The family of a Los Osos woman who went missing for six days said she was “only yards away” when a sheriff’s deputy responded to a report of blood discovered in a workshop at a remote North Coast ranch the day after her wrecked truck was found.
But no search was done by the deputy, and she wasn’t found for an additional four days.
Suzanne Kay Smith, 59, returned home Sunday after spending a week in Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.
“She’s resting,” her niece, Amy Smith-Gardiner of New Zealand, said Monday. “Physically, she’s probably about 50 percent.”
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“Inaction on several fronts” by the Sheriff’s Office led to “my aunt almost losing her life,” Smith-Gardiner and other family members said in a news release Monday.
Smith was arrested Sept. 6 on several felony charges of burglary and one of inflicting injury on an elder. That injury, according to a neighbor of Smith, was not physical, but mental suffering caused by the taking of an elderly victim’s belongings.
Smith was released from County Jail early Sept. 7. She packed her small truck and left home Sept. 8, telling a neighbor she “needed to go sort out my head.” She was reported missing the afternoon of Sept. 10.
About 6:30 a.m. Sept. 11, her truck was discovered near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. It had been in a crash, with its front end creased as though it had run into a pole, with one wheel crimped up against a wheel well. It was undriveable.
The CHP had the truck towed that day to Cambria and reported the abandoned truck to the Sheriff’s Office.
Because of what it termed “an internal breakdown in communication,” the Sheriff’s Office did not connect the finding of the truck to Smith’s disappearance.
The next day, Sept. 12, Smith-Gardiner said Monday, Jim Gowdy discovered “quite a lot of blood” in a workshop at the ranch he leases near San Carpoforo, about nine miles north of where Smith’s truck was found.
A sheriff’s deputy responded, according to Smith-Gardiner’s account, but no search was done.
Investigators responded to a report of a burglary at the ranch, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said Monday.
It was determined nothing was taken, and the person who called in the report said the blood could have come from one of his workers and that he’d check with them, Cipolla said, adding “we never heard back.”
The search for Smith began in earnest the afternoon of Sept. 14, after her brother discovered a notice in the mail saying her car had been towed. Searchers did not discover Smith that day or the next near the lighthouse, and the search was called off about 1:30 p.m.
On Sept. 16, Gowdy heard calls for help coming from the barn adjacent to the workshop, where he’d found blood four days earlier, and discovered Smith.
In their statement, the Smith family said it “wishes to extend their sincerest and heartfelt appreciation to those who volunteered in the one-day search. Jim (Gowdy) is a true hero.”
The family added that they “are seeking legal advice” concerning how the search for their aunt and sister was handled but have not yet retained an attorney.
Smith has said she caught a ride from the crash site to where she was found, Cipolla said, and “made a concerted effort not to be found. She admitted concealing herself under a tarp and blankets.”
Even if searchers had looked near her truck, Cipolla said, they never would have extended the search as far as nine miles.
“While we could have done better,” Cipolla said, “It’s hard to find somebody when they’re trying not to be found.”