Feb. 25, 2011 -- When a California woman could not account for her husband's whereabouts, police and the FBI started digging up the couple's backyard, where they have found human remains that may be the missing man's corpse.
The wife is now a "person of interest" in the case, police said.
Neighbors in Novato, Calif., had not seen Dale Smith -- who was 74 and in poor health -- for months, so they expressed concern to his wife, Evelyn, 55.
"He just disappeared. We'd ask his wife and she'd say he was off fishing. We kind of wondered," says John Bauer, who lives across the street from the Smiths.
The neighbors in the town a little north of the Golden Gate Bridge lived with their doubts for six months, and their doubts were strengthened when they saw work being done at the Smith home.
"One of the neighbors was kind of nosey. She looked over the fence and saw this hole being dug," Bauer said.
Dale Smith was described by neighbors as a feisty Cajun who was a retired carpenter and had always been a do-it-yourselfer.
"It was way out of character for him. She told us she wanted to build something to put her barbecue on," said Terry Smith, another neighbor who is not related to Dale and Evelyn Smith.
About two weeks ago a neighbor filed a missing persons report, according to Lt. John McCarthy of the Novato police, and officers stopped by the house on Rebecca Way, a quiet, middle-class cul-de-sac, to ask Evelyn Smith how her husband was.
"Our patrol officer spoke to his wife," said McCarthy, and when the officer was unable to verify information provided, he returned to the home, only to be told that Mrs. Smith had hired a lawyer.
"Through her attorney she indicated that the residence and rear area of the yard would be of special interest to us," McCarthy said.
Cops brought in cadaver dogs, whose findings were inconclusive. Police then turned to an FBI Evidence Recovery Team.
On Wednesday night, "they did find what they believe is human remains," McCarthy said, and the yard has been declared a crime scene. "We haven't positively identified the body yet," he said.
No one has been arrested, but "Mrs. Smith is a person of interest," he added.
The Marin County sheriff's coroner wil conduct an autopsy once the body is removed, which police believe will be later today.
Evelyn Smith's lawyer, Hugh Levine, did not return a call seeking comment. But he told the San Francisco Chronicle that Dale Smith suffered from heart disease and bladder and esophageal cancer and could have died naturally. He pointed out that it is a misdemeanor to dispose of human remains improperly.
Terry Smith, who lives next door with his wife Rebecca, said the husband had always been active, though recently his health problems had slowed him down.
Body Under the Patio: Murder or Just a Burial?
He was last seen in the street in August riding in a small pickup truck driven by his wife.
When the digging began this week and remains were found, neighbors weren't really surprised, says Bauer, an ex-cop. "All the handwriting was on the wall."
"Everybody's digging for something sinister," said Terry Smith, but he suggested that the explanation for the backyard burial may turn out to be more benign. "It may have been his wish. He lived in that house for 40 years and was very house-proud."
He added that Evelyn Smith was "a bit nutty," but "she had cats...she was really good to her pets."
"It is an odd story, but to this point we don't know how odd," the police lieutenant said.
"This is the kind of thing you see on TV," said Terry Smith. "It happens to somebody else."