Janice Hartman death: John Smith convicted for first wife's murder had charges dropped for second wife's after deal with FBI

Janice Hartman death: John Smith convicted for first wife's murder had charges dropped for second wife's after deal with FBI
John Smith's first wife Janice Hartman's corpse was found in 1980 (Ohio Department of Correction; NBC/screengrab)

Warning: This article contains a recollection of crime and can be triggering to some, readers’ discretion advised.

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY: In the wake of Fran Smith's vanishing in 1991, a tangled web of deceit and tragedy began to unfurl, leading to shocking revelations spanning decades.

John Smith, aged 73, found himself entangled in a web of suspicion when authorities uncovered his previous conviction for the murder of his first wife Janice Hartman in Ohio, a crime hidden until investigations into Fran's disappearance began to shed light on his past.

Despite Fran's body never being recovered, New Jersey prosecutors took action against her husband five years ago, charging him in connection to her presumed demise.

What followed was a surprising turn of events, prosecutors opted to drop the murder charge against Smith in exchange for information deemed dubious and unreliable by both Fran's family and a retired FBI special agent, Robert Hilland, who dedicated years to the case.

“This was a failure on the part of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office,” Hilland criticized. “They hung our family out to dry,” echoed Fran's sister, Sherrie Davis. However, The prosecutor's office defended its decision, citing limitations imposed by the court on crucial evidence presentation, which they argued would “paint Smith as a bad husband but not a murderer.”

“They acknowledged their understanding of how we were proceeding and, although disappointed in the outcome, did not express any criticism at that time,” the spokesperson stated.

Fran Smith's disappearance exposes John Smith's troubled past

Fran's disappearance on September 28, 1991, triggered a chain of events revealing Smith's troubled past. Investigations unearthed his previous marriage to Hartman, whose disappearance in 1974 remained unresolved until shocking revelations emerged. Detectives discovered eerie similarities in Smith's accounts of both wives' disappearances, fueling suspicions of foul play.

Smith's tangled web of lies further unraveled when his long-time girlfriend, unaware of his marital history, confronted him about Fran's disappearance in a recorded call. The suspect conveyed that he didn't believe Fran was deceased, but due to his lack of knowledge about her whereabouts, he stated, "they think I must have hurt her," as heard in the audio recording, reported NBC.

When she asked about Hartman, he recounted their divorce and his report of her disappearance, noting, he had only just learned that she'd never been found, according to the audio. When questioned about his honesty during a police polygraph test, he admitted, "I failed it." In response to a follow-up query, he confirmed, "Yes, I lied during the test," maintaining the same tone as heard in the recorded conversation.

John Smith's brother reveals startling revelation of Janice Hartman's murder

The breakthrough in the investigation came when Smith's brother, spurred by a sense of moral duty, disclosed chilling details to the FBI. In return for an arrangement preventing prosecutors from pursuing charges, the sibling disclosed an incident from November 1974 when he witnessed Smith with a large plywood box in a garage adjacent to his grandparents’ Ohio residence.

Smith, visibly distraught, was observed by Hilland, according to the brother, placing what he believed to be Hartman’s clothing inside the box. The sealed box remained untouched in the garage for five years until Smith’s grandfather pried it open, revealing what the brother described as Hartman’s remains, as recounted by Hilland, who concluded his service in 2022.

John David Smith II kept his wife's body in a box (Superior Court of Mercer County)
John David Smith II kept his wife's body in a box (Superior Court of Mercer County)

Hartman's body showed signs of decomposition, including the absence of her legs and rainbow-colored hair, which authorities later attributed to clothing dye seeping onto her body, as noted by Hilland. Haunted by the discovery, the sibling refrained from disclosing the information for years, as recalled by Hilland, citing pressure from their grandfather.

“The grandfather said, ‘If we call the sheriff, this is gonna cause your grandmother to die',” Hilland recalled the sibling narrative. Following the revelation to Smith, he promptly arrived at the grandparents' residence, retrieved the box, and drove away with it in the passenger seat of his Corvette, as relayed by the brother to officials. Smith's alleged involvement in Hartman's disappearance led to the grim discovery of her remains and subsequent conviction for her murder. 

Further, Smith faced indictment for first-degree murder in November 2019, following the presentation of evidence by prosecutors to a grand jury concerning both Fran's disappearance and Hartman's homicide.

“It was the state’s position that, in 1991, Smith believed he had a successful blueprint to get away with murder and followed his 1974 playbook but corrected the only mistake he made in the murder of Janice Hartman — keeping her body in a place where it would be accidentally discovered,” the prosecutor’s office alleged.

Prosecutors drop murder charge against John Smith in exchange for information

However, in 2022, the statement indicated that a judge intervened, preventing prosecutors from presenting evidence related to Hartman's murder, citing concerns about potential jury bias. Faced with the imminent dismissal of charges, prosecutors opted to strike a deal with Smith.

Given that Fran's body had never been recovered, the statement noted that the prospects of obtaining new evidence and securing a successful prosecution appeared “minimal.” To offer some semblance of closure to the family, prosecutors decided to drop the murder charge in exchange for Smith disclosing the whereabouts of Fran's remains.

According to the statement, the prosecutor's office did not insist on corroborating evidence to support Smith's account, acknowledging the impracticality of recovering evidence given the passage of time since Fran's disappearance. Furthermore, Smith was not required to divulge the specifics of how he had caused Fran's demise.

"In negotiating the non-prosecution agreement, Smith would not admit to the murder but would agree to tell us what he did with her body," the spokesperson stated in an email. According to the statement, prosecutors relayed Smith's disclosure to Fran's family but refrained from publicly disclosing the specifics.

Deanna Childers, Fran’s daughter, informed that officials informed them of Smith's confession, alleging that he wrapped her mother’s body in a blanket and disposed of it in a dumpster at his workplace in New Jersey. Fran's sister, Davis, expressed disdain for the notion that the deal brought closure to her family, considering it an affront. She rejected Smith’s narrative, asserting that the information provided did “nothing” for her family.

Robert Hilland condemns deal's lack of confession and evidence

The FBI veteran Hilland, voiced outrage over the deal's lack of requirement for a full confession or supporting evidence. He cast doubt on the plausibility of Smith leaving Fran’s body in a factory dumpster, given the likelihood of detection by numerous employees.

Hilland highlighted the abundance of circumstantial evidence implicating Smith in Fran’s presumed murder, citing instances such as his admission of lying to the police during questioning. He criticized prosecutors for granting immunity to Smith based solely on his account, asserting, “Shame on them for accepting” it, adding, “because now they’ve given him immunity based on that.”

Moreover, Hilland speculated that Smith's cooperation might bolster his prospects for parole during his next hearing in 2029, emphasizing the potential ramifications of providing authorities with information.


The episode 'Chameleon' of 'NBC Dateline' covering Smith's murder cases premiered on Friday, April 26, and was streamed on Peacock and Hulu the following day.

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