Trial Starts in Disappearance of Montgomery Girl |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 1999; Page B1
When Hadden Clark goes on trial today in Montgomery County in the 1986 disappearance and presumed murder of 6-year-old Michele Dorr, two fathers will be watching and listening with particular interest.
Still stunned after 13 years, Carl Dorr says he cannot truly believe his little girl is dead until he hears the details, no matter how grisly, for himself.
Sitting beside him, as he has through almost every court hearing over the past year, will be John Lyon, another Montgomery father who knows the pain parents feel when their children vanish.
On a spring afternoon in 1975, Lyon's daughters, 10-year-old Katherine and 12-year-old Sheila, left their Kensington home for a half-mile walk to Wheaton Plaza and were never seen again. No one has been arrested in the case.
Lyon, a former disc jockey for WMAL radio, is now a county victims' assistant assigned to help Carl Dorr endure what is expected to be a three-week trial. As he has for the families of many crime victims, Lyon says, he tries to give Dorr emotional support and an experienced eye into an often bewildering criminal justice system. This trial, Lyon says, will be his "therapy," too.
"I think we've found some kind of kinship in this morbid similarity of our lives," Lyon says of his friendship with Dorr.
"We don't dwell on it," Lyon says. But later, he adds, "Sometimes I think this could be my trial."
The two fathers have talked about the pain, mixed with horror and disbelief, that overwhelmed and forever changed their lives. They have talked about the feeling they get--like a jabbing dart--whenever they hear their daughters' names.
They have compared notes about being consumed with profound grief and then finding themselves the initial, immediate suspects. They have shared the dismay over the well-intentioned but ignorant advice of strangers who tell them, "Someday you'll get over this."
And, mostly, they say, they rack their brains with the same question: How can little girls just disappear?
"I know how hard it is to make sense of what happened," Dorr says. "I had a hard enough time with one. I can't imagine how he dealt with two missing."
On May 31, 1986, a hot, lazy Saturday afternoon, Carl Dorr had a visitor. It was his weekend with Michele, a shy little girl with brown hair and freckles. He and his wife, Dorothy, had undergone a messy divorce, and they were still arguing over custody and child support for the kindergartner.
After a morning of television cartoons and a quick trip to a 7-Eleven, Dorr recalls, he and Michele ate lunch together, and he filled up the green plastic wading pool in the fenced-in back yard on Sudbury Road in Silver Spring. He promised Michele that at 4 p.m., they'd go to opening day at the big pool near her mother's home in Montgomery Village.
He last saw his daughter, he says, about 12:30 p.m., padding barefoot out the kitchen door. She wore a hot-pink one-piece bathing suit with a ruffle and white polka dots. A colorful towel trailed behind her.
She didn't return from the play pool, Dorr says, but he heard his neighbor's sons one house over kicking around a soccer ball. He says he assumed Michele, who was friends with the boys' sister, had gone over to play, too.
Shortly after Michele failed to return home for the promised 4 p.m. trip to the pool, Dorr says, he went looking.
Montgomery prosecutors James Trusty and Debbie Dwyer have argued that Michele did wander over to her playmates' house two doors down but came across Hadden Clark, her friend's uncle. Clark, then 33 and a cook at Chevy Chase Country Club, had been living with his brother but was moving out that afternoon at his brother's insistence, prosecutors said.
Clark, prosecutors said, was angry over being ordered to leave and, in a twisted act of revenge against his brother, killed the little neighbor girl in his niece's bedroom, then scrubbed the floor clean of her blood and made off with her body.
Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason said he would rule this morning on whether the jury may hear what prosecutors have called a crucial detail: In 1992, while still a suspect in Michele's disappearance, Clark was charged with the murder of Laura Houghteling, 23, a recent Harvard graduate who disappeared from her mother's Bethesda home.
On the opening day of his trial in the Houghteling case, Clark accepted a last-minute plea agreement and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder before leading police to a shallow grave along Old Georgetown Road. He is serving a 30-year sentence for Houghteling's murder.
But Clark has pleaded not guilty in Michele's death. His attorneys, assistant public defenders Brian Shefferman and Donald Salzman, have argued that hearing about the Houghteling case would unduly prejudice the jury.
They say Clark's time card at the country club will show that he punched in for work about 2:30 p.m. on the afternoon Michele disappeared. The results of new DNA tests allegedly linking Michele's blood to blood found on the handle of a knife Clark owned are debatable, they say. The rest of the prosecution's evidence is circumstantial, they have said, and too flimsy to prove that Clark played any role in Michele's disappearance, let alone her slaying.
Prosecutors readily concede their case against Clark is far from airtight. Their witnesses will be relying on 13-year-old memories. One prosecution witness has died, and police detectives will be called out of retirement to testify.
Because Michele's body has not been recovered, their first hurdle could be convincing a jury that there even was a murder. Jurors will have to take their word about the knife with the bloody handle. It was mistakenly thrown away with other evidence from the Houghteling case.
Prosecutors also have conceded that much of their case rests on the credibility of Clark's fellow prison inmates. They are scheduled to testify that Clark boasted to them that, in addition to killing Houghteling, he cut a little girl in his brother's home and carried her body out in a duffel bag.
Another potential boon for the defense: One man--and it's not Hadden Clark--did admit to Michele's slaying.
Ten days after Michele disappeared, Carl Dorr checked into a psychiatric hospital ranting and raving about killing his daughter.
When a child disappears, police say, the parents are naturally the immediate suspects. Dorr says police leaned on him, grilled him in his grief, until he snapped.
"They said, 'If we find the body, you're the guy we're going to put this on,' " Dorr says. "It was too much to deal with."
Every time John Lyon walks past the metal detectors at the doors of the Rockville courthouse, he must flash an identification badge to the security guards. Opposite the badge, in the small leather case, are two small photos of Katherine and Sheila.
One of his sons, Jay, who was 15 when his sisters disappeared, is now a 39-year-old homicide detective with Montgomery police, but John Lyon says the family doesn't hear much news on the case.
A few times a year, the Montgomery County Police Department hears from the FBI that a national database of missing people has gotten a hit on the Lyon sisters, says police lieutenant Mike Garvey, one of the original investigators on the case.
Somewhere in the country, bones have been unearthed. Or someone has been arrested for a child abduction elsewhere, and those detectives think the suspect might have passed through Maryland. Nothing has panned out. Besides Michele, Garvey says, Sheila and Katherine remain the only active case of missing children in the county.
In spring 1998, on the 23rd anniversary of the girls' disappearance, Lyon, his wife, Mary, their two grown sons and five grandchildren planted a weeping cherry tree and small flower garden in a local cemetery. Nearby, they placed a stone marker etched with Sheila's and Katherine's names, their birthdays and the day they vanished. They visit once a week.
"It's unbelievable that people can disappear off the face of the Earth without a trace when they find dinosaur bones and identify them," Lyon says. "But maybe it's God's plan or something. If it's something you could understand, then it would be easier to tell you how we get through it."
Michele Dorr's mother, Dee Dee Appleby, has left Montgomery County. She is planning to go to Clark's trial but did not feel emotionally ready to attend the pretrial hearings, her attorney says.
Michele's father, now a real estate appraiser, has moved from the home where Michele disappeared. He says he has not brought himself to buy a gravestone.
He bristles when people ask whether this trial will bring him "closure," something he says doesn't happen when your child, or at least her body, is still out there somewhere.
As Lyon told him shortly after they met, "It doesn't get any better."
But at least, Lyon says, Carl Dorr might finally get some answers.
"I think he needs attitude to go through this [trial], to hear what he's going to hear," Lyon says. "You have to prepare yourself like a fighter ready for the big one. He's been waiting a long time for this."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company