By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers
A local dentist serving a life sentence for killing a Clovis woman is considered a “person of interest” in connection with four unsolved homicides in Oklahoma, according to a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigators.
Jessica Brown said Saturday that agents are investigating whether James Smith is connected with the deaths of four women in the Lawton, Okla., area. She also said he is not the only person being investigated in the case.
Smith, 38, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in connection with the December 2005 slaying of Laura McNaughton, 30, a single mother and waitress who was sexually assaulted, strangled and beaten. Hunters discovered her naked body in a rural county ditch.
Lawton, Okla., is about six hours from Clovis. The unsolved killings spanned 1999 to 2002.
The bodies of the women, all known to have worked as prostitutes in the Lawton area, according to OSBI, were found nude near rural county roads in various stages of decomposition.
“We have looked at him (Smith) and are in the process of doing that — the book is not closed on him,” Brown said.
Brown said investigators periodically receive tips on the unsolved slayings from the public.
Brown declined to discuss ties Smith may have had to Oklahoma or a timeline that might place him there.
Court records indicate Smith was a student at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, which is about an hour and a half northeast of Lawton, Okla. The dates he attended were not listed in court records.
Brown said it’s routine for officials to look at “other people that have been arrested for similar crimes,” when investigating unsolved homicides.
Officials would not say if a search warrant that remains sealed in the Smith case could be connected to the Oklahoma cases.
In November, a search warrant was served at the Clovis home of Smith’s parents. Filed in Curry County Magistrate Court, the search warrant remains sealed under order of Judge Richard Hollis until either an arrest is made from the evidence found as a result of the warrant or until a judge lifts the seal.
District Attorney Matt Chandler said FBI agents served the warrant with the assistance of local law enforcement agencies.
Chandler would not comment on what police were looking for, what was found in the home, or what prompted the search.
Brown would not discuss the Clovis warrant, but said it is customary for FBI assistance to be requested in investigations that cross state lines.
Oklahoma FBI officials said they were not aware of an investigation involving Smith and FBI in New Mexico did not return calls seeking comment.
Brown said OSBI investigators, to her knowledge, have not interviewed Smith. She would not comment on future plans to do so.
“At this point in time we’ve run out of most of our leads on that individual (but) we continue to get leads once in a while,” she said.
Calls to Smith’s parents and Mark Earnest, the attorney who represented Smith in the McNaughton homicide case, were not returned on Friday or Saturday.
Maria Beardmore, McNaughton’s mother who lives in San Diego, said she is aware of the Oklahoma investigation and is familiar with the unsolved homicides. But she said investigators have not provided her with much information.
Lawton, Okla. homicides
The unsolved homicide cases span 2 1/2 years, beginning in 1999. According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigators Web site, the women all lived in Lawton, Okla., which is located about an hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City. Police said the women were known to work as prostitutes based on prior police records.
Police said there were no obvious signs of trauma to the bodies though in some of the cases decomposition made it difficult to determine cause of death.
Lawton was the last known location any of the women were seen alive. Their nude bodies were found in rural county areas surrounding the city.
The body of 29-year-old Jane Chafton was discovered Aug. 13, 1999, in Velma, Okla., in a remote area of Stephens County. She had been missing for four days.
Two months later, 25-year-old Cassandra Ramsey disappeared from Lawton. Her skeletal remains were found five months after her disappearance on March 22, 2000, near a bridge along a rural road in Jefferson County.
Mandy Raite, 25, disappeared from Lawton on June 15, 2000. Her body was discovered two days later in a rural area of Comanche County, Okla.
The body of 29-year-old Janice Buono was discovered Feb. 23, 2002, in Comanche County, Okla., more than two months after she was last seen.
OSBI spokesperson Jessica Brown said investigators are also looking at the death of a fifth woman with similarities to the others but have not determined if there is a connection.