Cold Case Spotlight

Vietnam veteran John Smith South still missing two decades after disappearing from Tennessee

According to his daughter Pam Brabson, John Smith South was a “hardworking man.” John and his wife, Margie South, raised Pam and her siblings in Mountain City, Tennessee.

Pam told Dateline she was close with her father, a Vietnam veteran, but he could be closed off at times.

“After Vietnam, he didn’t want to talk about that stuff with us,” Pam told Dateline about her father’s time in the Army. “He got Agent Orange in his lungs, and it affected his health throughout his life.”

In 1990, John and his wife got divorced. Pam, her two siblings Tommy and Angie, and their mother moved about 15 minutes away to Damascus, Virginia.

John Smith South Pram Brabson

“We would just go to his house from time to time and spend time with him,” Pam told Dateline. “We talked to him a lot on the phone.”

Six years later, in 1996, Pam, then 23, gave birth to her own daughter, Casey. She said her father John then became extremely involved in her life, and formed a special bond with his granddaughter.

“He showed her more love in the two and a half years after she was born,[than he did to us.] We never saw that side of him,” Pam said. “He was always so loving to her.”

On December 16, 1998, Pam and her sister Angie made plans with their father to go to his house two days later and help him put up his Christmas tree. Pam was going to bring her daughter Casey so she could be part of the festivities.

Pam, Casey and Angie drove to John’s house on December 18, as planned. But when they arrived, they were concerned when they saw that John’s car wasn’t there.

John never locked his doors, so Pam and her sister went inside the house. John was nowhere to be found.

John Smith South and Casey Pram Brabson

“The only source of heat he had in his house was a wood stove. It was completely cold when we got there,” Pam told Dateline.

Pam called John’s sister and a few people he knew in town. No one had heard from him.

After waiting a couple of days to see if John would reappear, Pam and her family reported John missing to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office on December 20, 1998, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) confirmed to Dateline.

Friends would later tell investigators at the TBI that John had spent the night of December 17 with friends.

“I know he came home from work that night, because his tool belt was in his home,” Pam told Dateline. Later, according to Pam, his friends “said he was at the bar, and several people had seen him there that night. But there were different stories as to when he left the bar. Nobody actually knows if he made it home from the bar that night.”

Friends say John drove his white 1985 Subaru Justy with Tennessee plates 774-HJL to the bar that night. The car never been found.

The TBI is actively working the case with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and told Dateline John Smith South is considered a missing person.

However, “his disappearance is considered suspicious and foul play is believed to be involved,” Leslie Earhart, Public Information Officer of the TBI told Dateline. “Time is the biggest challenge [in this case]. Each year the case remains unsolved, investigators are less likely to develop new leads. Memories of potential witnesses fade. There’s also the risk of potential witnesses in the case passing away.”

Pam says her father would never disappear willingly, especially when he had plans with his granddaughter.

“That just was not something he would ever do,” Pam told Dateline.

As Pam continues the search for information on her father’s disappearance, both she and the TBI are urging anyone with information to come forward.

“At this point, I don't care who did it. I just want to know where he’s at to give him a proper burial,” Pam said. “It's just the not knowing -- it's almost controlled the last 20 years of my life. I can't not think about it.”

John Smith South is described as being 6’ tall and weighing 205 lbs. at the time of his disappearance. He would be 74 years old today. He has brown hair and brown eyes. His missing car is a white 1985 Subaru Justy with Tennessee plates reading 774-HJL. If you have information related to John’s disappearance, please contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-TBI-FIND.