By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Jackie and Thomas Winborne dared hope that this time, at last, the saga of their missing daughter would come to a close.
A dozen years after Shaquita Bell, 23, disappeared, her admitted killer, an ex-boyfriend, pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court last month in a bargain with the U.S. attorney's office. It was the sort of compromise that prosecutors and victims often settle for in the real world of law and order: a deal for imperfect justice.
Michael Dickerson agreed to make a good-faith effort to lead police to the wooded spot in rural Prince George's County where he buried Bell's body in 1996. In return, he would get a 15-year sentence without parole for her killing -- less than the maximum -- and would not be prosecuted for another slaying he confessed to committing.
Guided by Dickerson, who admitted shooting Bell in the District on June 27, 1996, investigators recently combed acres of forest near Fort Washington. But his memory of the exact burial site apparently is vague.
"He took the detectives to a particular location," said D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes. "And there was nothing there."
A deal is a deal, though. Dickerson, 39, promised he would try to find the grave, and he did try, authorities said. Which is small consolation to the Winbornes, whose nightmare goes on.
"We're going to find her if I have to go out there and find her myself," said Thomas Winborne, Bell's stepfather, who helped raise her.
Authorities declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, and Dickerson's attorney did not return phone messages seeking comment. But new details, including intriguing early twists in the search, have emerged from Dickerson's plea hearing Oct. 16, from police affidavits filed in court and from interviews with the Winbornes.
They reveal Dickerson's role in another 1996 killing and state that Bell informed on him in that case. They disclose that another man helped Dickerson dispose of Bell's body before he also became an informant. That man was fatally shot as he worked with investigators to elicit incriminating statements from Dickerson, one of two slayings possibly connected to Bell's disappearance.
In the years after Bell vanished, the sensational case of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy consumed countless hours of investigative work by squads of D.C. police and federal agents, while the Winbornes wondered why their daughter's disappearance seemed a far less urgent mystery to authorities and the media.
Then D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier took a personal interest in Bell's whereabouts.
"I promised Jackie when I first met her that we'd never stop looking for Shaquita," Lanier said this week. "And we won't."
Dickerson, who has been imprisoned since 1996, first for assault and now for a weapons offense, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Bell's death after Lanier last year revived a long-stalled investigation into her disappearance.
The bloody events leading to Bell's killing began four months before she vanished, when a thug named Sean Thomas, accompanied by a partner in crime, set out to rob drug dealers in Anacostia.
It was Feb. 27, 1996, just past midnight, in an area between Fort Dupont Park and the Anacostia Freeway. Dickerson, who had grown up in the area and hung out there, acted to defend his turf, a police affidavit says.
He and one of his friends chased Thomas and his pal on foot, all four firing shots until Thomas went down, a bullet in his leg.
Dickerson then "killed him at close range with a single gunshot to the head," a prosecutor said in court Oct. 16. That was the slaying for which Dickerson will not be held to account.
By this time, early 1996, Dickerson and Bell, who shared a Laurel apartment, were a few years into an abusive relationship. In May, Dickerson was charged with beating her. Writing in her datebook about another incident, Bell said he held a loaded gun to her head.
"He said he would kill me because he's going to get locked up anyway," wrote Bell, a supermarket bakery clerk. The youngest of her three children, a girl now 13, is Dickerson's daughter. "I finally left him before he killed me," Bell wrote. She moved to Alexandria to stay with a grandmother.
Not only did she split with Dickerson, but she also implicated him in the Thomas killing, telling D.C. homicide detectives on June 13, 1996, that she had heard him discussing the shooting, a police affidavit says.
D.C. officers stopped Dickerson that day in his 1986 Cadillac. After finding a 9mm handgun in the car, they charged him with illegal possession of a firearm. He was questioned about the Thomas slaying but not charged in the killing.
"I know she's the one that called the police on me," Dickerson told detectives, according to the affidavit. "I can't live with her, man."
Yet in the weeks afterward, Bell did not steer clear of Dickerson, who was free awaiting trials in the assault and gun cases. On the afternoon of June 27, after Dickerson said he wanted to talk with her, the two left Alexandria in his gray Cadillac Fleetwood, her family said.
They drove to where Dickerson was staying -- his parents' house on G Street SE, in the same neighborhood where the gunfight had occurred. Dickerson later said that Bell walked away from the house after the two had an argument and that he never saw her again.
As detectives and Bell's family searched for her that summer, however, a dark story emerged, as detailed in police affidavits and by Thomas Winborne, now 53.
Winborne, who spent many hours talking with people in the G Street area in the days after his stepdaughter vanished, said he was told that a friend of Dickerson's, Eric Bishop, might know something about Dickerson having recently disposed of a body. But Winborne said he never got a chance to speak with Bishop.
It is unclear whether police interviewed Bishop that summer. But an affidavit says they interviewed a key witness Aug. 14. The witness, identified as "W1" in an affidavit, told them about another Dickerson pal: Jonathan "Jody" Shields.
W1 quoted Shields as saying that he and Dickerson "put Bell's body in the back of [Dickerson's] car; drove her to woods; and that they buried her," the affidavit says.
But getting Shields to cooperate would not be easy. Winborne said detectives explained that they needed leverage to force Shields to talk. They had to wait for him to get caught in a serious criminal case. Then he would probably look to save himself by betraying Dickerson as part of a deal.
In the meantime, in fall 1996, Dickerson was convicted of the assault charge, even without Bell's testimony, and went to prison. He would later get an additional prison term in the gun possession case. As for 21-year-old Eric Bishop: On Jan. 8, 1997, he was fatally shot on G Street in a killing that remains unsolved.
Winborne said Shields, as predicted, eventually agreed to cooperate in the Bell case, after he was charged in a drug conspiracy in 1999. Winborne said prosecutors agreed to let Shields, 29, go free in return for his disclosing what he knew about the missing woman.
An affidavit says Shields was questioned in March 1999. He told police that Dickerson called him June 27, 1996, and asked him to come to the G Street house to help get rid of a body. Shields said Bell was dead in the back yard. Dickerson "stated to Shields that he shot her in a rage, she fell, and he then stood over her firing until the gun stopped," the affidavit says.
Winborne said Shields also told police that Bishop was at the house but did not help bury the body.
Shields said he acted as a lookout while Dickerson wrapped Bell's body in a blanket and put it in the Fleetwood's trunk. Driving separate cars, they "searched for a suitable location to bury Bell, eventually settling on a wooded site" off Old Fort Road in Fort Washington, the affidavit says.
"Shields stated that they dug a large hole with shovels, buried Bell deep in the earth, camouflaged the burial site, then fled," according to the affidavit. When police took Shields to Fort Washington, however, he was unable to find the grave, Winborne said. Three years had passed since the burial. Police searched for days but found nothing.
Authorities tried another approach. Shields was told to write to Dickerson in prison, telling him that a certain patch of woods they were familiar with was being cleared by workers, the affidavit says. The goal was to rattle Dickerson into incriminating himself in a reply, Winborne said. But the affidavit says Dickerson merely told Shields to "keep me posted" and "watch your back."
Police then arranged for Shields to visit Dickerson in prison, wearing a hidden microphone, the affidavit says. But the visit, set for June 7, 1999, never happened.
"On June 6, 1999, Shields was murdered," according to the affidavit. Winborne said Shields was shot in the parking lot of a D.C. nightclub. "This case remains unsolved," the affidavit says.
Lanier declined to comment on whether detectives suspect the slayings of Bishop and Shields were related to the Bell case.
With no body and no known living witnesses, the case went cold for years while Bell's distraught mother pleaded for police to renew their efforts. Lanier, appointed chief in 2006, ordered the investigation revived after meeting with Jackie Winborne. The woods were searched twice more, in summer 2007, to no avail.
In January -- apparently after deciding that their case against Dickerson wasn't likely to get stronger -- authorities charged him in the Thomas and Bell homicides based mainly on evidence gathered years ago. Then they began plea negotiations.
The Winbornes said they consented to a deal that prosecutors told them was the best they could get: A free pass for Dickerson in Thomas's death and a prison term in Bell's slaying that will end a month before his 54th birthday. A judge is to sentence him in January.
Dickerson has led police to the same area of Fort Washington as Shields did, but to a different part of the woods, Winborne said.
"They're supposed to take me out there," he said. "I want to do some digging myself."