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WASHINGTON — The young mother didn’t know it, but her 3-year-old daughter was just the victim Joshua Adam Smith was hunting for.

“Sara,” a stay-at-home mom, had been cautious when it came to vetting a baby sitter, wanting to get to know the person who would be caring for her child.

Smith seemed like the perfect candidate. He had the credentials: Eight years’ experience, he claimed, and an education in child development. He was an Air Force staff sergeant with a security clearance — one of their own in the American military community in Kaiserslautern, Germany. He said he was a parent himself.

More than that, Smith had become her friend. Before Smith even laid eyes on her daughter and her 17-month-old son, Sara had struck up a regular conversation with him on Facebook, finding him to be a normal guy who seemed like a great father. Later, on walks, over lunch and at the park with the kids, the two shared intimate details of their lives.

Sara thought they were close. But Smith’s true nature was hidden far from sight. Sara said she never suspected that the unassuming man who felt like family would turn out to be a serial child molester who would victimize her tiny daughter.

“How can you really know someone’s deepest, darkest secrets?” she said recently.

Sara’s story (her actual name is being withheld to protect her daughter) is the kind of nightmare that shatters every parent’s sense of security. She agreed to share it in the hope that no family who reads it will fall prey to anything similar.

****

Sara first encountered Smith last February, after she placed an ad seeking child care on a popular website for military families in the Kaiserslautern area.

A review of Smith’s postings on the website showed that he had become a regular presence, advertising himself as someone with a wealth of baby-sitting experience who was educated in child development and CPR-certified. He told prospective clients he missed his own kids who lived in the States and wanted to help other families.

The fact that he was a male baby sitter — a red flag for many parents — he deflected with good-natured jokes. Sure, his coworkers teased him for baby-sitting, he told Sara in an e-mail.

“Even though I babysit for most of them, lol, I know their (sic) just messing with me,” he wrote.

Sara was apprehensive about finding a sitter, but Smith immediately put her at ease, assuring her in an e-mail that he knew what she was going through. As a parent himself, he said he understood it was “hard to find someone you can trust with your children.”

The conversation continued on Facebook: Smith and Sara would talk every time they saw each other on the site.

Soon, Smith visited Sara’s home. She said he didn’t have much to say in the way of adult conversation. Insead, he turned his attention to the children.

“He was very interactive and assured me that he wasn’t the type to just stick them in front of the TV and go in the other room,” Sara said.

Smith reassured her with talk of how he believed young children needed to be molded with developmental activities such as songs and reading that would teach them shapes, colors and numbers.

In a final attempt to close the deal, Smith told her that he knew military families didn’t make as much money as they deserved, so he would only charge $5 per hour—or whatever she could afford to pay him.

Sara said she thought she had “struck gold.”

****

By the time Smith persuaded Sara that she should hire him, he had been living alone in Germany for nearly two years after a stay at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. According to information that came out in court, Smith’s wife had left with their son in early 2008, going back to the U.S. to be with family after suffering a miscarriage; they later had another son.

Smith was isolated from his own family back home in Michigan, having had no meaningful contact with his parents, five brothers or younger sister since joining the Air Force nine years earlier.

Outside of his job as a communications and navigation systems technician with the 86th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, he liked to play video games on the computer. But alone at the screen, Smith spent much of his time looking at child pornography, a habit he developed when he was 12, investigators learned.

He knew his desires were wrong, but he didn’t start to care until he got married and his wife was pregnant with their first child. He told investigators that he wondered what would happen if they had a girl.

Still, he was glad for the freedom that his wife’s departure granted him. He could more easily turn his sexual fantasies about children into reality.

It took him more than a year to act, but he eventually tapped into the tight-knit community of military families in Kaiserslautern.

He trolled the ads on the community website that sought baby sitters, finding Sara and others. At one point, he posed as a woman named “Yvonne” to provide himself with glowing references.

When one mother decided not to hire him, he sent her an instant-message as Yvonne, vouching for his reliability as a great baby sitter. The mother decided to give him a chance.

Eventually, Smith lined up baby-sitting jobs with three families that had young girls.

****

Smith worked nights at Ramstein Air Force Base. A few days a week after getting off work, he would head to Sara’s house to watch her son while she went to the gym with a friend.

Smith mostly looked after the boy; Sara’s daughter went to a German preschool and only stayed with him about eight or nine times.

He began to insinuate himself into their lives beyond the hours he baby-sat. He would stay for lunch when Sara got back, and they chatted nearly every day on Facebook. The two started meeting up even when he wasn’t baby-sitting to go on walks or to the park.

Smith let Sara do most of the talking. When she spoke of the struggles she was having with her kids, like potty training, Smith echoed her with stories about his own sons.

He empathized with her troubled marriage: His wife had gone home to Nebraska for a visit and then decided not to come back, he told her. He was likely to get divorced.

”I was going through a lot of marital problems at the time and it was just so nice to have someone to listen and be on my side,” Sara said.

To Sara, the two of them were forming a close bond. But while she was buoyed by his friendship, he was living out his worst fantasies in her home.

****

Not until after Smith was arrested in April did Sara learn that their friendship had been part of a carefully constructed ruse to lure her and other parents into trusting him with their daughters.

“I felt betrayed,” Sara said. “It would have been a little different if he was just the baby sitter, but he was my friend.”

It would come out at his court-martial for child molestation in November that Smith was a pedophile with a proclivity for girls of grade-school age or younger, especially those under 5. Sara’s 3-year old was a prime target.

A psychologist hired by Smith’s defense called his sinister plot one of the most elaborate schemes to find victims that he had ever seen.

He testified that Smith operated under a faulty belief system: He had convinced himself that the children were enjoying his abuse because they cooperated with him.

During his psychological evaluation, Smith said that his sexual involvement with a child would not have occurred if the child hadn’t been overly affectionate. He also said he believed his problem wasn’t sexual. He just really loves children, Smith said, and prefers their company.

In court, Smith said that he knew what he had done was wrong. He said he became disgusted with himself for giving up his own family to live out his fantasies.

“I didn’t know how to stop it,” he said.

When he was finally caught after a 7-year-old victim told her parents what was happening, Smith confessed to authorities within 20 minutes of being interrogated. Smith told the judge he deserved a life sentence.

At one point during the court-martial, Smith veered from his prepared remarks, turning to Sara and the other parents who had testified about being afraid to touch their children for fear it might trigger bad memories.

“Don’t stop loving your children because of what I did,” he said.

Later he told Stars and Stripes that he realized from his discussions with the psychologist that the hardest part for parents is wondering about what happened. He wanted to encourage them to move on with their lives as families and not focus on the past.

“If you’re not affectionate with your kids, they’ll think they did something wrong — and they didn’t,” Smith told Stars and Stripes through his lawyer.

****

Smith admitted he subjected three young girls, ages 3, 4 and 7, to anal and genital penetration and photographed and videotaped them during sex acts. The prosecution said he took what were essentially trophies from his victims: locks of hair and underwear.

Smith pleaded guilty in November to 18 criminal counts of child molestation and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, the maximum punishment possible.

Before she found out that Smith had molested her daughter, Sara said she would have recommended him wholeheartedly. She never had any reason to be concerned about her children when they were in his care.

“Even if there was a background check done on Josh and I had exhausted all his references and more,” she said, “I wouldn’t have found anything.”

Sara isn’t sure what her daughter remembers about the abuse. She added that the ordeal has affected her own actions more than anything.

“I walk on eggshells every day with the way I treat her,” she said. “Sometimes when I kiss her or tickle her, it makes me think: Did he do this to her?”

Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Svan contributed reporting from Germany.

mccloskeym@stripes.osd.mil

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