By Sharna Johnson, Freedom Newspapers
It has been a year since Laura McNaughton’s lifeless body was discovered by hunters in a rural county ditch.
That discovery, followed by subsequent news a local dentist had been arrested, deeply affected not only those who knew McNaughton, but many who came to know of her in death.
Toni Solis came to work at the Rib Crib restaurant, where McNaughton worked, about four months after her death. Solis said the incident continues to effect the consciousness of workers there, even those who never met the slain mother of two.
There are still little things around the restaurant left as reminders of her — such as a pig statue in the lobby that at one time bore the autographs of past employees but has since been repainted. McNaughton’s signature was left untouched because they didn’t have the heart to paint over it, Solis said.
McNaughton, 30, a waitress, was last seen leaving the restaurant after her shift the night before her body was found.
Pheasant hunters stumbled across her body in a ditch Dec. 10, 2005, on Curry Road C outside Pleasant Hill. Police said she had been strangled.
James Smith, 37, was arrested based on forensic evidence from his vehicle and statements he made to investigators, according to an arrest affidavit.
Charged with criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and first-degree murder, he is scheduled to stand trial June 1.
Since McNaughton’s death, Solis, a morning manager at Rib Crib, said management has heightened security measures, requiring personnel to go outside in pairs. Managers also make a point of checking with servers to be sure they are comfortable with customers, particularly regulars who patronize specific servers, she said.
Reports that Smith frequented the restaurant, sitting in McNaughton’s section and leaving her large tips, spurred the changes, Solis said.
According to an arrest affidavit filed by police, McNaughton told friends and family Smith’s attention was making her uncomfortable.
At Wayland Baptist University, where McNaughton took classes, faculty and students were hit hard with the news of her death.
Classmates had gathered for a field trip to Albuquerque the day her body was discovered — when she didn’t show up they didn’t think anything of it until they returned home and heard the news, Campus Dean Gary Mitchell said.
“It did impact our students, even those that didn’t know her very well. Usually our students are pretty close. We’re not a large university, so it becomes like a family. It was like losing a family member. We were really surprised and stunned,” he said.
McNaughton was a student in several of Mitchell’s classes.
Initially, nightly meetings were held before students went to their classes. A chaplain was present to offer assistance.
“We had a time of prayer together and I think that helped us,” Mitchell said.
Though time has passed, Mitchell said he still thinks of McNaughton from time to time.
“It was a sad time and we grieve for the family still, especially for her daughters. And our prayers are with (Smith) — we do pray for him.
“It caused me to reflect not only on the brevity of life but on how important our lives touching other lives should be,” he said.
Lt. Patrick Whitney of the Clovis Police Department was overseeing the detective division at the time of the investigation, and said the public got involved with the case, offering numerous tips and information.
“I think the public knew we were doing everything we possibly could. A lot of it had to do with people that knew her — they did give leads and we were able to track down those leads and ultimately track down the person we arrested,” he said.
Public concern is natural during the initial period after a homicide occurs, Police Chief Dan Blair said.
“Any time we have a death in the community from homicide it effects the community as a whole. It effects the officers involved and even their families.
“People think, ‘Wow, this can happen in our community and it did happen.’ It makes people think about their own safety,” he said.
All local law enforcement agencies have contributed in the investigation, though investigators with the Curry County Sheriff’s Office are lead in the case because of the location the body was found.
“It is a very tragic event. The whole community has suffered because of it. We want to expedite the process for the family’s sake, for justice for Laura and for the community,” Sheriff Roger Hatcher said.