working at a local hair salon with aspirations of becoming a professional hairdresser. She was taking classes at a local cosmetology school in order to make her dreams a reality.
Sage was living life as her fully authentic self. She was openly discussing her transgender identity, and embracing her newfound femininity.
Until one cold night in November, Sage disappeared. Nearly a decade later, Sage is presumed dead.
Had her roommates known she was going to be out on the town in Charlottesville, Virginia? Was Sage going to meet someone, someone with ill intentions? Could her disappearance be an accident, or foul-play?
Before diving into what happened to Sage Smith the night she disappeared and the subsequent search, it’s important to understand who Sage was.
Let's look at the sheet.
Born Dashad Laquinn Smith, Sage grew up in an area of Charlottesville experiencing extreme poverty. At the age of three, Sage was being raised by her grandmother, Miss Cookie, who has been a dedicated parent and prominent community advocate.
Life wasn’t always easy for the family.
When Sage was a preteen, a large wrought-iron fence was installed in the Garrett Square housing complex, which family said made the neighborhood feel like a prison. Soon after, Miss Cookie and the family moved to another neighborhood where Sage met Shakira Washington, who would eventually become one of Sage’s dearest friends.
One day, Sage, who was still identifying as Dashad, came to Miss Cookie and said that there was something on her mind that she wanted to confess, and asked her not to be upset.
“And she said, ‘Grandma, I’m gay.’ And I said, ‘You aren’t telling me anything that I don’t already know,’” Miss Cookie told journalist Emma Eisenberg for an in-depth article for Splinter.
As Sage grew older, she realized that the label of a “gay man” didn’t fully encompass how she felt. Eventually, she later came out as a transgender woman, and began to go by Sage.
Sage struggled in school, but ultimately became the first in her family to graduate from high school. After being in foster care when Miss Cookie returned Sage to her mother who was subsequently deemed unfit at the time, the department paid for Sage to move out into her own apartment. With her newfound freedom, Sage was braiding other's hair from her place while taking cosmetology classes and sweeping hair at a local salon. Sage's childhood friends, Shakira and Aubrey Carson, mood in with her to share the space.
The group enjoyed going out and having a good time. They frequented parties that secretly catered to men, and would often invite men and friends over to their shared apartment on Harris Street — dubbed "The Dollhouse Mansion" because of its painted pink walls.
Sometimes the friends would hook up with people for fun, sometimes for money — but they were always safe and kept one another in the loop about their activities, texting one another updates as nights went on.
Journalist Emma Eisenberg details how one time, Shakira recalls, that a local UVA professor arranged for her to come over to his house. When the man briefly left the room, Shakira heard a soft knock on the window. When she looked, it was Sage, lurking outside in the bushes, watching her to make sure that the situation was sound.
Sage was the protector, a person with a full heart.
While Sage was open about her transgender identity at the time, it wasn’t until the beginning of November that she took to social media.
On November 9, 2012 — 11 days before she disappeared — Sage changed her gender on Facebook to show as “female.”
“I am a girl now #Respect it,” a message she sent to a friend read, and then on November 18, she posted a message directed at a family member, saying: “Look I am transitioning and I am your niece.”
Journalist Emma Eisenberg found messages on Sage's Facebook page from Marcy of 2012 where someone had told her to "watch her back" because people on the street had unfinished business with her, mainly because Sage had contacted the wife of a man that she'd hooked up with.
Sage also reportedly placed Casual Encounters ads on Craigslist, a practice that many of her friends were wary of.
These Casual Encounters ads are how the police believe Sage met Erik McFadden.
November 20, 2012
The day Sage disappeared began almost unlike any other.
In the morning, she spoke with her father over the phone, congratulating him on his anniversary of being released from jail. Sometime during their conversation, she had asked him for money. In recounts of the conversation, the content differs on what exactly the money it was for — whether it was to get her hair braided or to go towards a new TV for her apartment.
Regardless of what the money was for, everyone agrees that Sage was in a great mood. She was excited about Thanksgiving being the next day, where she planned to travel and surprise her stepsisters. Sage also expressed that she was looking forward to seeing her mother's new house.
To me, this clearly indicates that Sage had full intentions to be with her family the following day, and the fact that she disappears on the evening of November 20 is no accident.
Around 5:00pm that evening, Sage was home getting ready for a date with a man, Erik McFadden, whom she'd reportedly met up with before. Sage wasn't wearing anything special, just a black jacket, dark grey sweatpants, a black scarf, and grey and black rain boots.
Around 5:40, Sage woke up Aubrey who was taking a nap in the living room. They had a short conversation where Sage let her know that she was heading out for a bit "to meet a man" but that she'd be back later on in the evening.
Here is a summary Sage and Erik's phone conversation:
But, when Aubrey woke up from his nap again around 8pm that night, he said the house was dark and quiet, which he found odd, believing Sage would've been home by then. He called Sage's phone, but it repeatedly went straight to voicemail.
“Major red flag,” Aubrey told reporter Emma Eisenberg. “Sage would charge [her] phone anywhere.”
In the morning, Sage still hadn't returned home.
Now the alarm bells were being sounded.
Sage’s biological parents both confirmed that it was “extremely out of character” for her phone to go straight to voicemail, and for her to have zero contact with friends and family for over 24 hours.
Aubrey knew she had to call the authorities for help. She called the Charlottesville Police Department on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 21. He said the officer on the line sounded calm, simply asked for Sage’s name, birthdate, and a picture — nothing more.
Investigators eventually subpoenaed her cell phone records and talked to witnesses to piece together the evening.
According to Charlottesville Police Department, Sage was seen going from her apartment, and walking down 4th Street NW near the 400 and 500 block of West Main Street. Later investigation discovered that she was going to Wild Wings Cafe right next to the Amtrak Train Station. The cafe is no longer in business.
"It's an active investigation. It's not cold or anything like that. So we have dedicated resources to the case so it can be worked full-time," Charlottesville Police Department Sgt. Tony Newberry said in regards to the current state of the case.
"Right now we're hoping for the public's help. There are other law enforcement tools to try to find him which we are going to explore," said Det. Wright-Settle.
Six CPD officers conducted a grid search of the area on November 24, after Sage was reported missing. They checked everything from trash cans, dumpsters, open lots and parking lots, and even fields and the University of Virginia campus for any sign of Sage. Unfortunately, when asking nearby businesses for any surveillance footage, the only camera was a traffic camera — which only monitors, it doesn't record.
Investigators also traveled to the local landfill, using personnel from the forensic and hazmat teams, two police dogs, and a retired agent with knowledge of landfill searches, but their search came up empty.
Fortunately, a few days after Sage disappeared, a lead to the case came a few days later, with the help from others on Facebook, and DIY detective work.
Sage’s family quickly took matters into their own hands and began doing their own searching, handing out flyers and looking for witnesses to interview in Sage’s case. In fact, the police only knew who Erik McFadden was because Sage's family posted his phone number onto Facebook seeking information from the public. An acquaintance of Sage’s named Yami Ortiz, a trans woman who socialized in similar circles, recognized his number, and tied him to the case.
According to Yami, Sage and Erik were "dating" — but Erik was not yet open about his sexuality, being a man dating a trans woman. However, Erik was reportedly in a relationship with another woman named Ester Iveni, who supposedly paid Sage money in the past to keep their relationship a secret.
It's unclear whether or not the money exchanged was for blackmail, prostitution, or if it's unrelated to either scenario.
Ultimately, it was Sage’s father, Dean, who learned that Erik worked at a Sherwin-Williams paint store and lived in downtown Charlottesville with his girlfriend. Dean also posted Erik's picture to Facebook to drum up leads.
After Dean posted Erik's photo, Yami went to the police department to share with the detectives everything they knew about Erik. Once the police followed up and contacted the Sherwin-Williams store location, they discovered that Erik hadn't shown up for work in three days.
On the Run? Or in Hiding?
Erik called Ester on November 25, and told her that he was in Washington, D.C., and that he needed to be sent money. Ester responded, saying that the police were looking for him, and so she passed along the investigator's information to him. Two days later, Erik called again but this time, he was in New York City.
He tried explaining to Ester that he didn't leave the Charlottesville area because of Sage. Instead, he confirmed that he did have a relationship with Sage and that the two were meeting in front of the Amtrak station — but Erik says Sage never showed.
Erik made a failed attempt to come back to Charlottesville, emailing Ester 30 minutes before he was schedule to board a bus back south, saying he'd changed his mind.
On December 3rd, police had the last known contact with Erik McFadden. Erik sent Ester an email, describing a new sequence of events of the night Sage went missing. He said, according to the email, that while Sage was walking down the street to meet him, she was "approached by a group of people." He wrote that "Sage had enemies" and he was scared, so he'd walked away before anything could happen.
Erik signed the email saying he was sorry, and that he was heading west.
Police heard their own internal alarm bells over this statement, seeing that it had changed from what he originally shared — shooting him up to the top of the suspect list.
To this day, Erik is still considered a Missing Person. According to investigators, they have information that states he may be in the following cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Joppatowne, Maryland; Atlanta, Georgia; Lake City, South Carolina; New York City, New York; Rochester, New York; and a variety of other areas along the west coast. They have also shared that he may have travelled south, possibly to South Carolina or Georgia.
In short, Erik could be anywhere by now.
Even still, on the second anniversary of Sage's disappearance, the police said Erik most likely couldn't have committed the crime, seeing that he didn't own a car, and that he lived in a heavily populated area.
My only response to that is that it's been done before.
Sage was memorable — there's no doubt about that.
Her friends and family talk about her like an urban legend, someone with enough spontaneity and personality that made others act like moths to her flame. After Sage went missing, many took to social media to share stories about her tenacity, like how she did a Vouge-style photoshoot with a UVA student while on a public transit bus. Others shared how she once helped an old man carry in his groceries — all while wearing three-inch heels and a mini skirt.
Even though social media was initially buzzing, it took some time before the police and local news media caught up, sometimes always being a few steps behind.
“It took a long time, it was a while before it actually was on the news,” Sage’s Mom, Latasha Dennis shared in a 2020 interview with ABC News.
“Initially it didn’t feel like full involvement from the police,” Sage’s sister, Eanna Langston, shared with ABC News. Unfortunately, initial interaction and investigation into the case is most crucial during those first few days and weeks.
In America, missing African Americans are disproportionately reported compared to any other race, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In 2018, 30 percent of missing juveniles were African American, despite making up 13.4 percent of the total population. What’s worse, only about a fifth of those cases are followed by the news, according to ABC News.
Natalie Wilson, a co-founder of the Maryland-based Black and Missing Foundation, who worked with the Smith family, spoke with journalist Emma Eisenberg, and said the police more often classify minority children as runaways rather than victims of crimes, yet the reverse is true for white children.
Despite Sage’s magnetism and the countless people who loved her, her friends and family say her missing case wasn't afforded the same attention that others were, specifically another local case.
Less than two years after Sage disappeared, another local girl from the University of Virginia, Hannah Graham, 18, also vanished from Charlottesville.
Instead of the slow police and media response that Sage’s case received, journalists and prime-time news stations covered Hannah’s disappearance day and night.
Sage’s Sister, Rashaa, was working at a downtown Charlottesville ice cream shop in 2014 when Hannah went missing, and she recounted droves of people looking for Hannah in those weeks, many of them coming into the store to ask for surveillance tapes or information.
While Rashaa has never wanted anything but peace for Hannah’s family, she shared with ABC News that it was a double edged sword — wishing that the same public outcry and fierce energy was also for her sister.
Hannah Graham’s story came to a tragic ending, when her remains were discovered five weeks later. Her killer, Jesse Matthew, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, according to CBS News.
Looking Ahead for Justice
In the years since Sage disappeared, her family has continued to struggle to hold the attention of the media and law enforcement. When the first ever Black police chief, Al Thomas Jr., was appointed a few years later, he met with the Smith family in 2016, and seemed like he'd be a newfound advocate.
Eventually, future inquiries and communication went unanswered — to the point where a petition was created and a protest staged outside CPD headquarters because support slipped away. Every round of new investigators blamed the old for the lack of movement, and they say the FBI will only be brought in "if and when" they are needed.
While law enforcement takes an unofficial vow of silence, the Smith families continues to scream from the rooftops.
"It really hurts knowing Dashad [Sage] never got a chance to blossom into the person he was going to be," Eanna told ABC News. "We are waiting around with an open wound in our heart right now, everyday we don't have closure, we don't have answers."
Sage's father, Dean, spoke during a 2017 vigil, telling the crowd that he hasn't changed his phone number since she disappeared — despite changing it frequently before. This breaks my heart, knowing he's hoping one day Sage will call the familiar number, just as she had the morning before she vanished.
Eanna concluded her ABC News interview, pleading, "We need help, we need people to come forward — we need the truth."
My hope for the Smith Family is that they continue to get the media coverage their case deserves. It's possible that as the years have gone on, local chatter could help point law enforcement into the right direction. Whether is a rumor someone heard a few years later, or a comment they never shared publicly before — anything could drum up more information.
In the same breath, I would be interested to hear updates from the McFadden family. If Erik chose to essentially run away because of potential involvement in this case, it would be my guess that over the years he's had some sort of communication with his family. Even the most sophisticated of criminals slip up, and for Erik, it could be as simple as calling he house from a payphone that could be traced to find a location, a withdrawal from his bank account years later that would've gone typically unnoticed, or activity on one of his social media pages.
Overall, it wouldn't hurt for investigators to retrace old steps, research using new technology, and reinterview family of persons of interest — known and unknown to the public.
It's never too late for justice.
There is a $20,000 reward being offered for information that may lead to finding Sage’s remains or an arrest in her case. If you have any information on what happened to Sage, or the whereabouts of Erik McFadden, please call Crime Stoppers at (434) 977-4000.
Erik McFadden was last seen in Charlottesville, Virginia on November 23, 2012. He was 21 years old. At the time of his disappearance, he stood between 5’10” and 6’1″ and weighed approximately 180 to 190 pounds. He has black hair and brown eyes.
You can also check out Uncovered's page on Sage Smith's case for additional reading and an interactive timeline.
Additional reading — "Stories of the Unsolved" and "I Am a Girl Now".