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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- May 25, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 21
Etta Smith's Inspiration Cost Her Four Days in Jail
At one point, when the broadcast referred to a "house-to-house search," she found the phrase unaccountably troubling. "Mentally, I said, 'She's not in a house,' " Smith recalls. "I don't know what made me say that, but as soon as that thought registered, I saw where she was." Smith recognized the place as brush-covered Lopez Canyon, less than two miles from her home. She says she saw "something white, bushes or brush, and a dirt path," and that she felt at once that the "something white" was the missing nurse's clothing.
So shaken was Smith by the intensity of her impression—"it was like a picture," she says—that when her shift as a clerk at the Lockheed aerospace plant in Burbank ended, she drove straight to the Foothill station of the L.A. police department. Det. Lee Ryan listened patiently and, judging her to be sincere, asked her to point out on a wall map the area she had seen in her mind's eye. "This was a clue that had to be investigated," says Ryan.
Unburdened of her vision, Smith decided to go one step further. She went home, loaded her 20-year-old niece and two of her own children into her van, and set off on the winding road up Lopez Canyon. Seeing nothing on the way up, she began driving down, but with a strong feeling of apprehension. "The air felt as thick as fog," she says. Suddenly her eight-year-old daughter, Tina, shouted, "Stop!" In the fading light she had seen something white in the brush. It was a corpse, nude but for white nurse's shoes, face-down over a low retaining wall. Just then a police cruiser came up the hill. Smith flagged it down and pointed out the body. Then she drove home, satisfied she had done what she could.
Within 30 minutes two detectives knocked on her door and asked her to come to the station to explain how she had found the corpse. Smith told her story once more, but the cops clearly believed she had come by her knowledge from some less ethereal source, perhaps from the killers themselves. True to the precept that no good deed goes unpunished, the police, unbeknownst to Detective Ryan, jailed her that night on a murder charge. She remained behind bars for four days, until the nurse's actual killer was turned in by a woman to whom he had boasted of the rape and slaying.
A police investigator maintains that Smith, though innocent of any crime, was guilty of fabricating her "vision." "It's my opinion that she used information she heard from third parties [in Pacoima] and information in news reports, and coupled it together into this story," says Det. Pat Conmay.
Smith, who claims no psychic powers (though she describes herself as "a very sensitive person"), replies that she had no reason to concoct a story. Conmay suggests that she did, and that it may have involved profit, not prophecy. "[Smith] made some comments to an undercover policewoman [who shared her cell] that she was going to make a lot of money from a book and a movie," he says.
Smith denies it, though an agent she has hired confirms that she has received several offers from would-be producers since she sued the police for wrongful arrest. She asked for $750,000 in damages, and was awarded $26,184 last spring. "For a civic-minded person," says Smith's lawyer, Jim Blatt, alluding to the humiliation of her four days in jail, "it was the ultimate nightmare." Steven Linscott might disagree.
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