John Smith, convicted of murdering his first wife and suspected in the disappearance of his second, had charges against him dropped in exchange for details about her death a former FBI agent investigating the case says are likely untrue. 

Smith, 73, was sentenced in 2001 to life in prison in Ohio for killing his first wife, Janice Elaine Hartman, days after they divorced in 1974. In 2019, he was indicted on murder charges in the disappearance of his second wife, paralegal Fran Smith, who was last seen alive in September 1991. 

Former FBI agent Robert Hilland told Dateline NBC the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office dropped those charges against the convict in exchange for details on how and where he disposed of her body, a decision he called a “failure.” 

“Shame on them for accepting,” Hilland said of the agreement. “Now they’ve given him immunity based on that.”

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Fran’s sister, Sherrie Davis, told the program prosecutors “hung [their] family out to dry” and that Smith’s claims about what he did with Fran’s body did “nothing” for them.

Hartman’s body sat, decaying and dismembered, for decades in a wooden box in the garage of Smith’s parent’s home and was then buried in what Hilland described as a “Jane Doe grave.” 

Although Smith gave prosecutors an account of what he did with Smith’s body last year, the office acknowledged “recovery” would be impossible given how much time had passed since her disappearance in a statement to Dateline.

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“In negotiating the non-prosecution agreement, Smith would not admit to the murder but would agree to tell us what he did with her body,” a spokesperson for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office said in an email.

Investigators long suspected Smith was responsible for the disappearance of his wives but had no evidence to convict him. Their luck began to change after approaching Diane Beasly in 1998. The single mom had no idea her boyfriend had been married twice before, let alone that both women had disappeared, according to reporting by The Sun. 

John Smith

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Beasly, who was living in a Connecticut beach house Smith owned, agreed to cooperate in the investigation against her boyfriend.

“Her whole world was upside down,” Frank Barre, a detective with Connecticut’s Milford Police Department, told Dateline. 

In a recorded call, Beasly confronted Smith about his relationship with Fran and asked if she was dead. He replied that, because he didn’t know where she was, “they think I might have hurt her,” according to audio obtained by Dateline. Smith also told his girlfriend he’d only learned recently Hartman had been reported missing and had never been found. 

When she asked whether he’d lied when police gave him a polygraph test, Smith replied, “I failed it,” and he admitted he “lied during the test,” according to Dateline.

But Smith denied making his comment about the polygraph test when Hilland spoke with him in person the next year. He had moved to suburban San Diego, remarried and was working for a carmaker, according to Dateline. 

“I pulled out the tape recorder, hit play and John could hear in his own voice all those things that he had said,” Hilland said about playing the taped conversation between Smith and his girlfriend. 

When he heard the recording, Hilland said, Smith “turned beet red and shrugged his shoulders.”

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Janice Elaine Hartman

“I don’t know what happened to Fran. I just know she isn’t dead. If she’s dead, she’s probably in heaven,” Smith told investigators, according to Hilland. 

The hours-long interview ended when Smith told investigators he was having a heart attack. But days later, Smith’s brother made a confession that blew the case wide open. 

In exchange for an agreement that barred prosecutors from charging him, the brother revealed he had removed her legs and placed her body in a large plywood box. Smith’s father discovered the box’s horrific contents in 1979. But, according to Hilland, the family didn’t tell authorities for decades. 

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The brother saw a crying Smith place the box in the garage in November 1974. When Smith’s grandfather opened it five years later, he found a woman inside missing her legs and with rainbow-colored hair, a detail authorities attribute to clothing deteriorating in the box with her, according to Dateline. 

“The grandfather said, ‘If we call the sheriff, this is gonna cause your grandmother to die,’” Hilland recalled the brother saying.

john smith during hearing

Instead, the brother said the family called Smith, who took the box away in the passenger seat of his Corvette.

Smith’s brother agreed to speak with him in another recorded phone call. Smith described the box as a “joke,” saying that someone had dropped it off with a dead goat inside, according to Dateline. 

When the brother told Smith he “had nightmares where Jan chased [him] down the road [and] beat [him] with her legs,” Smith simply replied, “OK.”

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The box was later found by a road crew in a drainage ditch, Hilland said.

The unidentified corpse was exhumed in 2000, and DNA tests confirmed it was Hartman. Six months later, Smith was charged in her killing. 

Although Hilland said he organized multiple excavations at Smith’s workplace in New Jersey and his Connecticut beach home, Fran’s body was never found. Undercover informants at the prison where Smith was incarcerated were unable to yield any evidence. 

Although there was no new evidence, Mercer County prosecutors approached Hilland at the FBI Training Academy in Virginia where he worked in 2019 and said they believed they had sufficient evidence to charge him in Fran’s death.

“It was the state’s position that, in 1991, Smith believed he had a successful blueprint to get away with murder and followed his 1974 playbook but corrected the only mistake he made in the murder of Janice Hartman — keeping her body in a place where it would be accidentally discovered,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement at the time.

But, in 2022, a judge ruled a jury could not hear evidence about the murder of Smith’s first wife, according to NJ.com. One spousal murder did not prove another, Mercer County Judge Peter Warshaw said at the time, and introducing it as evidence could unfairly sway a jury. 

In a last-ditch effort to provide closure to the second wife’s family, prosecutors made their agreement. His statement regarding Fran’s body was never publicized. But her daughter, Deanna Childers, told Dateline he claimed he wrapped the woman’s body in a blanket and left it in a dumpster at his former workplace in New Jersey. 

Hilland, who retired from the FBI in 2022, said it was unlikely Smith left Fran’s body there. The area had heavy foot traffic, he said, and the body would easily be noticed. 

The former agent told Dateline that because he cooperated with prosecutors — although he didn’t make a full confession or provide corroborating evidence — he may have a better chance of release on parole in 2029.



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