He died 3 years ago; his family only found out last week

YORK, Pa. — They called Anthony Wayne Smith "Tiger," as in Tony the Tiger. He was a free spirit, the kind of person who didn't like to be tied down by people, possessions or anything. He was a rolling stone.

He was born in Hagerstown, Md., on Aug. 10, 1964, the youngest of Donald and Mildred Smith's six children. When he was 9 or so, the family picked up and moved to Oregon, where Donald Smith found work in a lumber mill. They moved back east, to Shrewsbury, Pa., after the father died unexpectedly in 1974.

Tiger was an ornery kid, his sister Cindy Tracey said. He was always picking on his older siblings. He was the baby, so he could get away with anything.

He dropped out of Susquehannock High — school apparently wasn't for him. He worked a couple of jobs in restaurants — he was a prep cook, a good cook, his sister said — and left home at 17.

He had no real plan. He just took off, traveling wherever he felt, getting a job once he got there. He went to California, Florida and points between. More often than not, his family wasn't sure where he was. He'd just up and go, his sister said.

He would come home every five years, on Christmas Eve, when he would make his special pizza for his family. It was just a box mix — Chef Boyardee — but he had a way of doctoring it up so it didn't taste like pizza from a mix. It was always good.

He wouldn't talk much about his travels, just saying he'd been in, say, California, or Florida, or wherever. He'd just show up, and it was like he had never left. His family wouldn’t hear from him for five more years, then all of a sudden there he was, joking around and making people laugh, just being easy-going Uncle Tiger.

He wouldn't stay home very long. Sometimes, he'd stick around for as long as a couple of years. But then he'd take off again. One day, you'd know where he was and then he'd just up and disappear.

He only ever owned two cars, and neither one for very long. He mostly hitchhiked, or biked, or walked. He just couldn't stay in one place for very long. It was just how he liked to live. He was free. 

In 2008, he had been living in Hagerstown for a while when Christmas came around. His niece, Cindy's daughter Lee Ann Turnbaugh, picked him up and brought him to the family's home in Shrewsbury. In February 2009, he disappeared.

His family didn’t think too much of it. That's what he did.

He was in touch with his older brother in 2009 and into 2011, using a friend's cellphone to call. He was in Virginia Beach, Va., he told his brother. He was OK.

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene hit Virginia Beach. After that, his family heard nothing. They were kind of worried; they hoped he weathered the storm and came out OK. And it wasn't that unusual to not hear from him for years.

Christmas Eve 2014, his sister became more worried. It was the five-year mark, and Tiger hadn't come home. 

His niece began searching. It wasn't easy. Tiger flew well under the radar. He didn't have a driver's license. No car registration. Nothing. And a search of ancestry.com came back with 3 million Anthony Smiths.

She found his last known address on a website, but it was a York address, and they knew he had been in Virginia Beach. And, the way Tiger was, if he didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be found. He could be anywhere.

Then, last week, she found an Anthony W. Smith on a website called TruePeopleSearch.com. It listed his last known address as York and had a couple of old addresses in Hagerstown and New Freedom.

And the website said, "Deceased Oct. 2014. Age 50."

His family was hoping it was wrong, that the website made a mistake or had confused Tiger with another Anthony W. Smith.

Lee Ann got on the phone. She figured he had to be in either Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia. She checked with Maryland's Department of Vital Records, and the department couldn't tell her anything. She checked the York County Coroner's office and was told they had nothing on him.

Then she called the medical examiner's office in Virginia Beach.

The woman she spoke to told her that Anthony Wayne Smith had died on Oct. 27, 2014. The cause of death was undetermined.

She called the police department and was told that the detective who handled the case had retired and that one currently in charge of those kinds of cases was on vacation.

Lee Ann found a five-sentence news report on a TV station's website. It said a body had been found in a wooded area near a boat ramp on Owl Creek in Virginia Beach. The TV station didn't identify the body. It reported that authorities did not suspect foul play. There was no follow-up story.

She learned that the medical examiner's office, after failing to find next of kin, sent her uncle's body to a local funeral home, which cremated him. The funeral home published a short obit, hoping to find someone to come forward. Nobody did, and after 120 days, the funeral director disposed of the ashes.

The family is upset that the authorities in Virginia Beach couldn't locate them and that it took nearly three years for them to find out what happened to Tiger.

"We don't want other families to go through what we went through," Cindy said. "I know, Tiger died three years ago, but to us, it's new. It's as if he just died." 

Last Saturday, Lee Ann and Cindy drove to Virginia Beach, hoping to learn more about what happened to Tiger. They met a woman from the funeral home who gave them details. The woman took them to the spot on the beach where the funeral home had scattered his ashes, casting them into the ocean at sunset.

They visited the boat ramp by the woods where his body was found. They could see a path into the woods, but since it was posted no trespassing, they did not venture into the woods, the location of a homeless camp.

The woman from the funeral home told them where they might find some of Tiger's friends, other homeless people. They brought care packages to hand out to the homeless —sandwiches, chips, bottled water and such — knowing that Tiger was homeless himself and thinking they could do some good in his memory.

They drove to that area and approached a man sitting under a tree by a gas station, telling him why they were there.

The man said, "You know who I am."

Lee Ann and Cindy were confused. They didn't know who he was.

The man said, "I'm Big Country."

Then they knew. Tiger had used Big Country's cellphone to call home back in 2011.

Big Country told them that Tiger was well-liked in the community, that he liked to party, that he was a funny guy and got along with everybody. He told them he was happy. They all called him Viking. It was a perfect nickname, Lee Ann thought, capturing her Uncle Tiger's wandering spirit.

Tiger had told Big Country that should he pass, he wanted his ashes scattered in the ocean. He liked the water and the outdoors. He didn't like being cooped up.

Tiger got his wish. 

The family has begun working on a memorial service for Tiger. Someone suggested having it in a church. Cindy said that wouldn't be right. Tiger wouldn't have wanted that.

The service will be outdoors, near the water. 

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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