Investigators Renew Efforts to Find Woman's Body

Lanitra McConnell carries a photo of Shaquita Bell, who disappeared in 1996. Bell's friends and relatives returned to the search area in Fort Washington yesterday.
Lanitra McConnell carries a photo of Shaquita Bell, who disappeared in 1996. Bell's friends and relatives returned to the search area in Fort Washington yesterday. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

There was a time shortly after Shaquita Bell disappeared 11 years ago when her parents would come to this spot in southern Prince George's County almost every day. Shovels in hand, sweating in the summer sun, they spent hours scanning the ground for signs of her body along a small wooded ravine in Fort Washington where witnesses said Bell, a 23-year-old mother of three, had been buried.

Bell's mother, Jackie Winborne, and Winborne's husband, Thomas, often came alone. Sometimes they would pause there only a few minutes, but they always prayed the same prayer: Lord, let her body be here somewhere. Lord, let it end so we can take her home.

Yesterday, they were not alone. One of the nation's leading forensics experts joined a team of police detectives from the District and Prince George's in the hunt for Bell's remains. Using a search dog, metal probes, shovels and a backhoe, Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and investigators surveyed the sloping ravines near Old Fort Road and Marge Court for hours while Bell's family waited nearby.

"We're just hoping for a proper homecoming for Shaquita today," Thomas Winborne said.

By late yesterday, investigators had not found her body. The search continues today.

Bell, who worked at a grocery store bakery, was last seen about 1 p.m. June 27, 1996, when she left her grandmother's Alexandria home with her estranged boyfriend, Michael Dickerson. Relatives said the couple, who during their stormy two-year relationship once shared a home in Laurel, split shortly before Bell's disappearance.

A month earlier, Bell told police that Dickerson had beaten her and threatened her with a gun. Bell disappeared days before she was to appear in court as a witness in the assault case.

Dickerson, who is serving a 15-year sentence for the May 1996 gun assault on Bell, has denied involvement in Bell's disappearance and has not been charged in connection with it.

Bell's mother said her daughter began scribbling notes about Dickerson's activities months before her disappearance. Flipping through a thick binder with notes and news clippings on Bell's case before yesterday's search, Jackie Winborne pointed to one of the neatly penned notes she said was found in Bell's address book. "Call homicide," the note read. "Tell them that the person was killed w/a .380 bullets." Jackie Winborne shook her head. "It's chilling to find that. There's a lot of things, you know, you wish you could have done to put her in a safe zone," she said.

Winborne said several people who knew Dickerson and anonymous tipsters hinted that Bell might have been buried in Fort Washington days after her disappearance. Over the years, the family received other clues: an envelope stuffed with documents detailing Dickerson's criminal history, a late-night phone call from a woman who said she knew Bell's body was buried in the woods.

Bell's daughter Alexis, 11, was only 7 months old when her mother disappeared, but she tells her grandparents that she remembers her mom. Devontae, 13, has his mother's eyes and recalls her mostly as the woman who smiles down from the mantelpiece photo that sits in the center of the Winbornes' collection of angel figurines. Ashley, 16, remembers more and knows what it means to celebrate her first prom without her mother there to see her off, Winborne said.

Detectives launched the new effort in June after D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier took a personal interest and helped detectives organize the search with Owsley, who has worked on several other cold cases. Lanier had heard Bell's mother talk about the case during a television broadcast on the anniversary of the disappearance.

"I called her because I thought there were some things still worth doing. There are still some people we are talking to," Lanier said.

In July, cadaver dogs from the District picked up a scent in the area once pinpointed by tipsters, authorities said. Owsley, who was in the news recently for helping to discover the body of a 13- or 14-year-old boy who died in the mid-1800s, said he agreed to assist even though he knew the Bell case would be challenging.

Lanier and Maj. Daniel Dusseau, head of the Prince George's criminal investigation division, said the search team plans to work for several days.

"We hope to do as much as we can so that we are able to bring the family closure," Dusseau said. "For them it's been an emotional rollercoaster."

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