Missing Alabama Minister's Wife Found Working at Fast-Food Restaurant in New York

The wife of an Alabama minister missing for more than four months has been located by police unharmed and working under an alias at a fast-food restaurant in New York state, authorities said Monday.

Louisiana police located Mary Byrne Smith alive and well in New York state on Friday. The 30-year-old kindergarten teacher had been working under an assumed name at a fast-food restaurant.

"We know it’s her," Bossier City Police Chief Mike Halphen said at a press conference Monday. "She did not want us to disclose the reasons why she left, and she did not want us to disclose where she is living."

She does not face criminal charges, he said.

"People have their reasons for wanting to start a new life and that was her choosing," Halphen said. "And again, we encouraged her very, very hard to contact her family and at least talk with her children and we believe that she will."

Police were able to trace Smith to New York after the Alabama Department of Education notified authorities that she had applied for a copy of her teaching certificate. She knew detectives were looking for her and expressed remorse, authorities said.

Last week, officials released images from a pawnshop security tape that showed Smith selling her wedding ring on the morning of March 24, the day she disappeared from the CenturyTel Center in Bossier City.

Police said Smith then caught a ride to a Greyhound bus station in nearby Shreveport, La.

"She had the amount of money she sold her wedding ring for and asked them 'How much this will get me?' and 'How far away will this much money get me?' and it was New York," Halphen said.

Officials have said all along that they believed Smith — the wife of the Rev. Jason Smith of the First Baptist Church in Summerdale, Ala., and mother of two children — left of her own volition.

"We felt from the beginning that she did walk away, but at the same time, as police officers we have a duty to make sure that we do everything we can to find the person," Halphen said. "There’s been a lot of recent news of women disappearing and bad things happening to them, as well as people disappearing and not wanting to be found — so you have to work it from both ends."

Smith seemed to be plagued by personal problems in the months leading up to her disappearance, police said in April.

Last December, she told staff at Elsanor Elementary School, where she worked in Robertsdale, Ala., that she had divorced her husband, when in fact she hadn't.

Bizarre behavior — such as a suspicious fall, reporting her purse stolen although it was later found in her desk and making inquiries about obtaining prescription pain medication — led school administrators to believe she might be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Halphen said in April.

A school-mandated drug test in February came back positive, and administrators dismissed Smith, effective at the end of the 2006-2007 school year.

The following month, Mary Byrne Smith drove more than seven hours to Shreveport, La., with a friend, Jenny Gipson, to attend a two-day women's religious event led by evangelist Beth Moore.

They attended the conference on March 23 and 24 at the CenturyTel Center, where they heard Moore and other speakers talk about living a life of spiritual victory by growing in one's faith in God.

Smith disappeared around 11 a.m. March 24 after telling Gipson she was going to the concession stand and the bathroom. Gipson reported her missing that afternoon.

At the time of the event, some 30 police officers were stationed in the arena to help control the approximately 14,000 people who attended the conference, leading police to believe it was unlikely she was abducted.

Police now know that Smith traveled to a nearby pawnshop to hock her wedding ring, and then hitched a ride to the bus station.

Bossier City police used dogs, helicopters, airplanes and boats to search the area in the days following her disappearance. Halphen said the search cost thousands of dollars, but that Smith wouldn't be responsible for those charges as she hadn't done anything wrong.

"She did not break a law," he said. "She decided that she wanted to be a different person in a different place. She used an alias name and that's why it was a little bit harder to track her down. And they did. They found her. And she had her own personal reasons why she wanted to disappear."

Halphen called the outcome "bittersweet."

"In this case I’m glad that we were able to tell the family she’s fine," he said. "It has to be a huge relief to the community where she’s from."

The case is officially closed, he said.