Joseph Smedley was attending IU in 2015 when he mysteriously died after sending a strange text message to his sister.
Joseph’s sister has announced that she has wrapped a project with Investigation Discovery to bring more attention to her brother’s case. Could a petition to re-open the case of Joseph Smedley’s suspicious death finally give his family the answers they have been seeking for nearly a decade?
In September of 2015, Joseph William Smedley II was a 20-year-old sophomore biochemistry major at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana, when he disappeared and was later found dead in a lake near the school’s campus. Prior to his death, Joseph was a good student—getting As and Bs in his freshman year—who was interested in a career as a pharmacist, and he had recently joined the Sigma Pi fraternity.
Before attending IU, Joseph played trombone and wrestled in high school, and he was close with his older sister, Vivianne. One of his friends described Joseph as someone who “... sent ‘positive vibes’ wherever he went and had a number of close friends.” She also said he was “... extremely intelligent and a great friend to have.”
When Joseph went missing
Joseph’s sister, Vivianne, was the one who reported him missing on September 28, 2015. At 4:15 that morning, she received a strange text message from Joseph’s phone stating that he loved her and that he was planning to leave the country. The text also said she should not try to contact him, but he would get in touch after he was settled overseas. At first, she thought he might be joking, but when he didn’t respond to her attempts to reach him, she got worried and contacted the police.
When investigators spoke with Joseph’s roommates (who were also his fraternity brothers), the roommates claimed to have last seen Joseph late the night before, on September 27, 2015. According to their story, they went to Griffy Lake with Joseph to try to see a lunar eclipse called a “blood moon,” but due to cloud cover, they couldn’t see much and returned to their fraternity house. The roommates said that everyone went to their separate rooms before midnight, and that was the last time they saw Joseph.
A search of Joseph’s room at the frat house revealed that most of his possessions were still there, but his cell phone was missing. There was also a handwritten note with a message similar to the cryptic text Vivianne received, stating that Joseph was leaving the country and his roommates shouldn’t try to contact him. The note was signed “Smedley,” which Joseph’s frat brothers said they usually called him.
After seeing the note, Vivianne stated that she didn’t think it looked like Joseph’s handwriting. She noted that it appeared to be written by a left-handed person, but Joseph was right-handed. It is also notable that Joseph did not have a known passport at the time, so international travel would have been difficult. In addition, according to Vivianne, it was out of character for Joseph to skip out on responsibilities such as his college studies and the rent payment he owed on a previous residence for which Vivianne had co-signed.
The day Joseph’s remains were discovered
Around 7 pm on October 2, 2015, a couple of fishermen found a body in Griffy Lake (also known as Griffy Reservoir), which is approximately 3 miles north of the IU campus. The next day, law enforcement officials confirmed that the body was Joseph Smedley. His body was found face-up in water that was only about 3 feet deep, floating approximately 10 feet from shore, with more than 60 pounds of rocks in a backpack strapped to his chest.
After a brief investigation by police and an autopsy, the Monroe County coroner ruled that Joseph’s cause of death was drowning and his manner of death was suicide. A toxicology report showed that Joseph had both THC and alcohol in his system at the time of his death. Police did not at the time (and still do not) believe foul play was involved.
In contrast, Vivianne and other loved ones did not then (and still do not) agree with the coroner's determination. For one thing, Vivianne thought it was odd that Joseph could have drowned in such shallow water because he was a strong swimmer. She also asserted that it is not uncommon for cases in which the victim is a person of color to receive less media coverage and fewer investigative resources than cases of white victims—a factor that could have potentially contributed to how her brother’s death was treated.
There’s also the fact that Joseph’s Twitter account profile displays this description: “If found dead in police custody, it wasn’t suicide.” It’s unclear when the description was posted or by whom, but if Joseph himself published the message, did he have reason to suspect he might be a target, or was it merely an eerie coincidence?
Where the case stands today
The case is considered closed by law enforcement, but Joseph’s family has not given up their fight for justice and answers. The family recently raised more than $10,000 via GoFundMe to hire an attorney and a private investigator to continue looking into the circumstances surrounding Joseph’s death.
Part of their work includes enabling a forensic pathologist hired by the family to complete a second autopsy. His initial findings showed hemorrhaging in Joseph’s back that did not seem consistent with suicide, but the pathologist cannot finalize his report without more information from police files. So far, the Bloomington Police Department has refused to cooperate with the family’s requests for information.
An interesting note about the Sigma Pi fraternity that Joseph had pledged: As of April 2021, the IU chapter was suspended until at least August 2023 for “... hazing, endangering others, dishonest conduct, and failure to comply with university and county directives …”). There’s no evidence that Joseph’s death had anything to do with his involvement in the fraternity, but the recent pattern of disregard for basic safety by the fraternity chapter is noteworthy.
As of September 2021, there was a $1,000 reward for any information leading to the re-opening of Joseph’s case. There is also an active petition to re-open the case, which anyone can sign by visiting Joseph’s page on change.org.
Anyone with information regarding Joseph Smedley’s death should submit a tip via the “Justice for Joseph” Facebook page or by contacting the Bloomington Police Department at 812-339-4477.