Dee Dee Appleby heard nervous excitement in the detective's voice for the first time in more than 13 years.
"Are you okay?" Montgomery police Sgt. Bob Phillips asked through the phone.
"You found her, didn't you?" Appleby asked.
The call she had wanted for so long, the one she had hoped would bring a flood of relief, has instead unleashed a torrent of grief and anger. The discovery two weeks ago of a shallow grave that held her 6-year-old daughter, Michele Dorr, for all those years has left Appleby wondering what to do with the rest of her life.
"I lost myself when I lost Michele," she said.
Appleby, 48, who often avoided the media spotlight that had followed Michele's case since 1986, has found refuge in a quiet waterfront town of antique stores and quaint boutiques in Southern Maryland.
She lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the water from which she can see gentle waves, sailboats and the white steeple of a Catholic church.
It is her place to "hide," she said, from the ugliness that happened 90 miles away in Montgomery County. Even for her first lengthy interview since her daughter's body was found, Appleby keeps her sanctuary, meeting a reporter at a nearby restaurant. "To bring you closer," she apologized, "would be too much."
Now, so many years later, Appleby says she wants to help other families avoid the devastation she faced after Michele vanished.
Like the times she couldn't buy food or pay the phone or electric bills because it's hard to keep a job when depression keeps you in bed. Like the lingering guilt over how her other daughter, besides losing a sister, also grew up without much of a mother.
She wants to warn others about "people who come out of the woodwork" to exploit desperate parents, like the psychic who left her with the haunting idea that Michele had been tortured and left alone, calling for her mother.
There are the friendships, even a new marriage, that withered while she fixated, year after year, on finding her daughter.
It is obvious that Hadden Clark, the man convicted last year of killing Michele in 1986, brutalized more than the little girl.
"I've been taking a deep breath," Appleby said. "I'm trying to soften and discover who Dee Dee is again."
The last time Appleby saw her daughter alive, Michele was crying. It was May 30, 1986, a Friday afternoon. Appleby and her other daughter, Tina, then 14, were on their way to the Virginia shore to visit Appleby's family. It was Michele's weekend with her father.
"Mommy, I don't want to go," Michele cried as she wrapped herself around Appleby's leg near the front door of the Montgomery Village neighbor with whom Michele would stay until her father could pick her up after work.
Michele enjoyed her weekends with her father, Appleby said, but she just didn't want to leave her mother and sister.
With the judge's visitation order in mind, Appleby peeled Michele from her leg and watched as the girl tearfully walked away, dressed in a pastel-striped sundress and white, plastic jelly sandals.
Back then, Appleby and Michele's father, Carl Dorr, were divorcing and fighting about everything: custody of Michele, how much he should pay in child support, who should get the town house. In the heat of arguments, she said, Dorr threatened to get back at her by abducting Michele.
Montgomery police Detective Wayne Farrell called Appleby at her parents' home the next afternoon to tell her that Michele hadn't been seen since she headed outside to a play pool in her father's back yard. She said one thought popped to mind: "Carl knows where she is."
"The thought of a stranger abducting Michele never crossed my mind," she said in a barely audible voice laced with the lilting accent of her native Hampton, Va. Her slim frame and tired eyes brimming with tears make her seem fragile, like she might suddenly faint. A small golden angel is pinned to the lapel of her brown tweed blazer.
Appleby said she knew that Montgomery police were interviewing Dorr's neighbors, but she doesn't recall hearing the name Hadden Clark, who that weekend had been moving out of his brother's home two doors down from Dorr. Police would later say that they were immediately suspicious of Clark after he vomited and suffered severe diarrhea when they questioned him about Michele.
But the suspicion quickly shifted to Dorr after he began giving rambling confessions, once saying he had buried Michele in the crawl space of his house. Prosecutors would later chalk up the confessions to a series of acute psychotic breakdowns--some led to hospitalizations--prompted by severe depression, guilt over leaving Michele alone and the pressure of police scrutiny.
Then the search turned cold.
Once or twice a year, a detective or a reporter would call Appleby saying there were new clues about Michele's disappearance. Each futile twist in the search--and there were dozens--meant a new bout of depression for Appleby: weeks, even months, when she couldn't get out of bed, couldn't drive to the grocery store, couldn't pay much attention to Tina. Supervisors at her nursing jobs said they were sorry, sympathetic, but they couldn't afford an employee who didn't show up.
Several times, Appleby said, she and Tina didn't eat because, after losing yet another job, she couldn't afford food. The phone was shut off. Her Plymouth Duster was repossessed.
James Shalleck, a Montgomery Village lawyer who represented Appleby pro bono and became close friends with her, said Appleby simply stopped functioning. As her personal and financial problems mounted, Shalleck said, Appleby isolated herself from everything except her lost little girl.
Every conversation circled back to Michele; Appleby often suffered from physical exhaustion, Shalleck said. "She fought a lot of these emotional battles all by herself, and it took a heavy toll on her."
About a year after her daughter vanished, she married a friend, Roger Appleby.
"He knew me when I was normal," Dee Dee Appleby said, "and he knew me when my life fell apart."
But she said the marriage never stood a chance. They separated in 1992.
"Roger used to say to me: 'You won't let yourself love. You won't let yourself laugh or have fun. You won't let yourself live.' "
"When I did laugh," she said, "I'd think, 'You can't laugh. She's still missing.' "
In October 1992, Laura Houghteling, a 23-year-old Harvard University graduate, disappeared from her bedroom in her mother's Bethesda home. When Hadden Clark, a gardener for Houghteling's mother, was arrested, police knew it was no longer coincidence that Clark had lived near Michele's father when she disappeared.
But for six more years, the Dorr case went nowhere. Police and prosecutors argued over whether they had enough evidence to convict Clark without Michele's body.
Appleby said she pushed prosecutors to file charges and called reporters to talk when she felt that public pressure to close Michele's case was waning.
Prosecutors finally decided in 1998 that their best evidence against Michele's alleged killer was only gathering dust. Clark was arrested in prison while serving a 30-year sentence in Houghteling's slaying.
The first time Appleby saw Clark in person was when she sat in the front row at his trial three months ago.
As a former prison inmate testified that Clark talked of slicing Michele across the throat so hard that he almost decapitated the child, Appleby cried. Clark, she said, looked straight at her--and smiled. She stared back.
"It was power," she said. "It was 'I'm not going to give up. This is not going to break me.' "
The trial also brought Appleby face to face with the first real proof of Michele's death: Prosecutors had hauled into the courtroom the wooden floor of the room in Hadden Clark's brother's house where the inmate said Michele died.
In the grooves between the floorboards were thin strips of yellow tape marking where police found dried blood. Fellow inmates of Clark testified that he talked of coming upon Michele playing with dolls in the bedroom of his 5-year-old niece, one of Michele's playmates.
Appleby touched the floor, tried to imagine Michele standing in the middle of the room where the blood had pooled. It was then she realized the floor might be the closest she would ever get to her daughter.
So she said goodbye, intending that to be her closure. She wouldn't beg Clark to point her to Michele.
"It was important," she said, "for me to say to Hadden, 'You can take your secret to hell with you.' "
Even after Clark was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing her daughter, Appleby said she still wasn't certain Michele was dead.
That's why, Appleby said, it was so important for her to touch her daughter's bones, recovered from the shallow grave beside a Silver Spring highway where Clark led authorities this month.
Ignoring the advice of detectives and the funeral home, she lifted the blanket in the child-size cherry casket to find a small pile of bones lying between a tiny skull and short leg bones. It was her final proof.
Now, she said, she can begin thinking about ways to help other parents of missing children. She may write a book, and she has started a fund in Michele's name so there is "truly some goodness out there in her name, in honor of what she went through." The fund would help parents and siblings of missing children pay for basics such as counseling and groceries.
Carl Dorr, 47, who also remarried and now lives in Kensington, has started a separate fund in Michele's name, also to help families of missing children. After years of therapy for severe depression, Dorr said 1992 was a turning point for him, after suspicions about Michele's disappearance shifted from him back to Clark.
Appleby said that while she is happy her ex-husband has been vindicated, things are "still rough" between them.
"There's still that little part of me that I have to let go, of [thinking], 'Why didn't you check on her for two hours?' " the day Michele vanished, Appleby said. "It's been a long time, but when I look at him, I still remember."
She said she finds comfort in God, whom she rejected for two years after Michele disappeared, thinking that if Michele's murder was part of God's plan, then she didn't want any part of Him. She said she no longer believes God controls other people's wrong actions.
And lately she sometimes startles awake during the night, fixated on the image of Michele's skeleton lying in the casket. She said she finds herself clutching a small, stuffed purple rabbit, left by a stranger on the shallow grave where Michele lay all those years.
CAPTION: Dee Dee Appleby weeps at the site where a killer buried her daughter.