Anita Drake was 15-years-old when she mysteriously disappeared from her home in Nimishillen Township, Ohio. It was October 1963, and Drake was never seen again. And up until just a few months ago, the case had remained the oldest unsolved missing-persons case in Stark County.
The Minnesota missing link
But in 2016, a woman named Danna Smith Casey stepped forward with some life-changing information.
The first clue was a name change.
Casey lived with her dad, Samuel Smith, in Texas before coming to Minnesota. He died of lung cancer in 2010, the same disease had already taken her mother, Lynda Smith, in 1994.
Casey was an only child and in settling her father’s affairs in 2010, she discovered a lock box with documentation of a name change. Anita Drake became Lynda Smith on Aug. 6, 1971. Lynda Smith (a.k.a. Anita Drake) was Casey’s mother.
“I was 4 maybe going on 5 [years old],” Casey said in an interview with CantonRep.com. “My mother would’ve been 23 because she was 18 when I was born. ”
The documented name change was registered through the juvenile courts, which was rather odd given Smith’s age at the time. It also may have been the reason why this information had been buried deep in bureaucracy for more than half a century.
She didn’t know much, but she knew her mother’s birthday.
But Casey knew her own mother’s birthday.
“That was the one thing she was open about—her birthday,” Casey said.
“She was never straight with me about where she came from or anything like that.”
Her mom had told Casey that her parents were killed in an auto accident. “She told me she ran away to avoid becoming a ward of the state because she’d been orphaned,” Casey said.
One thing seemed to be very clear to Casey.
“I think she told [my dad’s] family that to keep people from looking,” she explained. “Everything that she did and said about who she was and where she came from, it seemed to be designed to keep herself from being found.”
Debby Drake Ralston, Anita’s sister and one of ten other siblings, was 9-years-old when her sister disappeared. She remembers Anita telling her and some friends that she was going to run away.
“I wanted to go with her,” said Ralston. “I knew pretty much everything that was going on. She left for very good reasons: Everything that was going on,” including a relative who was abusing Anita.
Escape at 15
On her 15th birthday, Anita came home late after celebrating with some friends.
Ralston rememberss she was not late by much, but when Anita came home their dad yelled, cussed, and beat her with a belt.
“After that, we talked about half the night,” described Ralston.
It was the following day after riding the bus home from school that Anita shared with her sister that was going to run away.
“She said, ‘I’m going to leave today,’” explained Ralston.
“I said I wanted to come with her, but she said she could cover for herself, but she couldn’t cover for a kid.”
Their parents reported to authorities that Anita was missing, but Ralston did not let anyone in on her sister’s secret. She believes that Anita got a ride with a friend who traveled with a magic show.
Gossip ran wild and speculation was anything and everything. What seemed to surface was the belief that Anita was abducted and murdered. Murdered, it was thought, by a family friend.
Ralston said that the suspected truck driver’s wife, Lynda Lee Tucker, was Anita’s best friend, and is the same name listed in her birth registry as being Danna Casey’s mother.
Ralston and her friends knew Anita ran away, but they kept their secret vow.
“We all vowed to take it to our graves because it was really important to her,” said Ralston.
Anita did call her sister two times in the years to come, once in 1971 and again in 1975.
Anita told her sister that she had changed names multiple times, but would not tell her what those names were. Anita also refused to disclose her location.
“She wouldn’t tell me where she was because she didn’t want to put me in a position where I was nailed down to tell,” said Ralston.
“She apologized for not coming back to get me, and she told me she was married and that she had a child.”
Ralston began to share her story only after the friends who had vowed their secret pledge to Anita had all passed away, but also because she learned that Casey, Anita’s daughter, was investigating her past.
Casey lived with her parents near Dallas, Texas and never did they let on to anything from her past that would cause her to question anything regarding her origin. That is, until her mother got sick.
“When my mom got sick, I think she wanted to start reconciling with her family,” Casey recalled. “She did tell me a few things, but by this time, I was skeptical. This was when she was sick. I didn’t really pressure her for a lot of information because she had chosen to fight the illness and I wanted her to put her energy into that.”
Casey said that during that time her mother shared with her that Virginia was the name of her own mother.
“Her mother’s name was Virginia, her father’s name was Kermit,” Casey explained, and added, “and that her grandparents —Virginia’s parents—were Roscoe and Beulah Thompson, and that Roscoe was a minister. She said Linda Boyd is a friend of hers.”
Linda Boyd was actually Anita Drake’s older sister. Virginia and Kermit Drake were Anita Drake’s parents.
In March of 1994, at the age of 45, Casey’s mother died after six months of battle lung cancer. When Casey’s father died 16 years later, never disclosed his wife’s past, as was her request.
Knowing that the cancer her mom had lost her life to was hereditary, and then having discovered information about the name change motivated Casey to begin a personal exploration of her mother’s past.
She found nothing immediately via internet searching. Meanwhile, she had let it go temporarily, got married, and moved to Merrifield, Minnesota.
In 2016, however, she discovered something online when she Googled “Anita Drake.”
Unknown to Casey, she read that her brothers and sisters had submitted DNA samples in October of 2013 to a Texas-based lab.
Those samples were being examined closely by Delaware authorities trying to find a match for human remains that were those of Anita Drake. Those test results were registered with the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s NamUs or National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database. The purpose of that database is to help researchers match missing persons with their identity.
When Casey pressed “enter” to open the article explaining the request made by the Drake family, there she was. “It was my mom,” Casey said, referring to an aged black-and-white photo of a young woman with a smile.
“I just went into shock … She had the face of my mother.”
“You don’t mistake something like that. You know the face of your mother. It was my mom. She had the same facial features… Big almond-shaped eyes, long nose, dimples… Even the dimples are the same.”
Connecting the family dots
Immediately, Casey made a phone call to the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, who connected her with Roger Drake, Anita’s younger brother. It was 1 a.m. and Roger answered.
Casey began sending him pictures through her phone to Roger; pictures of her mom. They had been taken long after Roger’s sister had disappeared, but the connection had been made, and affirmation was soon to follow. “The picture that she sent me is Anita! It’s unmistakable,” said Roger.
Casey has since submitted DNA samples from her to the same Texas-based lab that has the Drake family’s DNA. Was there a match? Yes, the mystery has finally been officially solved and is listed as such on the Located and Identified persons list from The Doe Network.
Danna Smith Casey, a woman from Minnesota, had stepped forward in 2016 claiming that her mother was Anita Drake, more than 50 years after Drake had gone missing.
Casey submitted her DNA to a federal lab in November 2016, providing the opportunity to verify her claim scientifically.
The DNA results have taken nearly a year to analyze, but the results have confirmed Casey’s claim, and the mystery has been solved.