An Indiana Family Still Wants Answers In A Young Man’s Mysterious Death

The family of Joseph Smedley, who was found dead in a lake in 2015, still want answers about a mysterious text message and a backpack full of rocks.

The 2015 death of Joseph Smedley, pictured here, was ruled a suicide despite his family disagreeing with the ruling.

The family of Joseph Smedley, who was found dead in a lake in 2015, still wants answers about a mysterious text message and a backpack full of rocks.

Photo by: Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from ID's "Still A Mystery")

Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. (Screenshot from ID's "Still A Mystery")

Enrolling at Indiana University - Bloomington was a fresh start for Joseph Smedley in 2014. The latter part of childhood and his teenage years had been fraught; his parents divorced when he was in third grade and his mother moved to St. Thomas. He tried living with each of his parents but found it difficult to get along with either of them after the divorce.

In 2012, when he was 16, Joseph became legally emancipated and moved in with a close friend while finishing high school.

The admission to IU Bloomington two years later was a relief to his sister, Vivian, and his father. College was good for him — with structure, friends, and independence, Joseph flourished. He was still estranged from his father, but Vivian passed along the news of Joseph’s success.

The Phone Call

The person on the other end of Vivian’s phone on Sept. 21, 2015, was Joseph’s old landlord. Vivian had cosigned a lease for her brother, and the landlord was calling to collect a $680 fee for ending the lease early. Joseph was planning to drop the check off with the landlord on Sept. 28. Vivian reminded her brother on Sept. 27 that he needed to pay the landlord by noon the following day. He assured her he would.

The Text Message

When Vivian awoke on Sept. 28, she had a strange text message from Joseph saying that he was leaving the country in order to protect her. The message asked her not to call, instead promising that he would be in touch as soon as he was settled.

Vivian assumed it was another one of Joseph’s pranks — he didn’t even have a passport — and she texted back with another reminder to pay the landlord. Phone calls to Joseph went to voicemail, but she didn’t worry until she found out from the landlord that her brother had never been by to pay what he owed.

IU Bloomington police conducted a welfare check and found that Joseph hadn’t attended classes that day and he wasn’t at his home. The rising panic was briefly quelled when police called Vivian to tell her that her brother was in jail, but it was just a clerical mistake. The next day, Sept. 29, Joseph was declared to be a missing person.

The Lake

Just two days later, a fisherman on Griffy Lake in Bloomington found the badly decomposed body of a male with binoculars tied around his neck. It was Joseph, and an initial autopsy report listed his cause of death as drowning.

Two months later, the completed autopsy had a shocking determination for cause and manner of death: suicide by drowning. Not only had Joseph’s body been in the lake, he had apparently been weighed down with a backpack full of 66 pounds of rocks.

The explanation, however, made no sense to Vivian. There was no indication that her brother was depressed or suicidal. There weren’t even that many rocks available at Griffy Lake — she tried to collect 66 pounds of rocks herself and couldn’t find enough. In order for the suicide-by-drowning theory to work, it meant Joseph would have needed to walk 45 minutes from his house, load a backpack full of rocks, and then step off a bridge into 5 feet of water. Joseph was 5 foot 7 inches tall and could have easily stood on the bottom of the lake.

The explanation for Joseph’s death makes no sense to the family, but police in Bloomington have apparently closed the case, saying in 2016 that they have not been asked to provide further investigative assistance.

For more mysterious cases like this one, stream Still A Mystery on discovery+.

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