It took a while for Hadden Clark to get his bearings as he led police into the Silver Spring woods where he had buried the little girl's body.

It had been dark that night 14 years ago, and things looked different.

According to an officer at the search who provided this account but did not want to be identified, Clark recalled details of that night as he walked along: He had parked his pickup truck on the shoulder of Route 29 and brought the body of 6-year-old Michele Dorr down the steep embankment and into a ravine surrounded by trees. The grave was around here somewhere, Clark told detectives, but he thought he'd buried her a bit farther northeast.

He had dug just a foot or two, he recalled, before hitting clay. Then he laid the child in her ruffled pink and white polka-dot bathing suit on the ground, covered her with dirt and marked the shallow grave with an old mattress he'd found nearby.

Clark, dressed in a thin jacket and knit cap, his hands cuffed in front of him, walked through the woods Thursday with officers who tried to jog his memory with questions: What did he remember from that night?

Rhode Island state Trooper Matthew Zarrella commanded his dogs Panzer, a German shepherd, and Gunner, a greater Swiss mountain dog, to search the woods for the scent of human remains.

As for Clark: "He said he wanted to help and wanted to stay until she was found," said a police officer.

Nearby, Montgomery County police Detective Edward Tarney saw a coiled wire jutting from the ground--the remnants of a box spring that had deteriorated in the elements over 14 years.

Police led Clark back to the black Chevrolet Suburban, shielding him from the throng of reporters and television cameras nearby. The convicted killer wasn't needed anymore.

Then, as the sun began to set, Panzer lay down near the mattress. The dog had smelled death.

"Thank you," an officer told Clark, shaking his hand.

"I hope you find what you're looking for," Clark replied.

For several Montgomery County detectives, the murder of Michele Dorr was what Tarney called their "career case." Most homicide detectives have one--the case that an officer can stay with for years, the investigation that defines and shapes a career.

This one had them rushing down numerous blind alleys, waiting years for fresh clues and struggling to outwit a suspect who was as fragile as he was wily. They mulled the details of the crime when they went home to their families at night, placed photos of Michele next to those of their children on their desks. More than once, they enjoyed the thrill of the crucial breakthrough--then saw it evaporate.

It was "like a roller coaster," said Lt. Michael Garvey, "with a lot of highs and a lot of lows."

For detectives, there was an obvious suspect early on--Carl Dorr, Michele's father, who was embroiled in an ugly child-support battle with his former wife. Within a week, he told police he had killed Michele and buried her body in the crawl space of his home. But police found nothing, and psychiatrists explained Dorr's statement as a stress-induced breakdown.

Another suspect emerged. Hadden Clark, the brother of Dorr's neighbor two doors away, had allegedly been seen with the girl the day she disappeared and later showed up at work with a bandaged hand. When detectives approached him about the case, he wept and blurted something about blacking out.

But Clark didn't confess, and he seemed to drift further away from the case when Dorr's vague memory of when he last saw his daughter bolstered Clark's alibi. Garvey moved on to new cases. Then in fall 1987, Dorr again fell apart. As Garvey prodded him for details, Dorr told police he smothered Michele and left her remains in the back of his Chevy van.

Police checked the van. They found nothing. And nothing more for the next five years.

The Dorr case may have faded from public memory, but it never left Garvey or others on the case. Even the most calloused homicide detectives are haunted by crimes against children. For Garvey, there was something more: "I have a living person in my house to remind me of Michele"--his own daughter, who was about the same age as Michele when she vanished. "That's my living, breathing memory."

In October 1992, Clark's name resurfaced--this time, in the disappearance of a young Montgomery County woman. Clark had worked as a gardener for the mother of Laura Houghteling, 23. When asked whether he had seen the young woman, Clark had acted bizarrely and driven away quickly. He was arrested after detectives found a bloody pillowcase from Houghteling's room in nearby woods, with Clark's fingerprints on it.

Detectives later remembered this as a major breakthrough in the Michele Dorr disappearance. The heads of the Houghteling investigation--Richard Fallin and Tarney--were placed in charge of the rejuvenated Dorr case, and Tarney, a 20-year veteran, hit the old files.

"I knew Hadden Clark did this [the Dorr killing] in '92," he said. "There were just too many similarities."

Police arrested Clark, and Garvey and Tarney interrogated him for seven hours about Michele. Finally, Clark dropped a hint that he had buried "them" in New Jersey.

Energized, police traveled to Clark's boyhood home in Warren Township, N.J., and scoured the neighborhood woods. Nothing.

Tarney remembered the disappointment. "He took a lot of pride in that one, sending us so far from the body," he said.

Months later, a hand-drawn map found among Clark's belongings sent investigators on another search. They took cadaver-sniffing dogs to the Clark family burial plot on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There, they found disturbed earth and witnesses who saw Clark there before his arrest.

But nothing more.

Clark's sudden decision to plead guilty to second-degree murder in June 1993 and lead detectives to Houghteling's body raised hopes that he would confess as well to murdering Michele.

He did not. Nor did he confess last October, when he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing Michele.

"At times it's been disappointing," Tarney said, sighing. "A lot of times."

A swing set and seesaw are within 30 feet of where Michele's body was found Thursday night, though they probably weren't there when Clark buried her.

A dozen people, including many investigators and prosecutors involved in the case, gathered close when forensic experts began to dig. When the piece of pink bathing suit came into view, "you could feel a sigh of relief from everyone," an officer said.

Some turned away. Some just stared. A few broke into tears. Hours after the child's remains were raised, police replaced the soil and put leaves over it, leaving no trace of the grave.

CAPTION: Edward Tarney, a detective on the Michele Dorr case, says he and others had endured numerous disappointments in the 14 years since the girl disappeared.