Dateline NBC: How was the Lady in the Box murder case solved? Details of Janice Hartman's disappearance explored

Janice Hartman
How was the Lady in the Box murder case solved? (Image via NBC)

The latest Dateline episode brought to light the mysterious disappearance of Betty Fran Gladden in 1991 and the murder of Janice Hartman in 1974. The latter, which infamously came to be known as the Lady in the Box murder case in Indiana, led to the conviction of her husband, John Smith, in 2001.

The investigation led officials to an unidentified box of dismembered remains, which was discovered in 1980 by a roadside ditch in rural Indiana. The FBI identified that the remains belonged to Janice Hartman two decades later after John Smith's second wife, Fran, went missing under similar circumstances.

Smith had reported his first wife, Hartman, missing two days after their divorce. He was charged with her murder and in 2001, he was sentenced to 15 years to life behind bars, as per NBC News.

The Dateline NBC episode titled Chameleon aired on April 26, 2024, on NBC and will be available to stream on Peacock on April 27, 2024. The official synopsis reads:

"A woman goes missing; investigators uncover her husband's chilling history."

How did Janice Hartman go missing?

Janice Hartman and John Smith eloped in 1970 and got married when they were 19. However, the couple's marriage was reportedly riddled with physical and emotional abuse, per Michael Fleeman's The Stranger in my Bed. The college sweethearts were fresh out of high school when they tied the knot and the two eventually returned to suburban Ohio.

According to Murderpedia, Hartman's brother took note of their abusive marriage upon his visit. Moreover, a Daily Mail UK report claimed that after filing for divorce in 1974, Hartman began working as a go-go dancer and this enraged John Smith. Fleeman wrote about the same and mentioned in his book:

"She was working out of his control – you know, showing herself off in front of other men. Just days after the divorce, another argument erupts. This one’s not just yelling, not just hitting. But in the end, Janice ends up dead."

The two got divorced on November 14, 1974, and three days later, Smith reported her missing. As per NBC News, John Smith mentioned in the missing persons report that he believed Janice Hartman had taken off to Florida with a red suitcase.

Where were Janice Hartman's remains found?

In the spring of 1980, a few road workers discovered a wooden box along the side of a 20-foot roadside ditch. The box was about 53 inches in length and was found lying next to a cornfield in rural Indiana, as per Fox News. The stretch of road was reported to be relatively uninhabited and a common dumping ground for bodies, per the Wooster Daily Record.

Inside the box lay the mummified and dismembered remains of a woman along with a crucifix wrapped in clothes. The Indiana Police Department was notified about the same and the body was buried in Morocco, Indiana as 'Jane Doe,' as per ABC News.

How was John Smith arrested for Janice Hartman's murder?

After the disappearance of John Smith's second wife, Betty "Fran" Gladden-Smith, in October 1991, investigators picked up the case surrounding Janice Hartman's disappearance as well and started interviewing people linked to Smith. The FBI and the West Windsor Police Department tracked down Smith's brother, Michael, who had held a dark secret for years.

In 1974, Michael had spotted John building a plywood box allegedly meant for Hartman's belongings after her disappearance. However, he found the same box in their grandfather's gas station while cleaning five years later and his grandfather pried it open to discover what appeared to be Hartman's remains, as per NBC News.

According to the publication, Janice Hartman's legs had been cut off from the knees and her hair was dyed in rainbow colors from the bleeding colors from the clothes inside the box. Smith's grandfather had ordered Michael to keep the matter within the family when John discarded the box along the Indiana roadside, where it was eventually discovered in 1980.

The remains in question were later exhumed from a cemetery and identified as Hartman in April 2000. Months after the identification, Smith was charged in the case, as per NBC News, He pleaded not guilty and was later convicted before he was sentenced to 15 years to life behind bars.

Catch the latest Dateline episode streaming on Peacock on April 27, 2024.

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