To all who enter Upper Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia, raised letters on the wall proclaim sternly: “KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT MORALITY IS VAIN.” Teachers say the inspirational message was mounted at the behest of Jay C. Smith, who was principal for 12 years. Unfortunately for the school’s faculty and students, it was not Smith’s only legacy.
For more than a year now, Upper Merion has lived with scandal and tragedy. It began with revelations in August 1978 that Smith, outwardly the respected educator, Army Reserve colonel, husband and father, had led a secret life involving drugs, sexual experimentation, even grand larceny. Still reeling from that shock, the school was stunned again last summer by the murder of a popular English teacher. The victim’s two children disappeared at the same time, and police are still searching for them. “It’s been traumatic, just unbelievable,” says school superintendent Charles A. Scott. Adds student council president Lori Hoppmann, 17: “We thought Smith’s arrest was bad enough. Now we’re ready for anything.”
The bizarre series of events began late one summer evening last year. A young couple was walking to a movie in Devon, another Philadelphia suburb, when they saw a hooded figure approaching a parked van, a gun in each hand. They called police from a pay phone at the theater. “Oh, my goodness,” Jay C. Smith cried while meekly surrendering a few minutes later. A search of his car turned up four pistols, two syringes and capsules of a powerful tranquilizer, bolt cutters, a ski mask and a football jersey with eyeholes cut into it. Later at Smith’s home police found three pounds of marijuana, a collection of sex publications and some $2,000 worth of school property. Even more incriminating was their discovery of a security guard’s uniform and a false identity card. Subsequently Smith was charged with stealing $53,000 from one Sears outlet and attempting to steal from another—each time by posing as a guard.
Smith himself offered various explanations for his behavior. He claimed he had brandished the weapons after he was menaced by teenagers whose car he accidentally scraped. His sex library, he said, was research for a book he was writing for parents on how to prevent their children from becoming homosexuals. As for some materials on bestiality, Smith explained, “If we can train animals to be Seeing Eye dogs, why can’t they be trained as sexual surrogates?” He presented an alibi for each of the thefts, but after four trials, on a variety of charges, he was sentenced to two to five years in prison.
Smith’s startling decline and fall proved merely a prelude to the brutal death of Upper Merion High School teacher Susan Reinert. Last June Reinert, 37, and her two children were seen getting into her car in front of their suburban Ardmore, Pa. home. Three days later the woman’s nude body was found stuffed in the car’s trunk outside Harrisburg. The children, Karen, who would be 12 now, and Michael, 10, are still missing, and police fear they too were murdered.
Investigation into the Reinert case has extended to another Upper Merion English teacher, William S. Bradfield Jr., 46. Her friends say the murdered woman was having an affair with him. Though Reinert, a divorcée, had written in her will that she and Brad-field planned to be married, he has denied they were romantically involved—and, in fact, he was reportedly living with another woman teacher at the time. Nonetheless, he is the major beneficiary of Reinert’s $1 million-plus estate, including real estate and nearly $650,000 in life insurance taken out shortly before her death. Curiously, Bradfield had been a key defense witness during one of Jay C. Smith’s trials, offering testimony—which the jury rejected—that he had been with the principal in New Jersey on the day of the crime.
In the wake of the Reinert murder, rumors spread through Upper Merion of Satan cults and a ritual killing—tales that police later discounted. Yet unanswered questions abound. Besides the Reinert children, authorities are also looking for Smith’s daughter Stephanie, 24, and her husband, Edward Hunsberger, 31. Both lived in the Smith household and were heroin addicts undergoing methadone treatment. Neither has been seen since February 1978. Though Smith insists the couple left for California, Hunsberger’s parents are skeptical. The Montgomery County district attorney’s office has learned that Smith cashed the couple’s welfare checks for six months after they disappeared, and Hunsberger’s mother, Dorothy, recalls a frightening phone conversation with Mrs. Smith in May 1978. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I hope Jay didn’t do those two in,’ ” Mrs. Hunsberger recalls. “I was dumbstruck.” (This summer Mrs. Smith testified at her husband’s trial that the couple had telephoned her from California in May.)
At Upper Merion High, meanwhile, administrators, faculty and students are struggling to redeem the school’s reputation. Despite its outstanding academic and athletic record, some students are embarrassed to wear school jackets outside their district. Others claim college admissions officers shake their heads at the mere mention of the school. “I don’t see how they can do that—it wasn’t our fault,” complains student council president Hoppmann. True enough, but Upper Merion’s ordeal may not yet be ended. A strike over working conditions—exacerbated by the scandals—partially shut down the school for 17 days this fall and Assistant District Attorney Lois S. Hagarty warned: “I don’t think we have the full picture yet. There are still mysteries to be uncovered.”