Spotlight Shining On Darkness Again Reinert Murder Is Revisited As Jay Smith's Civil Suit Begins

Posted: August 25, 1998

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Twenty years ago this month, a suburban high school principal named Jay C. Smith was arrested while lurking in the parking lot of a Devon shopping center, apparently trying to break into cars.

Thus began one the most sensational mysteries in suburban Philadelphia's storied history of crime: the Susan Reinert murder.

Sordid reports of sadism, pornography and drug use, along with armed robbery and a devious high school death plot produced a best-selling, true-crime book and a network miniseries. The public devoured each strange and awful development as police mounted Pennsylvania's biggest murder investigation ever to solve the Reinert murders.

Reinert, an English teacher at Upper Merion High School, was found on June 25, 1979, in a car outside a motel near Harrisburg. Her children have never been found.

Smith, former principal at Upper Merion, and fellow Upper Merion teacher William S. Bradfield eventually went to jail for all three murders. Smith received the death penalty.

And then, Smith was freed by the state Supreme Court, which ruled he was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct.

Yet, after all these years, the story is still unfinished.

Yesterday, a central Pennsylvania jury began hearing the bizarre case once again.

This time, it's a civil case in federal court, brought by Smith, who now says the state police and attorney general violated his constitutional rights at his murder trial and conspired to send him to Death Row. He says evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from his defense lawyers, partly because author Joseph Wambaugh paid a state police investigator $50,000 for inside information for his book, ``Echoes in the Darkness.''

Though attorneys for both sides vowed they would not retry the case, opening testimony revisited the extraordinary events that erupted two decades ago.

``It was a classic whodunit,'' Assistant Attorney General Gregory Neuhauser, who is defending the police and prosecutors, said of the Reinert case.

``Jay Smith received a fair trial,'' said Neuhauser, who added that police still believe they got the right man.

``That conviction was wrongful,'' replied Smith's lawyer, Jerry Williams. ``Jay C. Smith has always maintained his innocence.''

The murder, he said, was committed alone by ``a coldblooded, manipulative, scheming, evil man - William Sydney Bradfield.''

He said Bradfield, with the help of several ``gullible, foolish women'' as accomplices, framed Smith for the murder.

A heart attack killed Bradfield in January while he slept on his cot at Graterford state prison. He went to his grave professing his innocence.

Today, media attention has largely dissolved, many of the participants are grayer.

Reinert's ex-husband, Kenneth, said despite Smith's civil court case, he still believes that the former school principal is responsible for the murders.

``I think he's just trying to blow smoke up something,'' he said. ``I don't think this is ever going to end, unfortunately. Not until I guess he dies. I hope he has the same good fortune as Bradfield.''

Now 70, Smith has been living quietly in Dallas, Pa., apparently having abandoned his fetishes and interests in whips and chains that once led him to pose in bikini briefs in a swingers magazine. To many, he is Pennsylvania's version of O.J. Simpson: a seemingly guilty man who, because of the peculiarities of the justice system, is walking free.

But Jay Smith appears largely the same jowly, chinless man - the nondescript principal of highly regarded Upper Merion High - who was nabbed, improbably, while sneaking around the Gateway Shopping Center in August 1978 with a gun in each hand.

Smith's arrest on weapons charges 20 years ago soon revealed a secret, sex-crazed alter ego that dabbled in kinky sex and bestiality. Police who searched his home discovered a library of porn and security guard uniforms.

They quickly linked him to a string of armed robberies at local Sears stores, in which Smith was accused of posing as a Brinks guard and making off with thousands in cash. A jury dismissed the testimony of his chief alibi witness - the bearded philosopher Bill Bradfield - and convicted him on theft charges in 1979.

That's when things turned particularly nasty.

On the morning Smith was to be sentenced in a Harrisburg courtroom, the nude, battered body of the mousy-looking Reinert turned up in the rear of her hatchback, parked just a few miles outside the state capital. Her two children, Michael, 10, and Karen, 11, were missing and presumed dead.

Reinert had been chained, sexually abused and overdosed with morphine.

Bradfield soon emerged as the chief suspect when police learned he and the divorced Reinert had been lovers. She had named her fellow teacher as the beneficiary of her estate, including a $730,000 life insurance policy.

Bradfield had a rock-solid alibi: He was on the sandy beaches of Cape May, N.J., at the time of Reinert's disappearance. Nonetheless, he was convicted in 1983 for plotting the murders of his lover and her children and sentenced to three life terms.

Suspicion then focused on Smith when state police discovered beneath Reinert's body a blue, plastic comb stamped with the insignia of the 79th USARCOM - Smith's Army Reserve unit. A witness who saw Smith at his sentencing remembered the disheveled principal searching for a comb to neaten his hair.

Smith was found guilty in 1986 of carrying out the slayings, and he spent more than six years, Williams said, ``rotting away in a 7-by-9 cell . . . where your only purpose is to wait to be killed.'' The state Supreme Court overturned Smith's conviction Sept. 18, 1992, citing improper prosecutorial conduct.

It is that conduct that is the focus of Smith's suit against two former state police investigators, John T. Holtz and Victor Dove, and two former members of the state attorney general's office, investigator John T. Purcell and Deputy Attorney General Paul Yatron.

Yesterday in opening statements and testimony, much of the attention focused on those sandy beaches and the fateful comb.

It turns out that, during an autopsy, investigators found two microscopic pebbles of quartz sand on Reinert's toes. Smith's defense lawyer, William Costopoulos, was never told about the sand.

Dove testified that he did not turn over the evidence until the day after Smith's trial had concluded because he was doubtful it would have played any role in the case.

Neuhauser said the Smith jury had heard testimony about the sand and convicted him anyway.

Williams, though, maintained that the sand would have shown that Reinert had spent at least some of her final hours at the shore, possibly with Bradfield.

Likewise, the plastic Army Reserve comb came back to haunt the prosecutors.

In testimony yesterday, former junk dealer Mark Hughes testified the comb was among several articles he found in 1992 among a pile of papers he had been hired to remove from Holtz's home. Hughes said he also found between 15 and 20 notebooks containing Holtz's original notes from the Reinert investigation.

The discovery led to accusations that state police had mishandled evidence and that the prosecution had actually submitted a duplicate comb during Smith's trial.

Williams accused Holtz of hounding Smith because of money. He produced a letter from author Wambaugh offering Holtz $50,000 if his book was successful.

A story about Bradfield killing his lover for money would be a dull read, Williams said. So Holtz focused on Smith, the attorney said, because it would produce an entertaining story about ``a wacky principal without a motive [who] kills for the sheer joy of it.''

The trial is expected to last until next week. Smith likely will take the stand. Wambaugh has submitted a deposition.

But even when this civil case is complete, the story of the Susan Reinert murder is still incomplete. The next chapter: Smith's precedent-setting civil rights lawsuit against author Wambaugh.

Send e-mail to russeld@phillynews.com or call our tip line at 215-854-5474.

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