Details of a vanishing – New book sheds light on disappearance and this week’s search
The tale of Janet Kovacich, the young Auburn wife and mother who vanished in 1982, troubled Jordan Fisher Smith long after he encountered her story during his work as a ranger in the Auburn State Recreation Area.
“Everyone (involved) was haunted by this case,” Smith said. “It is a tragedy that this woman disappeared without a trace.”
Smith, who retired in 1999, channeled his concern into writing – producing a book that, in part, pulls back the curtain on this decades-old mystery.
He delved into law enforcement records, which chronicled the missing-person investigation, Kovacich’s relationship with her husband, and the numerous searches for clues over the past 22 years.
His efforts coalesced into a chapter of Smith’s new book “Nature Noir,” which was released several weeks ago to an enthusiastic reception from major critics across the nation.
In the chapter “Rocks and Bones,” Smith spills details about the case – including a discussion of the Lake of the Pines house where investigators on Tuesday exhumed the remains of a pet dog that may provide evidence in the case.
But Smith’s book did not spur the search of the south county house that began Tuesday, Auburn Police Chief Nick Willick said Wednesday.
In fact, Willick said Smith still owes him a copy of the book the author offered when he warned the police chief about the release of “Nature Noir” several months ago.
Smith did, however, hope his writing might bring “new attention” to the disappearance.
In “Nature Noir,” Smith chronicles the events surrounding Janet Kovacich’s disappearance. He changed only a few details, including the names of Janet and her husband, former Placer County Sheriff’s officer Paul Kovacich.
While Smith’s book paints a dark portrait of Paul Kovacich, the author emphasizes that the husband has not been charged with a crime or found to be directly linked to the disappearance.
“I have not said this man is guilty. I merely reported the circumstances that the police found,” Smith said Wednesday. “I reported that the investigation focused on this gentleman who was her husband.”
In September 1982, the Kovaciches lived in a “starter” house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Skyridge, an Auburn subdivision, with their two children and German shepherd, Smith wrote.
Paul Kovacich worked at the local jail and had a few head of cattle, which grazed on an acquaintance’s ranch. But he also had a violent side, which came out in reports from neighbors and others who knew the young family, Smith wrote.
Neighbors had reported yelling coming from the house, Smith wrote, and Janet once told a friend that Paul had smashed a chair into pieces during an argument. Concern for Janet caused one of Paul’s co-workers to call the police, Smith wrote.
“In her last weeks, (Janet Kovacich) exhibited new signs of independence and what could be interpreted as attempts to shore up her flagging self-esteem in the face of her husband’s withering criticism,” reads one excerpt from “Nature Noir.”
Janet had enrolled at Sierra College, trying to gain self-sufficiency, Smith wrote.
Then, in August 1982, just weeks before Janet disappeared, their dog Fuzz reportedly got into the trash.
Upset, Paul Kovacich threw the dog around, breaking its bones and putting it into a coma, Smith reportedly learned from Janet Kovacich’s mother. The dog died the next day, he wrote.
Auburn police have not confirmed that Fuzz was the dog found Wednesday at the Lake of the Pines house, but the chief did say the dog had died shortly before her disappearance.
In his book, Smith says the dog’s burial site was found by investigators in 1982 but not exhumed.
About a week before she disappeared, Janet had cosmetic surgery to remove her scars and have breast implants put in, according to “Nature Noir.”
Her surgery forced her to rely on others for transportation and would have made it difficult to run away, Smith wrote, attributing his knowledge to investigators and Janet Kovacich’s parents, who have since died.
The day she disappeared, Smith wrote, Janet Kovacich called and made an appointment to enroll her children at Forest Lake Christian School, but she never showed up.
Paul Kovacich had not wanted the children to attend Forest Lake Christian, investigators reported, according to Smith’s book.
On Sept. 9, 1982, Paul Kovacich called the Auburn police, reporting his wife’s disappearance and speaking in a tone that “seemed strangely calm and emotionless,” Smith wrote.
The husband asked for a few days to investigate the disappearance himself, a request that Smith said was granted to a fellow law enforcement official.
Three days after Janet Kovacich was last heard from, the investigation was opened and initially focused on the possibility that she ran away, Smith wrote.
It wasn’t until “several days later” that officials made it to the Kovacich residence, where they were admitted by her husband, Smith wrote.
There, they “found the house spotless,” Smith wrote.
The missing woman’s husband told the police he went to Kmart on Sept. 8, the day his wife was last seen. When he returned home, she was not there and when she did not come back that night, he assumed she was at her mother’s house, Smith wrote.
Paul Kovacich was unable to provide evidence of his trip to Kmart, Smith wrote.
Smith said Wednesday he had encountered Paul Kovacich several times during his 13 years as a ranger and described him as a “serious sort of fellow.”
Willick, of the Auburn police, refrained from commenting on potential suspects in the case Wednesday.
Smith will be reading tonight at 7 p.m. from “Nature Noir” at Odyssey Books in the Glenbrook Basin.
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