Montgomery County police officers yesterday found what they believe are the skeletal remains of Michele Dorr buried in a wooded ravine in Silver Spring, ending a 13-year search after being directed to the grave by Hadden Clark, the man convicted of killing the 6-year-old.
Clark, who has consistently denied killing the child, was taken under police supervision from prison in Western Maryland yesterday to a site on public property in Silver Spring's White Oak neighborhood, according to a police source.
There, within earshot of rush-hour traffic streaming along Route 29, Montgomery police officers working with dogs and forensic experts excavated with gloved hands and trowels before coming across remnants of a pink bathing suit and a child's skeletal remains at 7:08 p.m. Michele was last seen May 31, 1986, leaving her father's kitchen in a pink ruffled bathing suit with white polka dots headed for a turtle-shaped wading pool in the back yard.
In a flood of sadness and relief for detectives and family members, the discovery ends a search that ranged along the Eastern Seaboard at a plot a five-minute drive from the home where Michele disappeared.
"It's nice to have the opportunity now to bury Michele and have a funeral for her, those things we weren't able to do for so long," said her father, Carl Dorr. "I still miss Michele to this day, and I will continue to miss her. But at least I'll have somewhere to go to say goodbye."
Clark's cooperation and the body's location near a busy road were reminiscent of a similar scene seven years ago. After pleading guilty to killing Laura Houghteling, a 23-year-old Bethesda resident, Clark led police to her grave off Interstate 270 and Old Georgetown Road.
Yesterday, state medical examiners removed a child's remains from the scene at 10 p.m. so they can determine cause of death and make an official identification. But Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose announced that "we have a lot of strong indicators that we have recovered the remains of Michele Dorr."
"This is a situation that for us brings some closure but also a great deal of sadness," Moose said. "Any time we lose a member of the community, even in a case this old, it just reminds us how evil people can be to other people."
The discovery comes less than three months after Clark, a former neighbor of Michele's father, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing the child after a jury convicted him of second-degree murder.
Michele's disappearance had been one of Montgomery County's most notorious and troubling missing person cases, complicated by time and twists that have misdirected police at various stages. It has consumed a group of detectives, whom Moose praised yesterday for "tremendous tenacity." Even retired officers regularly call the department for updates on the search.
Lt. Mike Garvey, supervisor of Montgomery County's homicide detective squad and the original detective on the case, said he turned to Deputy State's Attorney John McCarthy when Michele's body was found and said, "We should say a prayer."
"This is hallowed ground up here," said Garvey, who along with Sgt. Bob Phillips and Detective Edward Tarney pursued the case longest. "A child from our community was taken from us. . . . It has been with me since May 31, 1986, and will stay with me forever."
Part of the case's abiding mystery and frustration stemmed from the strange turns it took at various times. Carl Dorr, who was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce at the time of his daughter's disappearance, once confessed during a nervous breakdown to killing the girl, but recanted later. He became the sole suspect for police until detectives focused their attention on Clark in 1992.
Dorr emerged from his small Kensington home just before 10:30 p.m. to praise the police and put words to a swirl of emotions. He, his sister and his wife visited the scene Wednesday--when the search began--but worried that it would be as fruitless as earlier visits. He received a brief call last night from Tarney notifying him that police had found a child's remains.
"I guess part of me is real happy, but at the same time I want to cry," Dorr said. "It's been so long."
Of Clark's involvement, which he would not confirm, Dorr said, "I'm glad I guess he had the courage to come forward, if in fact that's what he did."
The reason for Clark's cooperation remained unclear last night. Clark's lawyer, assistant public defender Donald Salzman, has filed an appeal of his murder conviction with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. He said he has not had discussions on Clark's behalf about any deal involving a reduced sentence for Clark's cooperation.
While serving a 30-year sentence for the Houghteling murder, Clark told inmates that he had killed a little neighbor girl years earlier. He told one inmate that he came upon Michele on May 31, 1986, playing with dolls in his 5-year-old niece's bedroom. At his trial, inmates recounted him describing how he slashed the child's throat so fiercely that he almost decapitated her, then put her body in a duffel bag and carried it to his truck.
The search for the body took police to Massachusetts and Rhode Island to comb Clark family property, including at least one occasion when police used the same dogs that were at the site of yesterday's dig. Police say they dug for Michele's body at least a dozen times at various places along the Eastern Seaboard.
They had been searching a 20-acre area between northbound Route 29 and Old Columbia Pike south of Tech Road since Wednesday, but had little to show for the slow, careful work until Panzer and Gunner, two dogs supplied by the Rhode Island State Police, located a possible grave less than 30 yards east of Route 29 and 150 yards from a town house development.
As a chilly twilight fell yesterday and news helicopters buzzed overhead, the dogs reacted to a site about 150 yards from a small town house development police believe was not built at the time of Michele's disappearance. Police roped off the 8-by-8-foot area and worked under the glare of spotlights as forensic experts dug gingerly in the leaf-covered ground east of Route 29 and south of Tech Road.
Five forensic specialists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in the District began painstakingly scraping dirt and leaves from a patch of dry ground surrounded by thorny bushes. With gloved hands, they brushed away soil, then sifted the dirt through a sieve looking for bone particles or teeth. They came across the bit of pink cloth and bones between one and two feet below the surface.
"It's like an archaeological dig," Garvey said. "They're just scraping off [the soil] going a little at a time."
Staff writers Manuel Perez-Rivas, Phuong Ly and Fern Shen contributed to this report.
The Search for Michele Dorr
Police are searching a site off Columbia Pike in White Oak for the body of Michele Dorr. Michele was 6 years old when she was last seen in her father's Silver Spring yard in 1986.
May 1986: Michele Dorr, 6, disappears. At the time, Hadden Clark, a restaurant kitchen worker, is living a few houses away.
June 1986: Michele's father, Carl, becomes the prime suspect. He is never charged. Police also question Clark. The investigation slows.
October 1992: Laura Houghteling, 23, a Harvard graduate, is reported missing from her Bethesda home. Clark did occasional gardening for her family.
November 1992: Police charge Clark with Houghteling's murder after finding his bloody fingerprint on one of her pillowcases. Police search for her body in central New Jersey after Clark suggested he buried `them` in a state where he had lived as a child. Nothing is recovered. Police begin to look intensely at Clark as a suspect in the Dorr case.
January 1993: Looking for Houghteling's and Michele's bodies, police twice search the woods in Wellfleet, Mass., at a property once owned by Clark's grandfather.
June 1993: Clark pleads guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Houghteling and leads police to a shallow grave not far from her home, where her body is recovered. Clark is given a 30-year prison sentence.
October 1995: Police in Warwick, R.I., search a storage locker rented to Clark and seize several items, but none is definitely tied to Michele.
May 1995: Police again search the storage locker in Rhode Island.
September 1995: Police return to the Wellfleet property with radar and specially trained dogs, unsuccessfully looking for traces of Michele. Investigators discover traces of blood in the bedroom of the house where Clark was living at the time of Michele's disappearance.
September 1998: Police arrest and charge Clark with the killing of Michele Dorr based on new DNA evidence.
October 1999: Clark is convicted of murdering Michele; her body is not found.
January 6, 2000: Michele's body is found