A day after the Florida Department of Children and Families took custody of Dale Smith Jr.’s young twins, a judge ruled that the children must be returned to their father, who is the only suspect in the disappearance of his ex-fiance.
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Michelle Parker, 33, has been missing since Nov. 17, when she was last seen dropping off her 3-year-old twins with Smith around 2 p.m., shortly after an episode of “The People’s Court’’ involving the couple had aired. Smith, 40, was named as the prime suspect by Orlando police in the case Monday. Tuesday afternoon, his children were removed by the state.Video: Attorneys: Timeline clears ex-finance in missing-mom case (on this page)
Joe Iuzzolino, an attorney for the Florida Department of Children and Families, told the judge that Smith had displayed abusive and criminal behavior on multiple occasions since 1992 that included him striking Parker in front of the children in 2009.
But with no evidence that Smith had abused the children, Turner wasn't persuaded that they should be removed from his care. The children have been living with Smith and his parents since the 33-year-old Parker disappeared.
"I don't think incidents that happened years ago constitute a pattern," the judge said.
Smith’s attorneys, Mark NeJame and Rajan Joshi, told TODAY Wednesday that they were not told why exactly the children were removed from his home by the Department of Children and Families. The 3 1/2-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, were reportedly questioned by police and stayed overnight with Parker’s mother. An emergency custody hearing was then set for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in juvenile court.Story: Missing woman's sister: 'I'm not surprised' ex is a suspect
As to Parker's disappearance, the judge said: "I can speculate like everyone else what's happened to Miss Parker. But there's no evidence."
Parker's mother, Yvonne Stewart, wiped away tears after the hearing and said that they would work with Smith and his attorneys to figure out a plan in which she could visit the children. She briefly hugged Smith after the hearing.
"I hugged Dale to tell him that my grandbabies — I want to be able to see them," Stewart said. "And I hope we can work something out because they're so important to me and my family. He said he would work it out with us."
Around the time of the hearing, authorities used divers, boats and a K-9 unit to search the lake. It's close to the last location Parker was known to use her cell phone.
Smith’s attorneys believe that time constraints made it impossible for Smith to have been involved with Parker’s disappearance. A time-stamped video showed Parker at Smith’s home at 3:18 p.m. on Nov. 18 and by 4:30 p.m., Smith was at his father’s home, NeJame claimed. Parker’s Hummer sport utility vehicle was found abandoned by police on the other side of town from her home with decals from her mobile tanning business removed from the windows. Smith couldn't have killed Parker, disposed of her body, driven across town to drop off one vehicle, scraped off the lettering on her car and returned to his father’s home in just over an hour, according to NeJame.Video: Missing mom’s sister ‘not surprised’ ex is suspect
“If you run a timeline on this, it’s physically impossible for him to have done what is being suggested,’’ NeJame said.
Smith has not been told why he is the primary suspect in the case, according to his attorneys, and has refused to take a polygraph test.
“They haven’t given any specifics, and to our knowledge there’s no evidence other than conjecture and speculation,’’ NeJame said. “You have the basic reason — because he refuses to take a polygraph. Most people should not take polygraphs. They’re not even reliable, (and) not one court in the country accepts them as reliable.
“We watch so much trash TV thinking that polygraphs are the end-all and be-all (about) whether someone is telling the truth.’’
Lauer asked Joshi if Smith was assisting authorities in their search. “Not right now, but he was very cooperative in the beginning,’’ Joshi said. “He actually talked to them three times. It seems like his cooperation is actually working against him.’’
Smith’s troubled past has come to light in the wake of Parker’s disappearance. In 1996, Smith joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and in 2001 he was court-martialed and found guilty of drug and domestic battery charges. He was dishonorably discharged as a private in 2003. In the 1990s, he was charged with burglary, trespassing and aggravated battery, but was only convicted of battery, serving 10 days in jail. His second wife, Shannon, died of what was ruled an accidental drug overdose.
In 2009, Parker attempted to obtain a restraining order against him, but it was not granted due to lack of evidence. The episode of “The People’s Court’’ in which the two appeared to dispute a $5,000 engagement ring illustrated a tumultuous history, as Parker alleges that Smith has a drinking problem and had put his hands on her in a violent manner. Smith has put all of that behind him, said his attorneys.
“The one thing about Dale Smith is he has changed his life around,’’ Joshi said. “He is now working, a productive member of society, he is taking care of his children, (and) paying child support. Ever since the mother has been gone, he has been a wonderful father to the children, very caring, and actually has been wanting to have people come in and look for her.’’
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