Found: Minister's Wife Created New Identity

Mary Byrne Smith vanished after pawning her wedding ring in March.

ByDAVID SCHOETZ

July 30, 2007 — -- An Alabama teacher, mother and minister's wife who disappeared four months ago from a religious women's conference in Louisiana has been found working at a fast food restaurant more than 1,400 miles away.

Authorities successfully tracked down 30-year-old Mary Byrne Smith, who was using an alias, in an undisclosed upstate New York location, Capt. Mike Halphen, chief of police in Bossier City, La., announced Monday.

"She decided she wanted to be a different person in a different place," Halphen said. "People have their reasons for wanting to start a new life, and that was her choosing."

The missing woman tipped off investigators to her whereabouts when she requested that a copy of her teaching certificate be sent from the Alabama Department of Education to a New York state address.

Smith's discovery by police came just days after investigators released surveillance photos showing her at a Louisiana pawn shop in March, where they say she sold her wedding ring to buy a bus ticket to flee town, leaving the friend with whom she was attending the religious conference.

From the outset, police suspected that Smith, the mother of two, left on her own. She had recently lost her teaching position at an Alabama elementary school after a drug test in February showed that she was abusing prescription drugs. Smith was ordered by Alabama school officials to take the test after a string of suspicious behavior, according to police, including complaints from other teachers that she was arriving at work under the influence and an incident in which she fell and hit and her head inside the school.

Halphen would not disclose exactly why Smith left her family, but said that authorities -- after interviewing her for nearly 20 hours -- encouraged her to contact her husband and children immediately.

No charges will be filed against Smith, Halphen said, because she didn't break any laws. "[The children] were warm, safe, taken care of," Halphen said, "so there was no abandonment on the children's part as far as criminal charges go."

From a police perspective, the four-month investigation now comes to a close. While Halphen said authorities were happy to find the woman, he also acknowledged that Smith's disappearance put an unnecessary burden on his department.

"It's bittersweet," Halphen said. "We spent a lot of time looking for this person and all she had to do is make one phone calls saying she's OK."

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