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Town baffled by minister's wife's new life
Woman now in New York with new identity; Summerdale residents held vigils after her disappearance

SUMMERDALE (AP) — Friends of Mary Elizabeth Byrne Smith organized vigils and launched a public awareness campaign after the pastor's wife mysteriously vanished while attending a Christian conference in Louisiana. They couldn't help but fear the worst.

Now, four months later, those same women are struggling to understand why the teacher they called Beth pawned her wedding ring, left her husband and two children, and began a new life working at a fast-food restaurant in New York under an assumed name.

"I'm pleased that she is alive," Dana Christian said Monday after getting news that Smith had been found. "And I hope that she gets some help."

Months of searching

After four months of wondering, searching and crying, Jenny Gipson said she was happy to learn that Smith was OK.

"I feel like that if she didn't tell me (why she left), she had her reasons," said Gipson, one of the last people to see Smith before she vanished.

Smith, whose husband Jason Lee Smith is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Summerdale, was last seen in March at a women's conference she attended with friends in Bossier City, La. She excused herself to the restroom and wasn't seen again.

Police said Monday they tracked the woman to New York state when the 30-year-old requested her teaching certificate from Alabama. Investigators have talked to her for hours since Friday, according to Bossier City Police Chief Mike Halphen.

Smith reportedly had been having problems with prescription drugs and felt estranged from her husband. She is safe and working in a fast-food restaurant under an assumed name, the chief said. She does not intend to return to Alabama, Halphen said, but she said she might contact her family to explain her actions.

Halphen said detectives spoke with her recently and she requested that police not release her whereabouts or reasons for leaving.

"We have to respect that due to the fact that she hasn't broken any laws," Halphen said. "She left of her own free will, as we thought. She had an alias. She wanted to be a different person in a different place."

Husband's questions

Mindi Reaves, the ministry assistant at First Baptist Church, said Jason Smith has "a lot of questions" about his wife's actions.

"He's hurt right now," she said.

Beth Smith's adoptive parents, Donnie and Mary Byrne, have said they knew she had troubles, but they would welcome her home.

"We are thankful that Beth has been found, that she is alive and well," said Donnie Byrne. "We love her and have missed her over the past months."

Halphen said Smith's behavior before her disappearance led police to believe she wanted to start a new life.

In December, Smith told people she had been divorced from her husband, and she reportedly told her two children she was not a good role model.

She asked colleagues at Elsanor Elementary School in Robertsdale where she could get Lortab, a prescription painkiller. The principal said Smith was told she would lose her job because she tested positive for prescription drugs.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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