In the almost 14 years since 6-year-old Michele Dorr had disappeared, their lives had moved on. But they had never been able to let go of the memory of the little girl whose face had peered out from missing person posters so many years ago.
Family members and friends struggled to overcome her loss. Police officers and prosecutors dedicated their careers to finding her and bringing her killer to justice. Strangers unaccountably were touched by the disappearance of a child they never met.
Yesterday, hundreds of them gathered at a Montgomery County funeral home to say their final goodbyes and put to rest the grief of not knowing for so long what had become of Michele. Her remains were found Jan. 6 after her killer, Hadden Clark, led investigators to the area of the shallow grave he had dug just miles from her father's Silver Spring home.
"It's always haunted me that they never found her," said Stephen Robertson, 32, a computer technician who wept in the lobby of the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring as he recalled how, as a young private detective, he helped police comb the woods for Michele's body. "I felt we let the family down.
"When I heard the news [of the funeral] this morning, all the frustration came back. I mean we're talking 13 years ago, and it hurts just as bad as when they called off the search."
The discovery of Michele's remains finally allowed her family to have a formal funeral service, which overflowed yesterday with mourners. They filled the funeral home chapel, which seated 300, spilling into an anteroom and then the main lobby, where many watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television.
"Don't become bitter, closed in," the Rev. Charles L. Updike told the mourners. "Let a hopeful heart lead you."
Carl Dorr and Dee Dee Appleby, the divorced parents of Michele, sat in separate pews during the service. They rose and stood together before their daughter's small, flower-draped casket and lighted seven white candles, which, the pastor explained, were "representative of Michele's light being brought into this world."
Michele's sister, Tina Keffer, a freckle-faced, red-headed girl in the family pictures that adorned the lobby of the funeral home, but now a grown woman, also spoke.
"Words can never express how much your prayers of support have meant to us," she told those gathered. Then she read a poem dedicated to her sister and talked of her memories of Michele.
"The times she would grab my hand to walk across the street. . . . Although she is not here in my sights, she will always be in my heart," Keffer said.
And then there were those from law enforcement--the police officers, the detectives, the prosecutors who had in one way or another been consumed by her case through the years. The four pallbearers were Sgt. Bob Phillips, retired homicide investigator; Ed Day, assigned to the case from Day One; and Jim Trusty and Debbie Dwyer, the prosecutors who helped win a conviction of Clark.
Even officers like Derek Baliles, who became a Montgomery County police officer years after Michele's disappearance, noted the deep sense of connection those in uniform had to Michele's case.
"I grew up here," Baliles said. "Everybody who grew up here knows this story."
Many of those present only knew Michele from her death but were compelled to attend her memorial service and even bring gifts to the family.
Robertson, the Calvert County computer technician who had helped search for Michele's body long ago, brought a bouquet of flowers. Joyce Everett, a Virginia woman who lived in Montgomery County when Michele disappeared, gave Michele's mother two ceramic figurines--both in the image of an angel.
"My daughter is now almost 21 years old, the same age Michele would be," said Everett, who had not met Michele's mother before. "She was laying out there in the woods all this time, and that's not right."
Gayle Komisar, Michele's kindergarten teacher, read an essay by Michele in which she talked about her family, her pets and wanting to be a teacher "when I grow up."
Before the service, Komisar said she had kept the essay over the years, even as she moved from one job to another.
"It's always been part of my special mementos," Komisar said. "It showed how much she loved her parents."
She added, "I can picture her as if it were yesterday."
Michele's family gave their little girl a proper burial at Fort Lincoln Cemetery, near the graves of her paternal grandparents.
"I think it's so the family can have a place to go be with Michele," her former kindergarten teacher said, and have "finalization."
CAPTION: A woman pauses at the casket of Michele Dorr. Earlier, the minister had told mourners, "Don't become bitter, closed in. Let a hopeful heart lead you."
CAPTION: Carl Dorr and Dee Dee Appleby return to their pews after standing before Michele's casket and lighting seven candles, which, the Rev. Charles L. Updike told mourners, were "representative of Michele's light being brought into this world."
CAPTION: Flanking funeral director Robert Maclary, center, at Fort Lincoln Cemetery are pallbearers Debbie Dwyer, left, Ed Day, Jim Trusty and Sgt. Bob Phillips.