Archive for Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Twisted tale takes new turn

Body found in home of woman who lied about Bataan Death March

June 30, 2004


— Days after an elderly social service worker admitted concocting a story about surviving the Bataan Death March, the decomposed body of a woman was found in her home.

Police had not identified the dead woman as of Tuesday. They said Juanita L. Smith, the former director of Topeka YWCA's Teen Pregnancy Program, was in the home where the body was found and was taken to a hospital.

She was being treated for a medical condition, but police did not provide more details. Her condition did not appear to be life-threatening, said police Maj. John Sidwell.

According to voter registration records, Juanita Smith, 83, and another woman, Shannon N. Smith, 39, lived at the same address, while driver's license records indicated a Mary Shannon N. Smith lived at the home. Juanita Smith owns the home, according to the county appraiser's office.

Neighbor Crystal Funk said Juanita Smith told people that she lived with her daughter. Funk said the younger woman acted as a driver for the older one.

Juanita Smith kept to herself, though neighbors sometimes saw her working in her yard, Funk said.

"This whole neighborhood is really close," Funk said. "Everybody knows everybody else, but nobody really knew her."

Another neighbor, Bill Hancock, said he noticed several months ago that taxis were picking up Juanita Smith nearly every morning, then bringing her home in the evening. Also, she told people that her daughter had moved, Funk said.

"She told different people different places," Funk said. "It's hard to make sense of this."

Juanita Smith resigned from her job last week, a day after acknowledging to The Topeka Capital-Journal that she had lied to the newspaper and her employer about being a survivor of the Bataan Death March during World War II. The newspaper had published a May 2 profile of Juanita Smith, and a managing editor resigned the same day Juanita Smith acknowledged she had lied about her past.

Sidwell said an autopsy was being performed Tuesday on the body found in the home. Sidwell said officers' investigation suggested the woman may have died in March.

Funk said: "The daughter disappeared at the same time, and the car was in the garage."

The police initially listed Juanita Smith's age as 82. In the newspaper's profile last month, Juanita Smith's age was listed as 86.

In the newspaper profile, Juanita Smith related how she served as a Navy nurse during World War II and was one of thousands of Americans who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942, only to be marched more than 60 miles to a prisoner-of-war camp.

The newspaper later received e-mails questioning the story, and an internal investigation found no record that Smith had served in the Navy or received a nursing degree from Stanford University, as she claimed. The newspaper apologized publicly and removed the story from its online archive.

The same day the newspaper confronted Juanita Smith, Anita Miller, the managing editor in charge of special projects, resigned. Miller said she had been forced to resign even though she had cooperated in the investigation; the paper has said only that it did not move quickly enough initially in investigating Juanita Smith's story.

Juanita Smith told the newspaper last week that she fabricated the story after she arrived in Topeka, telling it during an interview with the YWCA to make an impression and land the job as the director of its pregnancy prevention program more than a decade ago.

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