Vanessa Dawn Smith

Left and Center: Vanessa circa, 1997

Right: Age Progressed to age 29

Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance

Missing Since: May 31, 1997

Missing From: Winton, Merced County, California

Classification: Non-Family Abduction

Date Of Birth: December 26, 1981

Age: 15 years old

Height and Weight: 5’6″ and 130 pounds

Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian Female, Strawberry Blonde hair, Blue eyes, Vanessa has Duane’s Syndrome in her right eye and as a result, the third muscle in her retina is paralyzed and the eye drifts toward the inside, she has a large birthmark on her right arm which extends from her shoulder to her elbow, she has a scar on her ear, Vanessa has a fair, freckled complexion

Clothing/Jewelry Description: A light blue dress with silver colored metal buttons, a white belt, an elastic waist, a pair of white hurache sandals with woven leather straps on the upper part and flat heels, Vanessa was last known to be wearing a black head cover and was also carrying a walking stick as well

NCMEC Number: 833448

Details of Disappearance

Vanessa was last seen in Winton, California on May 31st 1997. She left her residence on Mercedes Avenue at approximately 7:00 pm that evening to take a walk along her neighborhood near an almond orchard. This was something that Vanessa did often and she usually went with her mother, Beverly Smith. This time, however, Vanessa went alone. She never returned home and was never seen or heard from again.

After she was discovered as missing, Vanessa’s walking stick was discovered 200 yards east of her house. No other trace was ever found of her. Investigators initially believed Vanessa possibly ran away but this is immensely discounted. Vanessa left behind her purse which contained her savings and she also left behind her cherished watch at home.

Vanessa also gave no indication of wanting to leave. Beverly believes Vanessa was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Investigators and her believe Vanessa was abducted by someone she knew and was associated with at the time of her disappearance. Despite this, investigators haven’t publicly identified any suspects in her disappearance and no arrests have been in the case.

Beverly agrees it’s possible that Vanessa was possibly drugged and sexually abused after her disappearance. She along with many others believe that Vanessa is still alive and will one day return home. In 2019, an elderly couple came forward and stated they saw Vanessa walking that evening. The couple were going to a residence where a vehicle was for sale.

On their way, they drive on Mercedes Avenue and observed a young teenaged girl with a stick in hand. They stated they thought nothing of it at the time. They were asked if they had seen any other vehicles coming the opposite way but they saw nothing. They arrived at the residence and waited there for about 10 to 15 minutes. They then took an opposing way home.

The couple believe they encountered the individual involved in Vanessa’s disappearance while on their way home. The couple stated they never told anyone of what they saw because they feared retaliation and didn’t want to get involved in general. Investigators have received the information and are looking over it.

Investigators do receive some tips on the case but nothing substantial has ever come from them. Vanessa’s case is remembered by many residents of Winton and various community members have shown everlasting support for Beverly and the search for her daughter. Vanessa’s case has been profiled on America’s Most Wanted and her poster has been shared all around.

At the time of her disappearance, Vanessa was described as a very laid back person and loved to be around people. She had just graduated the 8th grade at Grace Mennonite School the day before her disappearance and attended a school picnic on the day she disappeared until 5:00 pm. Vanessa had big plans for the summer, she and a friend were going to take sewing classes and she was going to Colorado for two weeks in August to visit a friend.

Vanessa’s disappearance remains unsolved and foul play is suspected in her case. Investigators believe someone in Winton knows what happened to Vanessa and who was involved and they urge anyone with information to come forward. It’s also believed that Vanessa may still be somewhere in the local area, her father stated that she would never go anywhere without permission. She had dreams of working in an office, having foster children, and owning a Honda.

Investigating Agency

If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:

Merced County Sheriffs Office 209-385-7444

Source Information

The Polly Klaas Foundation

California Department of Justice

The Charley Project

The Doe Network


Fox 26 News

California True Crime

Merced Sun-Star

Merced Daily

From Whispers to Roars

The Fresno Bee

Merced City News