NEWNAN, Ga. — The front page of The Newnan Times-Herald reads, "Search For Missing Woman Is Brought Here" and a haunting black and white photo of Rhonda Smith stares outward.
The article was published on Thursday, April 19, 1984, nearly two months after her initial disappearance from Lenox Square in Atlanta, and the search for her led family and friends to her own neck of the woods: Newnan, Ga.
These days, the old newspaper clipping is brittle to the touch and has faded to yellow over time, but missing their daughter has never faded, Ilean Cornell and Jack Smith said of their then-21-year-old daughter, who went missing 35 years ago.
Picking through snapshots of school days, visiting Santa and cuddling with dogs, Cornell comes across a photo securely placed in an album underneath a protective clear sheet, showcasing Rhonda’s deep brown eyes, just like her father’s—and long, flowing jet-black hair—contrary to most photos of her, and the way she looked in February 1984, in which she donned a shorter style.
“Those were her ‘Cher days,’” her mom giggles as she reminisces about her 6-foot-tall daughter with the aptly given nickname, “Leggs.”
But sitting next to Jack on a floral-patterned couch in a Coweta County, Ga., living room, flipping through old albums, Cornell’s laughter soon turns to tears for all the memories they have missed and the questions that have never been answered.
“[We] just miss her so much,” Jack said. “We've missed out on, you know, grandkids and a wedding. And just having those phone calls I don't get anymore,” he said of Rhonda’s missed opportunities after disappearing on Feb. 27, 1984.
“When this first happened, people would say, 'Well, maybe she just ran away and maybe you'll get a call... but we just feel like, if she ran away, that she would call us and say, 'Mom, dad, look, I've got something I'm trying to work out. But I'm OK... and don't worry about me... and things will work out.' But we just feel like that had she ran away, she would've contacted us,” Jack argued.
“Somebody's done something with her,” he said with conviction. “I don't have a lot, but I'd give up everything I own just to know what happened to her.”
A ‘SASSY CUP OF SUNSHINE’
Rhonda “Leggs” Smith was born on April 7, 1962. Today, she would be 56 years old.
Cornell, 76, who now lives in Port Richey, Fla., recalls her daughter as “an average kid that everybody was crazy about. I don't think Rhonda ever met a stranger.”
“She was so loved,” Cornell said of the only granddaughter of the family, who wore cowboy vests and was a Tomboy growing up. Later, she played secretary and school teacher with her friends.
“She was always busy doing something... no matter what she was doing, she was busy into something,” said Rhonda's mom, looking around at all the framed memories of her olive-complected daughter displayed on the coffee table, an end table and hung on the walls.
Rhonda loved to roller skate, shop, draw and, of course, dogs. In fact, her parents said, she didn’t have teddy bears, she had dogs.
And Mickey, the family’s French poodle, was her best friend.
“That poor thing was dressed up and danced with and everything else,” her mom chuckled.
As an adult she drew dogs as well, as a part-time gig. Cornell holds up some of her pencil sketches Rhonda did right before she vanished.
When she was 11, her parents divorced, but her parents remained friends and raised her together, they said.
Growing up, “Leggs” was always in the back row of photos because she was so tall. She stood in the back of a group photo from Jack’s second wedding. And she hated it.
But they are memories that her 77-year-old father, who now lives in Madison, Ga., with his wife, Susan, cherishes and thinks about every single day.
“Her face just pops in... it's no more than 10 seconds, but I mean, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her—have some thought of her,” Jack said. “A lot of families have their problems and their kids hate their mom and dad, but that was not the case with her. She was loved, and she loved us.”
“It's just a big hole in your life, and nothing can replace it. It's your only child,” he said, choked up with emotion.
When Rhonda made friends, Cornell said, she stayed friends.
Her high school friend, Susie McEuen, of Hartselle, Ala., remembers “Leggs” as a “sassy cup of sunshine.”
“She was an umbrella on a rainy day. She was devoted to friends and family and loved them unconditionally… maybe to a fault to her detriment,” she said.
The two attended Oxford High School together in Alabama. McEuen met Rhonda when she was 16 and Rhonda was 14. And their bond was immediate.
“Rhonda was a loyal and trusting friend to most anyone. We had an instant bond when we met at school, she was a foot taller than I was, so we looked oddly mismatched on the outside, but inside, we were both free spirits that were hard to be contained in a small southern community.”
“We weren’t typical students who were involved with school activities. We were not dreamy eyed about our futures. We just enjoyed the present.”
“I will never forget her...and never forgive her killer,” McEuen vowed.
When Rhonda was 19, she was briefly enlisted in the Army in 1981, after graduating from Roswell High School in Roswell, Ga. But after she injured her leg in basic training, she left the service.
After living in California for a short time, she returned to Georgia and began, what her parents thought, was a job as a bartender.
But she kept them in the dark about what she was actually doing.
LIFE FAR OUTSIDE NEWNAN
“I always think of her… she was happy in that spot. She said she loved to go there with the dogs,” Cornell said, holding a photo of Rhonda and her Shih Tzu, She-She, at her favorite park in Coweta County.
In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, Rhonda had printed up business cards for what she hoped would blossom into a new career encompassing her passion for animals—and in an effort to change the projection of her life.
Her plans, Cornell said, were for her and her fiancé, Tom Shoemaker, to get married and start up her dog grooming and breeding business.
The invoice for her “Canine Specialties” cards was dated Feb. 28, 1984. She was supposed to pick them up the day after she disappeared.
“We realized that she didn't run away because she was too busy going into business,” her mom determined.
Further, she said, Rhonda and Shoemaker had plans to extend their house to include space for dog grooming.
“It looked like she had her life started over into something that she had a passion for.”
But, before she could turn her life into a new direction, Rhonda was an exotic dancer at the Tattletale Lounge in Atlanta.
She told her parents that she was bartending at the dance club, but they knew she was dancing.
“She knew we wouldn't have liked it. So, she was trying to keep that from us, but we knew where she was at,” Cornell said.
“We still loved her; it didn't matter. She was still our daughter and she wouldn't have done it forever, just like a lot of the kids that are going to college that are doing it. They don't plan to do it forever.”
Fellow dancer and cocktail waitress, Sandra Mix, said Rhonda was “a happy-go-lucky kind of person.”
Now, 61 years old, Mix lives in Muscadine, Ala. But she recalled that the club was not a drug-fueled environment and the managers watched out for the safety of the dancers.
Working the day shift, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., she said, they served blue-collar workers.
“It was just young girls there trying to get by,” Mix remembered.
One of those girls just trying to get by was Rhonda.
“Rhonda had a life besides just being a dancer at the club. She was still our child and we didn't care what she was doing,” Cornell said, with tears in her eyes. “She was a lot more than just that. She was our baby and grew up and had a life ahead.”
“The Lord says, 'Raise them the way that they're supposed to go, and they'll return.' They just don't say how old,” Cornell said.
A FAMILY’S NEVER-ENDING SEARCH
The last time Cornell saw her daughter was Christmas Eve 1983 at her mom’s house. Nearly 30 family members had gathered to talk and eat and celebrate the holidays and the end of the year together. And according to Cornell, Rhonda “looked and acted happy.”
She had no idea that would the last time she would ever see her.
Between Jan. 5 and Feb. 14, 1984, they called each other more than 20 times. The mother and daughter talked regularly, even if just to tell her mom that she was going out to buy her dog a hamburger or that she had just bought a new bathing suit.
On Valentine’s Day, she talked to Rhonda on the phone. It was a brief seven-minute chat, but long enough to get their regular, “I love you” and “will talk soon” in before hanging up the phone.
But two weeks later, she would get a phone call from Shoemaker that would change her life forever.
Shoemaker called asking if she had heard from Rhonda as she was late getting home from shopping at Lenox Square.
He told Cornell, according to her, that Rhonda had left early that morning to go shopping with her friend.
“It's really confusing. She was supposed to go to the gym, but then she left dressed at 6:30 in the morning to go shopping... so it's a little confusing when I go back and even read my notes that I wrote down right away, what she was supposed to be doing. But one girl she was supposedly was supposed to shop with… but they never connected,” Cornell recalled.
She said she told him, “Well, don't worry. It's raining, you know... just give her some time to get home.”
It was around 7:30 p.m., on Feb. 27.
She remembered that Shoemaker then called Jack's mother to see if she had seen her or had heard from her.
As the night progressed, Cornell tried to get a hold of the mall security—they found the truck she was driving, parked and locked in the parking lot just after midnight on Feb. 28.
That morning, the police were called to the scene and Cornell went to Lenox to try and find Rhonda—without luck. That’s when she reported her daughter missing to police.
As they left around 3 a.m., defeated and without answers, it started to snow.
Since that winter day, not a moment has gone by over the past three and a half decades that she doesn’t relive those days leading up to and after her daughter’s disappearance.
“Nobody's been able to find anything out about what really happened to her,” said Cornell, who was living in Roswell, Ga., at the time.
In 1984, Cornell kept a detailed journal beginning on Feb. 27 through March 5 in an effort to keep track of what was happening around her.
Monday, Feb. 27, 1984
Monday evening around 7:30 Tom called to see if I had talked to Rhonda that day. Said he got home around 7:00 and she was not home took shower and is concerned because she always let him know if she is late. Tried to talk to her around 11:30 to take her to lunch and she was not at home he said. Never could reach her.
Said Sue was to visit her that day. Told him they were probably shopping if they were not to worry until stores closed and give her time to get home because it was raining pretty bad. He hung up and was going to call Nanny. Ask Nanny if she had heard from Rhonda that day Nanny said no she had tried to reach her that morning and could not get her. he wanted to know what time and she said around 11:30 and he said he had tried to reach her that time also.
Later we decided we had better start checking. Called hospitals to check to see if she was admitted. Tom tried some police stations also, they would not give him much information because he was not married to her. I started calling security at malls. Talked to Tom again. He asked how I talked to malls with them closed. No security numbers listed. Told him to just call malls and security had answered phone. I gave him a list one end of town and I took Gwinnett this way. I called him back he said for us not to talk because security at Lenox thought they had found the truck. He called me back and said truck was there we agreed to meet there.
I got to Lenox 1st drove around because it was so dark. Security meets me on the other side of Davison’s and I followed him back around. He said truck was registered under Dave Sower said he worked for Tom. He called police and officer Cole came talked to me until Tom arrived. [SIC]
Jack and his wife, Susan, were living in Tennessee at the time and rushed to Georgia to help find his daughter.
The family had a slew of missing flyers printed and began their mission to find Rhonda, while Cornell interviewed with the local media and police.
Through March 5, they hit Cumberland Mall, Perimeter Mall, Gwinnett Mall, among several others around town, as well as at the Tattletales club where Rhonda worked when she disappeared.
They searched location after location, including a spot off Interstate 75 on Windy Hill Road in Cobb County, where a woman's body was found a few months after their search.
But it wasn’t Rhonda.
That woman’s body was discovered in a wooded area near the Chattahoochee River in southwest Cobb County, according to National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The property’s owner found the skeletal remains on May 10, 1984 lying in a bed of pine straw and weeds that had grown up over the body. Officials believed she could have been dead for weeks or as far back as 1983.
Her estimated age was 18-25. She was about 5'4" and weighed approximately 105 pounds. Her eye and hair color were unknown, however, she was discovered wearing a red wig.
Based on her remains, investigators determined that she had reconstructive surgery on her right eye, a metal pin in her left ankle due to an old fracture, as well as a metal plate in her left shoe.
She was wearing an oversized, brown, corduroy jacket from "Rich’s" and a men’s shop shirt with the name "George" embroidered on the pocket, cowboy boots, a blue, short-sleeved, pullover shirt with a Playboy bunny, a western-style, ruffled, long sleeve blouse and blue jeans.
According to NamUs, Cobb County Police investigators believe that she may have been a prostitute.
The cause of her death was not determined, but it was ruled a homicide.
Determined to find their loved one alive, Rhonda’s family continued their search throughout the Newnan area, including the house and lake where she and Shoemaker lived together.
“We went and did the searches and so forth and, of course, we were just devastated of course, when all of this was going on,” Jack said.
“It's just been a big hole in our lives for a long time. We've missed out on the grandkids or anything else that might have happened in her life. We loved her so much. I gave all this to the Lord a long time ago, and if it hadn't been for that... I mean… I was just a big mess for a long time,” Jack said.
Now, those yellowed news clippings, Cornell’s handwritten journal from 1984 and the memories of Rhonda are all that is left.
“You put everything in a box and you put it away... that's the only thing you can do,” Cornell said.
The Atlanta Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit has investigated 52 cases to date in 2019, said Officer Lisa Bender. Twenty-four of those cases remain open. And to date, there are currently 62 missing persons cold cases total.
Rhonda is one of those cases.
Prior to her disappearance, Rhonda shopped at Wicks and Sticks for two hours, according to the APD’s missing person bulletin.
While her car was at the mechanic’s for repair, mall security found the locked, blue ’81 Chevy truck she was last seen driving at Lenox Square on Feb. 28, 1984, but she was nowhere to be found.
That’s when the APD put out a flash bulletin for her disappearance.
She was last seen wearing a camel-colored rabbit fur jacket with a white blouse, white shoes, a gold necklace and two earrings in each ear. She had a small rose tattoo on her chest and black hair, brown eyes and olive skin.
A $6,000 reward was offered, including $5,000 from her family for information leading to her location and another $1,000 by the State of Georgia for information leading to an arrest and conviction of those responsible for her disappearance.
Her fiancé, Tom Shoemaker, was the last person to have seen Rhonda.
According to Cornell, he cooperated with police, but quickly obtained an attorney. She also said in her journal from that time period, that she was told Shoemaker failed his polygraph test, specifically on the questions:
“Did you cause harm or disappearance to her?”
“Did you restrain or cause her disappearance?”
“Do you know where she is?”
When 11Alive reached out to him for an interview, the woman who answered the phone declined to comment.
While the APD is officially on Rhonda's case, Coweta County Sheriff's Lt. Jason Fetner has poured over her case files to help in the investigation as well. In 1984, he said, Atlanta Police detectives investigated her case with every resource they had.
“When I sat down and looked at the file, they did a ton of police work, like shoe-leather-on-the-concrete police work. They went out; they followed people; they interviewed people; they met with everybody she worked with. They talked to everybody that she knew. They went out and did searches in the community. The actions that the police took who investigated this matter in 1984 for the Atlanta Bureau of Police, are... remarkable,” Fetner said.
In fact, he said, they even looked into serial killers in other states to find a clue into her disappearance.
“They investigated the brakes off of this case in 1984. And they couldn't solve it then. And so, it's very frustrating to me because I would love to be the person that's responsible for setting into motion a series of events that would bring about closure to this many people and actually positively impact all these different people and Rhonda's family, but I don't know how that's gonna happen, except doing something that's unusual—like this, like putting out a story and putting it in front of the community and saying, ‘Hey, everybody, let's look at it one more time.’”
Fetner was also instrumental in getting Rhonda’s information into the NamUs database last year. By submitting a family member’s DNA to NamUs, the hope is that if an unidentified body is located, they can match it to Rhonda.
“I thought, well this is, albeit limited, this is something I can do sitting at my desk in Coweta County. I can go through this file, I can give them her fingerprints, I can put her dental records in there. I can get the DNA from the dad when he comes here to talk to me, so that maybe there's something that's happening. You know, 10 years from now, they may find a body and go, 'Oh, my God, the DNA matches... it's her.’ It's something. Something's better than nothing anyway.”
There are more than 200 unclaimed people who have been found dead in Georgia, according to Carrie Sutherland, a regional program specialist for NamUs. Further, 600,000 people go missing every year and 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year—about 1,000 of those remain unidentified a year later. That’s when they go cold like Rhonda’s case.
But Fetner has another theory about what could potentially have happened to Rhonda 35 years ago.
“When this was first brought to me, I thought this was just a lady that went missing. And the more I look into it, the more I've learned about it, I've learned that, OK, this is... she is an exotic dancer who was living a big city life and then she kind of quit for a little bit and moved down here to Coweta County out in the sticks and then started wanting to go back to the big-city life, and then she went missing,” Fetner said.
But there may have been a seedier side to her job at the club that few knew about, and even fewer spoke of.
“I know that this is fanciful, but if someone witnessed a mob encounter—something to do with the mafia, like say, your boyfriend got murdered by the mafia... and then they tried to come and get you and you had information about a huge federal case involving indictments and gang members and stuff to do with organized crime. If that happened, and you got put into the federal witness program... what would happen to you? I can assure you this, we wouldn't know,” he said.
Fetner said that a man she knew from dancing at Tattletale Lounge turned up dead with three .22-caliber bullets in his head, dumped in an abandoned gold mine in California.
"If Rhonda was placed into Federal Witness Protection custody, they would give her a new name, a new date of birth, a new social, a new address, a new everything, and they wouldn't tell anybody. They wouldn't tell her family. They wouldn't tell anybody. Because that's how bad guys catch people… by contacting your family and monitoring who they talk to, 'cause they know, you're gonna talk to them eventually," he said.
According to the U.S. Marshals, they have relocated more than 8,000 witnesses and nearly 10,000 of their family members since the program’s launch in 1971.
If she had been a federal witness, she could still be living under a new identity, unbeknownst to anyone, including her family and Fetner.
But her mom doesn’t think that anyone could have scared her into leaving her family.
“Rhonda was the type of daughter who could tell me what to do in my house. She was not bashful. And even if you scared her away for some reason, if we were being threatened or something, that would last maybe two weeks. She'd find a way. She'd have somebody call and say, ‘Mom, I'm OK...,’” Cornell said.
“We never felt like she just ran away. Because of the club and the drugs there, and stuff like that, they try to make it sound like, 'Well, maybe the mafia was in it' or something like that. OK, you might have scared her for a couple of weeks... but she was just hard-headed,” she continued.
APD Det. Joe Golphin, who is investigating Rhonda’s disappearance, declined to comment to 11Alive about Rhonda’s cold case.
SIMILAR CASE SOLVED DECADES LATER
Rhonda’s story is reminiscent of the case of the “missing bride,” nearly 20 years earlier.
Mary Shotwell Little when missing after shopping and dinner with a friend from Lenox Square on Oct. 14, 1965. The following day, her car was found in the parking lot, like Rhonda’s, but she, nor her body have ever been located.
But there’s a more recent solved case that springs to mind after a body was discovered near where Rhonda last lived.
Rhonda resided at a home in Newnan, Ga., with Shoemaker—nearby the same area where Ann Margaret Berry was found. Her common-law husband was charged in her murder in January of this year, 28 years later.
Berry vanished without a trace in July 1991—seven years after Smith disappeared.
On April 14, 2011, two boys digging a backyard fire pit for a campout discovered her skull, jawbone and bra strap, off Welcome To Arnco Road in Newnan.
Kevin James Lee, 53, was arrested in Richmond, Calif., on Oct. 18, 2018 with a warrant from the U.S. Marshals Service. He was transported to Coweta County on Jan. 18, 2019 and charged with murder and concealing the death of another.
DO YOU HOLD THE CLUE?
“You know, you can't think about it all the time... but it's just not totally gone either. It's like a disease that goes dormant, but it's not gone,” Cornell said.
“There's just no way you can replace a child. And it doesn't matter if you've got one or 50, I don't think. When one goes missing, I think it's the same pain that everybody goes through... no matter how they lose them,” she said. “Today, she was a young lady that should be 56 years old with grandchildren, maybe, and we don't know where she is.”
The hardest part for Jack is not knowing.
“Your kids are supposed to bury you, not the other way around. But we don't even have the privilege of doing that. We can't even bury our child. If we could just know what happened to her and get some closure.”
“I gave this to the Lord a long time ago. I know where I'm going when I die. And whoever did this, or is responsible for this, I have a good idea of where you may wind up,” he said.
Jack wrote a letter to Rhonda on her 55th birthday and then, he took to social media to send a message to the culprit—a tool that didn’t exist in 1984.
“It appears I will go to my grave not knowing what happened to her. this I do know! The Lord my God is in control and I know that some day who ever [SIC] is responsible for her disappearance will have to endure God’s wrath. Each day since Rhonda’s disappearance, a little piece of my heart goes away, because of not knowing what happened to her.”
“We're just hoping that somebody saw something that will give us a clue, give the police a clue of where to go—that we might be able to locate her,” Cornell pleaded.
If you have any information about Rhonda Smith’s disappearance, call Det. Joe Golphin with the APD’s homicide and missing persons unit at (404) 546-5602, or Lt. Jason Fetner with Coweta County Sheriff’s Office at (678) 423-6711.
The family has created a Facebook page, Justice for Rhonda, to keep her memory alive.
If you have any information about the Jane Doe found in Cobb County, contact the Cobb County Police Department, at (770) 499-3958.
CONTACT THE REPORTER |
Gone Cold is an ongoing series, where 11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll investigates some of the most infamous and lesser-known cold cases in Georgia. She's digging for answers for the still-grieving families who long for them, and for the victims who have never found their justice.
Noll is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth, investigative crime/justice reports for 11Alive's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @JNJournalist and like her on Facebook to keep up with her latest work. If you have a tip or story idea, email her at jnoll@11Alive.com or call, text at (404) 664-3634.