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Pocatello looks into ’81 killing of a teen

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For 26 years Ben Smith has lived with pain, guilt and frustration following the abduction and slaying of his older sister in Pocatello.

In 1981, investigators assumed 14-year-old Linda Diane Smith ran away, so they never took the case seriously, Ben Smith said. It wasn't until 11 months later when some of Linda's skeletal remains were found, including her skull, that police finally believed Ben's story that a man broke into their house and took his sister right from her bedroom.

But the case quickly went cold, and no arrests were made or suspects even named. Now, more than two decades later, two Pocatello detectives have reopened the case, and Ben Smith is optimistic that a resolution will be reached because of the serious commitment police have made this time.

"They're treating it as a fresh case right now," he said.

Smith moved to Utah nine years ago and now lives in Brigham City. Because the slaying happened so long ago, the family says there may be others who lived in their Pocatello neighborhood in the 1980s who moved to Utah or people who might know something about the case. Because of that, Smith is putting out a plea for anyone who knew his sister or lived in their neighborhood to get in contact with police again to help with the new investigation.

The nightmare began in 1981 while Linda Smith was baby-sitting her brother, Ben, then just 9 years old. About 2 a.m., Ben heard muffled screams and the sound of a possible struggle, like someone kicking.

"I woke up to my sister being dragged out of the house," he said. Smith said a man had his arms around her.

Smith said he ran around to the back of the house and tried to stop the intruder, but the man pushed him to the ground.

"He said 'get away' or I'd be hurt," he said.

The man forced Linda into a van with flames painted on the sides. Ben watched hopelessly as the van drove off. It was the last time he saw his sister alive.

Ben Smith ran to a neighbor's house to get help, for his house did not have a phone.

That was just the start of the nightmare for the Smith family.

Ben's mother was on welfare and raising him, Linda and their sister Lori by herself. The family did not keep their doors locked in small Pocatello in 1981. And Linda had run away once previously but just for a day.

Investigators believed it was the perfect recipe for a runaway and that Linda had taken off on her own. Ben tried to tell investigators what he saw but had to keep retelling parts of the story because of details he forgot to add.

"They came to the conclusion I was covering up for her so she could run away," he said.

Smith remembers a man in his 30s with dirty blond hair. Police, however, hardly preserved any potential evidence, he said.

"They didn't take fingerprints; they didn't do nothing," said Ben's other sister, Lori Thomas. "Hardly anything was preserved from 26 years ago."

Even when Linda's clothes were found in a ditch a week later by a city employee, police still did not believe she was kidnapped, Ben Smith said.

Eleven months later, Linda's remains were found in an affluent neighborhood of Pocatello. Police finally had to admit Ben Smith and his family were right.

"The investigation was botched, completely," he said.

An exact cause of death was never determined.

The guilt of not being able to help his sister ate at Ben for years. He saw counselors, was treated for anxiety and said that finally in 1997 he was committed to a mental hospital for a short time.

Last June, Smith said Pocatello police acknowledged mistakes were made and reopened the case. They currently have at least two people of interest in the case, he said.

"I have high hopes right now they are very committed to this," he said.

Linda Smith was one of four young girls killed in the Pocatello area between 1978 and 1983. All of the cases went unsolved. Originally police believed there might have been a connection, but Smith said detectives today aren't so sure.

Anyone with information is asked to call Pocatello police at 208-234-6121.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com