On May's final day in 1986, a hot Saturday, Carl Dorr looked up from a newspaper to see his munchkin daughter, clad in a hot-pink, one-piece bathing suit, bound through the house, through the back door and onto the rear porch. Sunshine, and a turtle-shaped kid's pool, beckoned to Michele from the back yard of the house on Sudbury Road in Silver Spring.
Her dad returned to his paper, never to see his only child again that day, nor any other day through the years of Reagan, then Bush and then Clinton; never to know if the worst prospect was the real one; never to have final punctuation, until yesterday.
Michele Dorr would have been 20 now.
Last night, a body believed to be that of the 6-year-old was unearthed in a wooded area of Paint Branch Park in Montgomery County, about five miles from where Michele was last seen, a towel in tow as she headed out.
In a metropolitan region with many notorious homicides, the last mystery of this one--where was little Michele?--evaporated after her convicted killer apparently finally gave police what they had wanted for so long: the spot where he had left her.
During the 13 years since the May day Michele disappeared, the authorities had looked many places, many times. On Cape Cod. In Rhode Island. In Bethesda. They had used cadaver-sniffing dogs and ground-penetrating radar. Searching for Michele became almost a career for some. Even after his conviction in October, in a case pursued without a body, Hadden Irving Clark had given no hint that he would ever heed the plea of Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason as he sentenced Clark to 30 years: "Denying these parents the opportunity to bury their child denies them closure and increases the magnitude of this crime greatly."
Its magnitude was great enough as it was.
Michele Dorr's cute face--those brown bangs, that shy smile--became sadly familiar to hundreds of thousands over the years. Her photograph was printed and broadcast, and reprinted and re-broadcast, as the hunt for her--and whoever might have taken her, harmed her--drifted on. So great was the emotional power of a child's tragedy that the man who led the investigation for seven years, Detective Edward Tarney, wept on the day Clark was convicted. And Assistant State's Attorney Debra Dwyer called the conviction "the proudest day of my professional career."
Initially, Carl Dorr was the suspect, in part because when Dorr's ex-wife was told that her daughter had disappeared, she blurted to police, "Carl did it." He was grilled and took a lie detector test, and wound up hospitalized because of the strain. But Carl Dorr was never charged. The case went dark for a long time.
And then, on Oct. 21, 1992, a Bethesda woman named Laura Houghteling was reported missing. And a gardener for Houghteling's mother seemed to know something about it. When approached by Houghteling's brother to see what he knew, the gardener, Hadden Clark, had fled in his pickup truck.
Police had known about Clark at the time of Michele Dorr's disappearance because another gardener had told police he had seen a small girl with Clark, who was living with his brother two doors down Sudbury Road from the Dorr house. Detectives obtained Clark's military records and learned that he had been discharged from the Navy for psychiatric reasons. People considered him strange, they learned.
Indeed, when evicted from a rented room in Bethesda once, Clark left behind bags of fish heads. He once entered a church disguised as a woman in an attempt to steal women's purses. But there was never enough evidence to charge him in the Michele Dorr case. With the Houghteling case, however, interest in Clark's tie to the little girl's disappearance soared.
The authorities amassed evidence that Clark had killed Houghteling in her bedroom and carried her body from her house to be hidden. They interrogated him for hours, not only about Houghteling but also about Michele Dorr, even handing him a bathing suit identical to the one she had been wearing the day she disappeared.
On June 14, 1993, Clark pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Houghteling case--but remained silent about Michele. Before being sentenced to 30 years, Clark told detectives he had buried Houghteling in woods not far from her home. The authorities believed strongly that he had also killed Michele Dorr but, as one said at the time, "We just don't have a fingerprint, and no physical evidence at this time."
They kept investigating. They kept digging at sites that seemed plausible.
On Sept. 24, 1998, Clark--then, as now, in prison--was charged with killing Michele Dorr and carrying her body off in a duffel bag. Much of the case against him was circumstantial. But it now appears that Michele, who was spending the Memorial Day weekend with her dad, had headed, not for the backyard pool, but to the house of a 5-year-old friend, the house two doors down, where Clark lived with his brother.
At trial, the statements of fellow inmates proved crucial. One, John Fridley, now a Baltimore mechanic, testified that Clark told him that he found Michele playing with dolls in his niece's bedroom. He cut her across the chest with a 12-inch knife. He slashed her throat.
"He told me he almost decapitated her," Fridley said.
Two doors away, Carl Dorr came to the realization that his daughter wasn't in the back yard. He began to look for her.