Friends and family are mourning the death of a University undergraduate student, while Canton Township and Belleville police are attempting to piece together the events that led to the woman’s tragic murder.
LSA senior Jessica Smith, of Canton Township, was last seen by her mother, Anne Winter, on Saturday afternoon.
The last moments the two shared were filled with laughter. Winter recalled talking to her daughter about their plans for the Easter holiday and then seeing her daughter leave for Ann Arbor to finish working on a class project.
“She was telling me about something that had happened at work, and we were laughing at that, and we were laughing at how the dog was obsessed with her perfume,” Winter told the Daily.
It would be the last time she shared a laugh with her daughter, who reportedly never made it back to Ann Arbor that night. Smith’s body was found the next day, Sunday, in a Days Inn motel in her hometown by one of the motel’s housekeeping workers.
News reports state that Smith had been shot five times, once in the neck, shoulder, and back with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, and twice in the head with a .22-caliber handgun.
Smith had been studying computer science at the University and was planning on graduating in December. Her mother described her as someone who was adventurous and outgoing, someone who “thought the best of everyone” and loved animals.
“At Christmas time, she and I went out to Domino’s Farms to look at the lights, but they don’t have them any more, so she was like, we’ll just go find some more, and we just drove around,” her mother remembered. “She just had a big sense of adventure – if one thing didn’t work out, she’d go find something else. She was always encouraging me to do new things.”
Her mother added that though Smith had not always been the best of students, she had worked hard to turn her grades around. Working with math and computers was in her genes – her father, Ron Smith, is a computer programmer – and she was enrolled in a computer graphics class that she particularly enjoyed.
“She did not do too well in the beginning of her career, but she had really turned around,” Winter said.
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson encouraged students who were close with or knew Smith to talk to a friend, family member, psychologist, or resident advisor about the incident.
“Any time there is a death in the community, there may be students who are close to that person. Grieving is something that is very natural,” Peterson said. “Consulting with someone you are close to, such as a friend, parent, or a professor, is a good idea.”
Engineering junior Samuel Serrano – a friend of Smith’s – said Smith had messaged him from her mother’s home in Canton before she left. Smith told Serrano that she was on her way to Ann Arbor to work on a group project.
Canton Township is approximately 20 miles from Ann Arbor. Police are still investigating how, within those 20 miles, Smith ended up at the Days Inn and not in Ann Arbor.
Reports made over the last several days have weaved a bizarre tale.
According to the reports, Canton Township police believe that Smith was murdered by Belleville resident Thomas Copperstone, a 47-year-old man who had rented the hotel room where Smith’s body was found. The Ann Arbor News reported that Smith and Copperstone had dated at one time, but the Detroit Free Press reported that neither of Smith’s parents had been aware of any relationship between the two.
But Copperstone’s body was found Monday in Lima Township, which is near Canton Township. Police believe he committed suicide Saturday night after killing Smith, shooting himself with the 9mm semiautomatic handgun. A 22-caliber handgun was also found near the body.
Reasons for the alleged murder-suicide are still unclear, but a letter given to Canton Township police by Copperstone’s brother may provide some answers.
According to the news reports, the letter, written by Thomas Copperstone, accused Smith of shooting his handicapped daughter in November 2001. The daughter, April, would now be 19 years old. Belleville police reports state that the girl’s mother, who does not live in Michigan, had reported her missing several times in the last two years.
The letter stated that Smith had allegedly been playing with the gun near his daughter. Copperstone told Smith to put the gun away and then left the room. He returned after hearing a gunshot to discover that his daughter had been shot in the forehead.
Smith allegedly told Copperstone the shooting had been an accident, but Copperstone did not believe her, the letter said.
The letter stated that Copperstone did not report the death to police because he was afraid Smith would try to blame him. Instead, he buried his daughter in a fruit cellar in his home and then walled the room off with concrete. The letter swore Smith would pay for the shooting.
Although the letter stated April had died in November 2001, the Free Press reported on Wednesday that Copperstone’s neighbors had last seen April playing in the yard about six months ago.
Canton Township Police Capt. Alex Wilson told the Ann Arbor News on Tuesday that he did not know how much of the letter said was true.
The Daily could not reach Wilson or other officers working on the investigation for comment Wednesday. Officers at the Canton Township Police Department said the detectives and officers working on the case had been out of the office all day in order to investigate the Copperstone’s Belleville home and to look for the missing daughter.
Authorities in Belleville held a press conference Wednesday at 6 p.m. During the press conference, they announced that officers searching Copperstone’s house did discover a body believed to be April’s.
Belleville Police Chief Paul Davis told Ann Arbor radio station WAAM that the location of the body was consistent with the location described in Copperstone’s letter. A Detroit WXYZ-TV broadcast stated that April had been shot with the same .22-caliber handgun used to kill Smith.
A funeral mass for Smith is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church in Canton. Smith will be cremated following the service.