Dora Ruth Smith was wearing only a nightgown when she reportedly left her east Florence residence late at night April 24, 1977.

She didn't take her purse, nor did she have her house key or even a change of clothes. She left her dentures behind, as well.

No one has seen her since that night 25 years ago.

The disappearance stunned the Weeden Heights neighborhood, particularly around North Weakley Street where she lived with her husband, Wilbur, a decorated World War II veteran who survived the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor. They raised two sons and a daughter there.

Legend has grown from the many rumors that have circulated since that spring day, all of which attempted to explain Ruth Smith's disappearance.

When word began spreading Thursday that police had new information that might solve the mystery, Cecilia Carroll, Elizabeth Fulmer and a couple of their friends felt a need to go to the one-story, vinyl-sided house at the intersection where Weakley Street reaches a dead end at Palm Street.

Carroll parked her Chevrolet Suburban against the Palm Street curve, making sure she and her friends had a good angle to watch forensic experts and Florence police begin digging in the dirt floor of an old,

sagging shed behind the house.

"This has been a mystery my entire life," Carroll said just before noon, about three hours after the police operation began. "I had always heard she was killed and buried back there. I've always believed that and still do."

Police began following a trail to the shed about two or three months ago. Capt. Myron Crunk, before retiring, passed on his unsolved investigation files to investigator Darron Michael and others. He told Michael about the unsolved missing persons case.

With Wilbur Smith having died in 1995, Michael and Lt. Larry Martin sought out other family members to determine if she had ever been seen or heard from since the report was filed. During the process of learning that she had not, they began hearing the many rumors that have been part of neighborhood lore for a quarter of a century.

Martin and Michael began piecing together information about the disappearance from family members, including some who believed - as Carroll does - that Ruth Smith was killed and buried under the tin roof of the shed. They were told that Smith's son was the one who reported his mother missing several days after she was last seen.

Police were also told about a letter - presumably written by Ruth Smith, who was 47 at the time - that was found four months ago in an area of a bedroom. Mike Balentine, who lives in the house now with his sister, Stacy Balentine, said he found the letter and $200 between two pieces of wood at the top of the closet. Contents of the letter, which police have not yet seen, further heightened their suspicion.

So, Michael solicited help from cadaver rescue dogs trained by Huntsville Emergency Medical Service Inc. The four dogs, trained in detecting human remains, were brought to the scene Saturday and alerted their trainers when they reached the shed.

Police later obtained a search warrant and returned Thursday morning to the shed, which is attached to a small garage in the back yard.

Three of Wilbur Smith's relatives watched from near the rear of the house as buckets of dirt were brought from the shed to sifter pans.

Carroll, Fulmer and their friends watched from their Suburban, parked 75 yards away from the site.

"We were teenagers at the time (Smith disappeared) and used to play with their kids," Fulmer said. "When she came up missing, we were all told that she left in the middle of the night. I never believed that for a minute.

"We discuss this from time to time, even today. It's been something that has remained unanswered for too long."

Carroll said she ran into a couple of guys two weeks ago who grew up a couple of blocks away on Franklin Street. Their conversation quickly found its way to the disappearance.

"One of them made a comment that she's probably been right under our noses the whole time," Carroll said. "We've all been thinking the same thing all this time."

Carroll said Smith "never had much to say and pretty much stayed to herself." She remembered her most for delivering the newspaper every afternoon.

Wilbur Smith remarried five years after his wife's disappearance, marrying a neighbor who Martin said lost her husband about five months after Ruth Smith's disappearance. They remained married for 13 years before his death in 1995.

Carroll and Fulmer had their conversation about the past interrupted by a Domino's Pizza deliveryman.

"We ordered a pizza," Carroll said. "We're going to stay here to see what happens. We've waited too long to see this solved, and we're not going to give up our spot here."

Neighbors drove and walked by the house throughout the day, some circling the house three or four times.

One woman, who appeared to be in her 20s, offered a similar opinion to that shared by Fulmer and Carroll. She said she grew up hearing the rumors.

Forensic experts hit a hard rock substance about 2 feet into their dig, prompting them to suspend the dig. Martin asked that HEMSI bring in the cadaver dogs again for another test.

The three-hour break saw unseasonably mild temperatures replaced by a chilling rain, but four more dogs were not deterred. However, only one of them alerted their trainer at the shed this time. The dog, named Fudge, actually started digging at the site.

Police used shovels to move more dirt this time. Martin said they reached nearly 4 feet below the surface in one area. However, the dig did not produce the results they had anticipated.

"We can't say she's there, nor can we say she's not," Martin said. "It would take someone coming in with a bulldozer and backhoe to dig down far enough to know for sure.

"We had hoped to be able to bring this to an end. I guess it will remain an unsolved case, maybe forever."

Carroll had a look of disbelief on her face when she was told the news.

"I can't believe that," she said. "I thought this was going to be the day we found the answers to a mystery that has been with us since we were teenagers. We've been wondering our entire adult life. I guess we'll wonder the rest of our lives."

Mike Goens can be reached at 740-5740 or mike.goens@timesdaily.com.

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