By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Two weeks before she disappeared in 1996, Shaquita Bell told D.C. homicide detectives that she heard her boyfriend describe how he fatally shot a man in a gunfight. Police later suspected that the boyfriend, Michael Dickerson, killed Bell to prevent her from testifying against him. And for years, they tried in vain to find her body.
Now, with Dickerson's help, they might be close to ending the mystery.
Dickerson, charged in January with murder, is nearing the end of a prison term for a weapons offense. He earlier served more than eight years for assaulting Bell with a gun shortly before she vanished. Last week, he admitted in D.C. Superior Court that he shot Bell in Southeast Washington in June 1996, wrapped her body in a blanket, put it in a car trunk, drove to woods and buried it in a deep hole.
And as part of a plea bargain, Dickerson, 39, agreed to help police find her remains. Bell's anguished mother, Jackie Winborne, who has urged police over the years to keep looking for her, said yesterday that Dickerson has led investigators to a wooded area in Fort Washington.
But Bell's body has not turned up.
"It would mean the completion of things after all this time," Winborne, of Alexandria, said by telephone. "We just didn't know what was going to happen at first, whether she'd return home or if she had, in fact, been murdered. We know she was murdered now. So finding her would finalize things, at least.
"If we find her, then I'll be satisfied," she said. "But that hasn't happened yet."
Bell, a bakery clerk at a Giant supermarket, was a mother of three. "She'd be 35 now," Winborne said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier disclosed during an appearance Thursday on News Channel 8 that Dickerson was helping police look for the body.
"Her mother, Jackie, for the last 12 years, every year in June [she] came to police headquarters and protested," Lanier said. "She kept her daughter's murder very much in the forefront."
Describing the search as "an arduous process," even with Dickerson's help, the chief said: "For Shaquita Bell's family, there is nothing more important than recovering her. And for us -- and we are presently looking -- if we recover Shaquita, it'll be the best day in 18 years of law enforcement for me."
Dickerson pleaded guilty Oct. 16 to second-degree murder in Bell's death. In return, prosecutors will recommend a sentence of 15 years in prison without parole eligibility. In addition, Dickerson admitted culpability for the fatal shooting that Bell heard him talking about. As part of the plea deal, he will not be prosecuted for that slaying, which occurred during a shootout in Southeast.
Police affidavits filed in court, and a transcript of Dickerson's plea hearing, offer new details about Bell's death and the likely motive.
The shootout, in the 3100 block of Massachusetts Avenue SE, occurred Feb. 17, 1996. A group of men, including Sean A. Thomas, 27, had come to the neighborhood to rob drug dealers, police said. Another group, including Dickerson, confronted them, and gunfire erupted. As Thomas was fleeing, police said, he was felled by a bullet in one of his legs, then shot in the head execution-style.
In June that year, police said, Bell and Dickerson got in an argument, and Dickerson pointed a gun at her, threatening to kill her. Bell told police not only about the assault, but about hearing Dickerson talking about a homicide.
During a police interview June 13, according to an affidavit, Bell said Dickerson had described the confrontation with the robbery crew and the gunfight. Dickerson "said one of the robbers left his injured friend in the street because he was shot in the leg and could not keep up," the affidavit says.
"At that point, Dickerson admitted, within Bell's hearing, that he walked up to the wounded subject and shot him in the street."
That day, June 13, Dickerson was stopped by police while driving in the District and charged with illegal possession of firearms. But he was not immediately charged with Thomas's slaying. "I know [Bell] is the one that called the police on me," Dickerson told detectives, according to the affidavit. "Me and her cannot get along. . . . And I can't live with her, man."
Facing the gun charges and the assault case involving Bell, he was released to await further court proceedings.
Early on the afternoon of June 27, Bell left her grandmother's home in Alexandria, where she was staying with her children. Dickerson was with her, police said. About 2 p.m., she phoned relatives at the Alexandria home to say she would be returning in about an hour. But as the affidavit says, "She never appeared or was heard from again."
For a dozen years, what became of her was a mystery. Then, Oct. 16, Dickerson stood in Courtroom 302 and swore to tell the truth.
"Did you shoot and kill Shaquita Bell in the back yard of 3224 G Street Southeast, here in the District?" Judge Neal E. Kravitz asked.
"Yes," Dickerson replied.
"Did you then wrap her body and take her body to some woods and bury the body there?"