December 9th, 1976. Howards Bridge road in northern Iredell county.
Just after lunch time, a local resident named Claude Howard discovers the nude body of a deceased female on the edge of a farm field just off the main road, and near the bridge the road is named for. How and why she was there and just who left her there is still a mystery to this day.
Daria Elaine Smith was born in Nottoway, Virginia on New Years Day, 1953.
I haven’t been able to find much about her early life, but by the time high school rolls around she’s living with her parents in Lanham-Seabrook, Maryland attending DuVal High School, which today is a prominent public magnet school.
Daria seems to have been a good student, and was involved with numerous activities, including the school’s forensic league and numerous musical groups. She also was a student government representative.
She graduate from DuVal in 1970, and disappears from the public record until 1973, when she enlists in the US Army and is sent to Vietnam.
It seems no surprise she would carry on a family tradition- her father Benjamin Smith was drafted into the army, served in Korea, and also in Vietnam. He would retire from the army after working for 20 years with a medical detachment and would earn the rank of major before his tour of duty ended.
Daria’s mother Viola was also a vet, having served during the World War II.
Of note, at the time of her enlistment women could only serve in a few capacities, and due to her rank at discharge, was most likely an army nurse with the WAC. Her enlistment ended May 2nd, 1975, and it’s highly likely that she met her future husband Charles Ray Wade during her time in the service. He also served in Viet Nam and was discharged as an E4 (specialist). Wade was originally from Wilson, NC.
The couple are married 15th of March, 1975, three months before Daria leaves the army. In the end, whatever drew Charles and Daria together wasn’t enough to keep them together. Though there was no legal divorce, the couple separated fairly quickly.
Based on what records are available, it’s believed that post marriage, the Wades moved to Salisbury to attend Livingstone College together, a historically black Christian school. It’s possible this was accomplished using funds from the GI Bill.
Daria’s parents either follow her to NC or had already moved here, though I suspect it’s the former, as they are living at 721 Old Plank road, which is on the street behind that runs behind the college. However, both Daria’s parents had ties to the area, with family in Landis and Salisbury.
Neither of the Wades ever appear in the Livingstone College yearbooks. Daria would not have been there long enough and Charles must have dropped out after his estranged wife’s death or transferred somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty of life is that tomorrow is not promised, and what should have been the beginning of Daria’s post-service life, one likely marked by accomplishment, was simply not to be.
Midday of December 9th, 1976 Charles Howard noticed a woman’s fur coat laying in a muddy track that led to a farm field. As he stopped to investigate, he also found shoes and a pair of dungaree style pants with a black belt before realizing that they belonged to the body of a young black woman, who was laying not far away in the middle of the road, near a mud puddle.
Daria Wade was nude, but retained curlers in her hair, earrings, a ring on each hand, and a third ring was found on the ground nearby.
To the Iredell County Sheriff’s department, who responded to the scene, there were no obvious sign of what had killed her. The NC State Bureau of Investigation, who were called in to assist had the same experience. Wade had a scratch across her back and a noticeable bruise on her hip, but no signs of major trauma or injury. There was no ID or a pocketbook, and it would be a day or better before the hard work of Lt. Detective Deane Barnette of the Iredell County Sheriffs department paid off, and the young woman they found in the mud would have her name back.
Tom Thompson, the sheriff of Iredell county was quick to tell the Statesville Record & Landmark at the time “That place is used as a lover’s lane and for drinking parties”.
However, I have been unable to substantiate that claim with anyone in the area. At any rate, it seems highly unlikely a nearly impassable muddy wallow would be the scene of that kind of carrying on, and seems even more unlikely an African American girl would, in the year 1976 with race relations being what they were, be out partying with the local farm boys of north Iredell.
He also noted that a witness or witnesses had seen a light colored Chevrolet station wagon in the area that night. It’s unknown if, and probably unlikely the vehicle was ever found.
The weather the night before had been particularly cold, with the temperature remaining below 20 degrees Fahrenheit from midnight until about 8 or 9 AM, a couple hours before Wade’s body was discovered. An autopsy performed in Raleigh would eventually conclude the cause of death as exposure, but would also indicate that Wade had a blood alcohol level of .18, which would be considered in most people “very drunk”, and a good bit higher than the legal state threshold of .10. It was also casually noted that there was “some evidence of drugs in the body”, but this is never clarified or further explained. The only other evidence of note was that Wade had scratches on her knees, as if she had been crawling on the ground before her death.
Wade’s obituary in the Salisbury Post on December 13th was brief, and mentioned very little other than the way she died. She would ultimately be buried in the Salisbury National Cemetery, her headstone noting her service to her country in Viet Nam. The same place her parents would be buried years later.
After an article on December 11th noting the autopsy results, no other word is ever published about Wade’s death in Iredell county or Rowan county ever again. She is either purposely forgotten or the case goes cold.
Perhaps Sherriff Thompson thought enough attention had been paid to the accidental death of a drunken black girl from another county. Perhaps there simply was no other course of discovering what happened with no further leads or evidence to pursue. Any attempt to understand what happened and why would be speculation.
But it has to be noted that someone brought Wade to that muddy path in Iredell county, over an hour from home, and completely off the main road. Someone left her there in the below-freezing temperatures, and someone is owed some blame for what happened to her.
Who this party or parties might be is not likely to ever be known. It would of course be no great leap of the imagination to think that Wade’s estranged husband must have been looked at, but he was never arrested, and so whatever evidence or suspicions there might have been (if any) it would not have been enough to pursue charges. Wade remarried not terribly long after Daria’s death, but it’s presumed that marriage failed as well, with no mention of Wade in his second wife’s obituary. Wade died himself at 45 years old in 1999.
The exact events that lead to Daria Wade’s death are unknown, but I would like to make a few conjectures based on what evidence there is.
Terminal burrowing and more importantly in this case, paradoxical undressing are well established phenomena that are seen in cases of hypothermia, and Wade shows signs of both, having been found nude and with abrasions on her knees.
I have to believe that whoever brought her to Iredell county had planned something untoward. Either abandoning her, as happened, or something far more appalling. Whatever the case, I would deduce that the bruise on her hip might have been a result of that action- perhaps suffered as she was shoved or kicked out of a vehicle. Left there in the dark woods, drunk, alone, she wouldn’t have had much of a chance of surviving the night, and ultimately didn’t.
The state Wade was found in raises some questions as well. It seems she wasn’t prepared in such a way as to spend a night out on the town or at some secluded party spot.
Before I went about fleshing this story out I posted a basic synopsis on Websleuths and the r/unresolvedmysteries subreddit. Some of the commenters on Reddit were quick to note something I did not: the curlers left in her hair make it seem more likely that she was “in for the night”, and somehow ended up deciding to go, or was forced to go somewhere with someone. Generally, women don’t “put up their hair” if they are getting ready to step out. This runs contra to any perceived or implied notion Daria was out “partying”.
She was also found with a coat, but no shirt. There are a couple possible reasons for this. First, if my belief she paradoxically undressed is wrong, and she were dumped already in the nude, then perhaps whoever brought her there threw out her clothes with her and simply missed the shirt when discarding of her things. Second, it could be that Daria was taken from somewhere suddenly and only had time to put on the coat before being removed. Third, if she willingly went with the party or parties who ended up dumping her out in Iredell county, maybe she originally thought it would only be a short ride, or no ride at all, but maybe a short time in a vehicle to talk or do something else and she wouldn’t need a shirt under her coat. If the missing shirt is the result of any of the three of these, it speaks to Daria being unprepared to be where she was found, and the perpetrators guilt in her death.
Her lack of a pocketbook or identification also supports the idea that she was unprepared for the trip she ended up taking. Although the three written articles about this case never mention whether her belongings were found at her home or not at all. It could be that detail was necessary to keep back from the public, but it’s almost impossible to determine now.
I also want to note that the chance of accidentally finding the location where she was left is almost impossible. Most of the highways that would make the drive shorter today were not present in 1976, and the path from Salisbury would be across numerous rural roads, making numerous turns. To randomly arrive on Howards Bridge road in the middle of the night is a near impossibility. While the road does start at NC highway 901 just in front of Union Grove school, the road itself only goes further into country, really heading nowhere unless someone makes several specific turns off it.
I myself drove the most probable route when visiting the Rowan County Public Library looking for past issues of the Salisbury Post related to this case. Using a GPS, I still had to take careful note of turns. I don’t think it’s a round trip a person unfamiliar with the rural areas it passes through (and which would have been even more rural in 1976) could make at night without prior knowledge.
So why would someone have known the area?
The late 1970’s were the raucous beginning of the end for the Union Grove Fiddle Convention, an old time/bluegrass festival that had been taking place since the 1920’s, but which had devolved into drugs, fighting, and if the rumors can be believed, rape. People came from all over the country to attend the festival, and in it’s last years, there were a lot of unsavory types coming too, including the Hell’s Angel, and another rival biker gang, the Outlaws.
In 1974, the Hells Angels were barricaded from entering the festival by the Iredell County Sherriff’s Department lined up across highway 901. There’s a picture of this available in Ken Jurney’s excellent book about the festival.
They are standing right in front of where Howard Bridge meets NC-901.
The year Daria was found, the festival was held in March, and it was noted that there was at least one death by drug overdose.
The state would eventually step in and use force of law to shut down the festival in 1980.
The circumstances and reasons for the events of December, 8th and 9th of 1976, and the person or persons responsible will likely never be made known. But Daria’s death ties her to the Union Grove community forever, and as such, her story, tragic as it is, is part of the it’s story as well.
It’s unknown to me whether Iredell County still considers this an open case. I reached out to the sheriff’s department via e-mail, but at the time of this post, have received no response.
However, in lieu of attempting to contact them, if you do have any information pertaining to this case, I would like to hear from you. Please visit the About page to contact me.
Almost 50 years later, it has been a task to assemble this information.
My thanks first of all to Steve Hill of the Statesville Historical Collection, who turned me onto this forgotten case.
Ken Jurney’s book The Union Grove Old-Time Fiddlers Convention: The Real Story is a great resource for learning about the festival mentioned above, and includes some interesting stories of the various things that went on in the final years, including the Hell’s Angels shooting up a van.
The Iredell County Public Library in Statesville and the Rowan Public Library in Salisbury have also been a great help in fleshing out a story that only appears as a single column printed in an old newspaper.