North Huntingdon native's disappearance leaves parents waiting for answers
Donald and Linda Smatlak have found a way to move on with their lives in the 12 years since their son Donny disappeared.
Time takes the sharp edges off the pain, but then something — a rumor or a phone call — brings it back into sharp relief.
Finding a way to cope with a missing child is one thing. Learning about that child’s secrets — secrets that may have contributed to his disappearance — is quite another.
“I guess we were the naïve parents. You live and learn,” said Linda Smatlak, 61, of North Huntingdon. “There were probably signs that we kind of blew off.”
The last time mother and son spoke was Jan. 28, 2006, a Saturday. He told her he was going to Delmont to visit a friend. She called him back to invite him to Sunday dinner, but he didn’t pick up or return the call.
“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” she said.
Donny Smatlak, then 25, never showed up in Delmont. His parents went to his North Versailles apartment that Sunday but found no sign of him.
Two days later, they got a call from his Delmont friend, telling them he never arrived and asking if they knew where he was.
“After I hung up, we called the police and put in a missing person report,” his mother said.
North Versailles police Detective Scott Kucic has been on the case from the beginning and still considers it open, but with all leads exhausted.
“This case still haunts me. I think about it almost daily,” Kucic said. “I have a file on my desk that’s 6 inches thick.”
Kucic said he interviewed about two dozen people, all of whom gave different reasons for why Smatlak is missing.
“There’s really nothing substantial as to why he disappeared. There’s all sorts of speculation,” he said.
Smatlak, who would be 38 today, grew up in North Huntingdon, the older of two sons. He attended Norwin schools and was active in sports for a time. After graduating from Norwin High School in 1998, he studied criminal justice at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg.
He didn’t pursue a career in law enforcement, instead taking a job at the North Versailles Giant Eagle and moving out of his parents’ basement and into his own place.
Linda Smatlak said she started noticing something wrong while Donny was in high school. Something else, something inexplicable at the time, took his attention away from football, track and soccer.
She now believes that her son began smoking marijuana and, later, selling it. No mother likes to think of her son as a drug dealer, but the conclusion, for her, was inescapable.
“There was another side to Donny that we didn’t find out about until after he disappeared,” she said. “Pretty much, you hope it’s not true.”
The Smatlaks believe Donny’s disappearance had something to do with the drug activity — whether licit or illicit, they don’t know. Linda Smatlak wonders whether her son’s interest in police work prompted him to become a confidential informant.
“What he got into, he probably got into it because somebody approached him. When you’re younger and stupid, all you see is dollar signs. I believe that Donny was trying to get out of it, and the reason that he’s no longer here is ’cause they wouldn’t allow him,” she said.
Kucic said he has no information to suggest that Smatlak was a confidential informant.
A friend of Smatlak’s who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons said Smatlak was a regular marijuana user who developed a reputation over time as a seller.
“It was much larger than I even knew about after the fact,” he said. “He was probably way advanced in that world when I was a sophomore in high school.”
The man, who knew Smatlak from middle school through age 24, said Smatlak was not a bad person but probably got involved with drugs because of anxiety.
“He wasn’t some street thug type of guy,” he said.
The man said he knows of at least two occasions when Smatlak was robbed at gunpoint. Smatlak’s disappearance, he said, could have to do with a disgruntled customer, a competitor, a drug-using girlfriend or a major connection he had in Ohio.
“I think he got his foot in the door with marijuana, but that led to other things,” he said, noting that the Ohio connection resulted in more money but was short-lived.
The man said Smatlak had more money than would be expected of someone working at Giant Eagle. “I saw Don pull out wads and wads of money,” he said.
Later, when police searched Smatlak’s apartment, they found a large sum of money in a safe, his parents said. He also kept money with a contact in Jeannette, Kucic said.
“He was only working at Giant Eagle at the time, so it made you wonder,” said his father, Donald, 62.
About a week after Smatlak’s disappearance, his car, a Mazda 3, was found parked at Meyran Avenue and Louisa Street in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland. Police took the car in, searched it and took fingerprints but found nothing of significance, Linda Smatlak said.
Smatlak had two cellphones, and police determined that he used one of them to call his mother from his Logan Road apartment on Jan. 28, she said.
In the years since Smatlak’s disappearance, his parents have stayed in touch with North Versailles police. As recently as a year ago, they gave updated contact information to investigators. Police were able to obtain a DNA sample from a hair brush.
Kucic is convinced that Smatlak’s history of drug activity is “very pertinent” to his disappearance. “I think that’s what this is all about,” he said.
But information about Smatlak’s whereabouts, or whether he is dead or alive, remains elusive.
“I don’t know who to believe or what to believe,” his mother said. “All kinds of things go through your head. Believe me, we’ve had plenty of years to think about it.”
The parents wish someone would come forward with more information.
“None of the stuff that we have heard from so-called friends are things to help us find him,” Linda Smatlak said. “They’re just things to tell us that he’s not who you thought he was. I don’t want to know that. ... I like to hang onto my hope.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.