By Anthony Baker
Aria Spradling was 20 years old when she disappeared after finishing a shift at the Harem Gentlemen’s Club in Dayton, Ohio — where she worked as an exotic dancer — in Sept. 2013. Though police in Aria’s hometown of Eaton, Ohio were initially helpful, jurisdiction over the case was transferred to the Vandalia, Ohio police department following the discovery of Aria’s remains in Art Van Atta Park in Nov. 2013. And the Vandalia police have been decidedly less than helpful, according to some members of Aria’s family.
“Because she was a stripper, it’s like, ‘Well, she doesn’t matter,” Aria’s sister, Brittany Sink, said. “Pretty much nothing has been done about it. The family doesn’t have closure, and I feel like she’s been swept under the rug.”
Aria left her young daughter, Maleigha, with her mother before being dropped off at work at the Harem, about half an hour’s drive northeast of her rural western Ohio hometown. Her last contact with family was a phone call to her mother later that night.
“Mom is determined to find out who did this,” Brittany said. Brittany remembers her sister as a loving mother who doted on her young daughter.
“Her daughter couldn’t have Wal-Mart clothes,” she said. “Everything had to be top of the line.” Aria had worked at a few different gentleman’s clubs in the greater Dayton area in the months leading up to her death, according to her sister. She’d amassed a stable of regular clients, lonely middle-aged men who weren’t above trading the occasional gift or fancy dinner for a few hours of companionship with a friendly, bubbly young girl. At least one of these regular customers dropped off the radar completely following Aria’s disappearance, Brittany said, only returning to the club where Aria worked months later — at which point he promptly began fixating on another dancer who physically resembled Aria.
Other persons of interest include friends who visited Aria at work: one, a female acquaintance with whom she often shared “boy drama,” was later rumored to be in possession of some of the missing girl’s property; another, a male friend, is shockingly rumored to have “bragged” to mutual acquaintances about being present the night Aria died. When approached by family members with this information, however, Vandalia police declined to investigate, calling the reports hearsay.
Managers at The Harem were equally unhelpful, refusing to provide security camera footage from the night Aria disappeared until long after the fact. The Harem would later be ordered closed following a raid in 2017 which resulted in nearly a dozen employees and patrons being charged with drug and prostitution-related offenses.
“We’ve been trying to get that place shut down since this happened,” Brittany said. “I even told Aria at the time, ‘That’s not a good place. You need to get out of there.’”
Aria’s body was found, lying next to a fallen tree and partially covered by some foliage, in a wooded area inside Art Van Atta Park, less than two miles from the Harem, two months after her disappearance. There were reportedly no signs of trauma to Aria’s bones, according to medical examiners, and decomposition was too advanced for any wounds to be detected; ultimately no cause of death was able to be determined. Rumors of an accidental drug overdose and subsequent cover-up swirl around Aria’s case; she’d had run-ins with the law, as it turns out, and was in fact on probation at the time of her disappearance, having been ordered to pursue substance abuse treatment in lieu of conviction on charges of theft in Montgomery County, Ohio, in 2011. Brittany doesn’t think that scenario seems likely, however.
“If it was an accident, why didn’t they call and get help?” she said. “Why take her to a park and cover her up? Drop off the body at a hospital, or in an open place.”
What Brittany wants most now is closure for her family. “That’s why we want to keep her story alive,” she said. “Even if it ends up being something we don’t want to hear.”
Aria’s mother needs that closure most of all. “The last thing she heard from Aria was a voicemail wishing her Happy Birthday,” Brittany said. “It really tears her up that Aria died the day after her birthday.”
Vandalia Police Lt. Dan Swafford was working in dispatch the day Aria’s remains were discovered; Det. Mike Hulbert was working on patrol. Swafford is adamant that Aria’s case has not been swept under the rug, regardless of what some may think.
“We’ve had a couple different sets of eyes looking at this thing,” Swafford said. Tips from family members and others often don’t pan out, however, Swafford said, because the information is typically coming to investigators at second or even third-hand.
“They’ve heard from this person that this happened,” Swafford said. “It’s always someone two or three people deep that they’re getting their story from. So first you try to determine if the person telling you the information is trustworthy, and then you’ve got to look at what they told you.”
Reports of a naked woman being chased by men in a van on Gettysburg Avenue – on the crime and poverty-stricken west side of Dayton – turned out to be unrelated to the case, according to Swafford, as DNA found on clothing left at the scene was not a match for Aria. Det. Hulbert spoke to a man who was supposedly present when Aria was killed, only to eventually discover that he’d been in prison at the time of her death. And the jewelry supposedly found in the possession of Aria’s female friend couldn’t be positively identified by family members.
Police got a call about a year after Aria’s death claiming that some clothing and a VIP coupon from The Harem had been found in an abandoned factory in Dayton, but a group of homeless residents squatting in the building claimed those items had been there since long before Aria’s death. A man cleaning out an apartment where Aria had once lived in Trotwood, meanwhile, contacted Aria’s mother after finding the young woman’s social security card, prompting her mom to contact police. But nothing came of the potential lead, and the man who found the card has been cooperative and forthcoming with investigators. Tips from jailhouse snitches also typically fail to pan out.
Finally, surveillance video belatedly released by managers at The Harem shows Aria leaving the club, and possibly being followed by a man in a cowboy hat. But that man was identified, according to Swafford, and while cell phone pings confirm he was in Dayton earlier that evening, the same evidence places him in Columbus at the time Aria’s death is believed to have taken place.
Swafford thinks it’s possible that drugs did indeed play a role in Aria’s death.
“Back then we didn’t see the bad heroin like we’re seeing now,” Swafford said. “But we have seen cases where somebody will overdose, and someone will drop them off somewhere and leave them.” According to the Dayton Daily News, the Dayton area had the highest number of accidental overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016 and 2017. Statistics like these, as well as a general lack of reliable evidence, make it difficult to determine what may have happened in Aria’s case. She was found concealed in a wooded area in a public park, however, so regardless of the exact circumstances, it’s undeniable that someone else was with Aria that night. And that person undoubtedly holds knowledge about the circumstances of her death.
“It’s impossible to say where she was killed or even if she was killed,” Swafford said. “But I’d sure like to know how she ended up where she ended up.”
As to who that person, or those people, might be, police have been tight-lipped when it comes to revealing information about suspects, citing a need to avoid letting persons of interest know they might be under suspicion. “If one little thing gets out that you don’t think is important, now that piece of information is out there,” Swafford said. “And someone might disappear.”
Swafford stressed that Aria’s lifestyle and occupation as a dancer had no impact on the Vandalia police department’s determination to find out what happened to her.
“I know they’re frustrated that we haven’t been able to find out what happened, and I can appreciate that,” Swafford said of Aria’s family. “Aria’s lifestyle is not my lifestyle, but I’m not going to sit here and judge somebody. Aria’s a human being just like we are, and she’s got a little baby. The family needs closure. It doesn’t matter if she’s the President of the United States or as low as you can get.”