Let’s talk about it: Stephanie and Edward Hunsberger

This was a case suggested by a reader: the 1978 disappearances of Stephanie Hunsberger (nee Smith) and her husband, Edward Hale Hunsberger, who were 24 and 30 respectively when they vanished from Northwales, Pennsylvania on February 25 of that year.

The Hunsbergers were drug addicts and in pretty deep; Stephanie even occasionally worked as a prostitute to support her heroin habit. Both of them were in a methadone program at the time they went missing. After Stephanie missed one of her methadone clinic appointments, the staff contacted her father, Jay Smith, and asked if he knew where she was. He said he was trying to detox her himself with Placidyl (a prescription sedative with recreational uses; it’s no longer on the market) and “really good pot.” Neither of the Hunsbergers ever went back to the methadone clinic, and it was assumed they had relapsed.

After that, things get murky.

Read the couple’s casefiles for details on what a weirdo Stephanie’s father was. Suffice it to say that, although he had a doctorate and a respectable job as principal of Upper Merion High School, on his downtime he committed a series of armed robberies, and after his arrest in August 1978, the police found a TON of drugs at his house. He bonded out awaiting trial. He was later sentenced to five years.

Smith was later convicted of three counts of murder in the deaths of Susan Reinert, an employee at the school where he was principal, and her two children, Karen and Michael. Susan was murdered in June 1979, in a fairly unusual way — she was beaten severely, but she survived for about 24 to 36 hours afterwards, and the actual cause of death was a morphine overdose. Karen and Michael disappeared with their mom and the bodies were never found.

The police believed the murders were orchestrated by Susan’s boyfriend Bill Bradfield, an Upper Merion High School teacher, for money, but that Jay Smith actually committed the killings. Bradfield died while serving life in prison for the crimes. Smith (who was sentenced to death) had his conviction overturned because the prosecution had exculpatory evidence they’d unethically concealed from his defense (who claimed Bradfield had deliberately framed him). Smith died in 2009.

What of Stephanie and Edward? Well, the last confirmed sighting of them was on the aforementioned date of February 25, 1978, but there were several reported sightings of them after that, by Smith — not a credible witness perhaps — and by Stephanie’s younger sister, a neighbor, and others.

Now, Smith claimed the Hunsbergers went on the run because they owed money to drug dealers. But they left all their stuff behind at his house, including an uncashed tax return, and all those drugs which he claimed were theirs. Smith’s relationship with his daughter was understandably troubled, and he was demonstrably violent. Even if you don’t buy the story that he was a murderer, he was definitely a robber who, at the time of his arrest, was carrying multiple loaded guns and a syringe of “sedative drugs” (Placidyl?). The police consider him a suspect in Stephanie and Edward’s cases.

They definitely dropped out out sight sometime in 1978 or 1979; there were no sightings of them after that, and no one heard from them. Given the high-risk lifestyle they lead, and the lack of contact for nearly 40 years, I highly doubt they’re alive now. But who got them? Jay Smith? Drug dealers? Or just drugs? Or something else? Are their bodies perhaps listed as John Does somewhere else in the country, or do they lie undiscovered in a landfill or a shallow grave in Pennsylvania?

Let’s talk about it.

19 thoughts on “Let’s talk about it: Stephanie and Edward Hunsberger

  1. becky December 8, 2016 / 9:04 pm

    I wish somehow, through some miracle, that the kids will turn out to be alive somewhere.

    • Meaghan December 8, 2016 / 9:08 pm

      I suppose it’s possible, it just seems very unlikely to me.

      • Becky December 8, 2016 / 9:41 pm

        I agree. (And by the ‘kids’ I mean Michael and Karen, of course.) I don’t have any hope for the adults.

      • Meaghan December 8, 2016 / 10:04 pm

        Oh, I actually thought you meant the Hunsbergers. I don’t think there’s any chance at all that the Reinert children are alive. There were two beyond-a-reasonable-doubt convictions in that case, even if one did get overturned.

  2. kafkette December 8, 2016 / 11:04 pm

    no way.
    those poor little kids are gone — done in by bill bradfield, who probably didnt enjoy killing them, mind, but, after all, he did want that boat & he had no way to -sell- them, heaven forefend! & putting them quickly out of their misery with their miserable slutty slut of a mother — middle-class tacky too! — was probably better for everyone in the long run.

    *especially* bill bradfield, who was clearly worth pots of golden dozens more than anyone [if we’re honest: everyone] involved. i mean, you could have just asked him when he was alive.

    oh AWFUL, bill bradfield. ghastly, pretentious, sociopathic &, yes, murderous. jay smith, perfect fall guy, perfect patsy, easily framed, was a known eccentric with major psychiatric problems all his own — you MUST read any/all of the many books on the bradfield case.

    the drugs were likely his own, smith’s. the murders were bradfield’s — even possibly of jay smith’s adult kids, to make this utter nutball look even more culpable. elsewise, i dont know where they are. the dope fiends a rabbit hole is the best i can say. & bradfield could have bribed them easy peasy . . . . .

    fascinating story, & one of the wildest. [audrey] marie hilley is the only one i think even more unbelievable, but hers involves no missing persons [other than herself, briefly].

    • Meaghan December 9, 2016 / 1:17 am

      I did read one of the books; I think it’s cited in the Reinert casefiles.

  3. Amy December 9, 2016 / 9:45 am

    Thanks Meaghan! I think another couple things that pushed this to the forefront of my curiosity is that it happened in PA (where I live) and Stephanie & Edward’s last confirmed sighting was on my 1st birthday. My head still spins with this one and I surely am going to read “Echoes of Darkness” and hopefully get another perspective on it!

    • becky December 9, 2016 / 6:08 pm

      I want to read that book too now. I feel so so bad for the kids though. The adults were making poor decisions and associating with bad people and it’s terrible what happened to them (the Hunsburgers and Susan) but the little kids. They were just innocents. SMH like the pregnant officer in Fargo. “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?”

  4. michael w. December 10, 2016 / 5:30 am

    The Murder By The Book episode on this case is excellent (I’ll be sending it to Meaghan eventually). Tons of extra pictures and info.

    Smith getting released from prison was one of the great injustices. Upon his release, he threatened to bomb various buildings. That should have sent him right back behind bars, but didn’t. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if he was guilty of at least 5 murders, maybe more. The guy was a sick individual and I’m glad he’s dead.

    I feel so bad for Karen and Michael, they are the true victims here. Their mother, on the other hand, was a bit of a nitwit. Changing the beneficiaries from her life insurance policies from the kids to Bradfield was particularly stupid and cruel. I feel that her stupid actions are what led to her kids deaths.

    The stone representing the possible burial site has to be one of the most interesting things in any CP case file. You really have to wonder where this thing is and are the kids really buried there. Seems like it would have to be somewhere in a really remote area for it to have never been found. Or maybe someone did find it but didn’t realize the significance of it.

    That reminds me of another intriguing 70’s case: that of Cathy Moulton, who disappeared from Portland, Maine in 1971. 12 years later, a hunter found a skeleton in the woods surrounded by female clothing and the police believed it was Cathy’s remains, but frustratingly, the hunter was unable to find it again when he tried to lead police to it.

  5. Dawn December 11, 2016 / 8:20 pm

    I feel as far as the adults are concerned I would say they are very likely dead. The circumstances around them were very dangerous, not to mention the people.
    I feel calling women sluts because of sexual behavior is unfair at best, a poor parent, foolish, self involved, yes. A slut plays into a “she was asking for it” type of feeling that seems to affect women mainly.

  6. michael w. December 12, 2016 / 3:50 pm

    Hell yeah, I was telling you that Murder By The Book episode was something else. By the way, the guest host for the episode is crime author Lisa Scottoline: Some of the more damning stuff:

    -There was sand found between Susan’s toes when her autopsy was performed, but there are no beaches in the immediate area and investigators have no clue how it got there.

    -A distinctive blue comb was found under Susan’s body. Investigators found a whole box of said blue combs in Jay Smith’s house.

    -The Hunsbergers were reportedly last seen getting into Jay Smith’s car at a shopping center.

    -A button with a “P” was found in the trunk of the car where Susan’s body was discovered. It was later determined to be Karen’s, and there is even a home video of her wearing the button.

    More later.

  7. michael w. December 13, 2016 / 2:22 am

    by the way, I was going to say that Jay Smith is guilty. The man killed people. There’s zero doubt in my mind.

  8. Richard December 14, 2016 / 6:33 pm

    Hello Meaghan,

    First: sorry for my noy so perfect English. I hope you will get the message anyway…

    Following your work for about 5 years now and it’s fair to say you got me very much interested in missing person cases.
    I think you have a nice way of writing down your thoughts and ideas.
    And since you have done a lot owriting over the years., i think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start thinking about writing a whole book of yourvown!?
    I for one would be amongst the buyers.
    Think about it…….realy think you would do an excellent job!!!!

    Once again,warm greetings from the Netherlands,


  9. Nanette April 29, 2018 / 4:47 pm

    While Smith was a creep, it’s pretty obvious Bradfield used his arrest to divert attention from himself. Why would he incriminate his hitman in the months before the murders? I don’t think Smith was involved in the Reinert murders. Believing he was involved is pretty much the only reason to believe he was involved in his daughter’s disappearance.

  10. Mr. X May 27, 2018 / 6:30 pm

    Jay Smith and Bill Bradfield are both guilty. I would not be surprised if Bradfield had one of his ‘friends’ as an accomplice. The children are dead, as are the Hunsbergers. May they all rest in peace. Unfortunately Joseph Wambaugh the true crime writer, helped get Jay Smith’s prison conviction overturned. Smith claims he’s innocent, but this is not true at all.

    • Felix August 8, 2018 / 2:20 pm

      Joanne Aitken. No alibi for weekend of Reinert murders.

    • Sam August 18, 2019 / 7:22 pm

      Jay Smith: Pure evil. Plain & simple

  11. Ready June 9, 2021 / 12:56 am

    Ditto the earlier comment on why Joanne Aitken has never been questioned further. I’ve read 4 books on this case. She is the one key person out there I feel has information to share but she’s apparently always been defiant or uncooperative.

    Not only did she not have an alibi for the weekend if question of the murders but she may in fact have been driving Bradfield’s car across country (knowingly or unknowlingly) with the children’s bodies inside. Pure speculation but has never been discounted.

    I really hope someone within law enforcement can get some honest and true information from her, but she’ll likely lawyer up. More so I think the press stays away from this angle for fear of potential character defamation lawsuit from her. She could be possibly the last individual with key relevant information on what truly happened to the Reinert children. God Bless their souls. I was the same age as them living close by in another part of the Main Line and remember those dark days in the late 1970s.

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