The Washington Post Magazine

Story by Paul Duggan
Photo Illustrations
by Gary Tanhouser


The Washington Post
Sunday, August 10, 1997


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From The Post
A week after Michele Dorr disappeared, authorities questioned her father and uncle.

By mid-June, police were concentrating their investigation around Carl Dorr's house.

In 1992, eccentric, homeless Hadden Clark, who was questioned in the Dorr case, was charged with killing Laura Houghteling.

In mid-1993, Clark confessed to killing Houghteling.

A day later, Houghteling's body was found in Bethesda.

In 1995, police found apparent blood splatters in Clark's brother's home that they hoped to link to the Dorr case.

On the Web
Get information on missing children by searching a database compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.




The first

rule in a child-

abduction

investigation

is to look

at family

members.

The second

is to look

at the

neighborhood

oddball.



Detectives

followed those

rules when

Michele Dorr

disappeared,

and 11 years

later they're

still trying

to recover.




Prime Suspects- The Michele Dorr Story


Michele Dorr
Michele Dorr

His cheeks are sunken and they twitch. His skin is prison pallid. His pale blue eyes jump at you.

"I snapped off and did something stupid," he says. He's explaining why he killed a woman named Laura Houghteling in Bethesda five years ago -- duct-taped her mouth in her bedroom, cut her throat, carried her body into the night and hid it for seven months.

"Because of my problems," he says.

Hadden Irving Clark, inmate No. 233181.

He's sitting on the prisoners' side of a half-wall in the cinder-block visiting room of Maryland's Roxbury Correctional Institution, a compound of low-slung beige brick buildings on a sun-parched field west of the Catoctin Mountains. Except for the facial tic, his expression is stony. His dark goatee is flecked with gray. His head is shaved. His problems include paranoid schizophrenia. He pleaded guilty to the Houghteling killing in 1993, and he's doing 30 years. But Montgomery County homicide detectives aren't through with him.

"The M.D.," says Hadden in a low voice. His eyes dart. "I don't talk about that."

He means Michele Dorr, age 6. She vanished 11 years ago from her father's back yard in Silver Spring. She's still missing, presumed dead.

In 1986, her disappearance gripped the region. There was the ritual communal deathwatch via the nightly news: tape of police dogs sniffing the underbrush, the mother weeping live at 6 and 11. But the drama had no final act; the story just dissolved. Michele became file video -- a face to show when other kids went missing in other places, a memory for parents to shudder at.

For the police, the drama is still playing out. Crimes against kids tend to arouse in cops a righteous anger and a lasting resolve to set things straight -- and in this case, there's more.

Eleven years ago, Michele's father was the primary suspect. The weight of the investigation crushed him -- left him temporarily insane -- as months passed and he was neither arrested nor cleared. Hadden Clark was a suspect, too, though a lesser one -- until years later, after he killed Laura Houghteling for no sane reason.

Since then, the cops have tromped through woods in New Jersey and Massachusetts with cadaver-sniffing dogs, ripped up floorboards in Silver Spring, listened to secretly made tapes of Hadden talking behind bars -- all in a quest to prove Hadden killed Michele Dorr, too.

Now they're in a stalemate with prosecutors over the strength of the evidence they've uncovered. Now, they realize that by obeying their instincts in '86 -- by focusing their scrutiny where experience told them to focus it, by tirelessly pursuing the wrong man for the right reasons -- they may have poisoned what chance they had of closing the case, of easing the anguish it has caused.

Which is why they won't give up on Hadden Clark.

"They're harassing me," he says in the cinder-block visiting room. ". . . The police are just trying to clear the books on that."

Then: "I know a lot about that case. I could tell you some other time . . . The police are covering up a lot."

Then: "I don't talk about that."

He's 45. He'll be parole-eligible in 10 years. Even without parole, if he follows prison rules, he'll be out before he's 65. In medium security, he waits.

"My main goal in here, before I get back on the street, is to get some help for my problems," he says. "I'm not saying I'm definitely going to snap off again and do something when I get out. But you can't predict the future."

She was going out to play the last time her father saw her.

That's what Carl Dorr said then -- on May 31, 1986, the day his only child vanished -- and that's what he says now.

It was afternoon, maybe 2 o'clock. Or maybe earlier: Maybe 12:30, or a little before. He's not sure. Hours after the crime, days afterward, months and years afterward, investigators would reinterview him -- cajole him, badger him, reason with him on crucial questions of time -- and Carl would reply that May 31 had been an empty, lazy Saturday, not a day for clock-watching. Plus he had other things weighing on him. By May '86, he and "the ex" had been wrestling in divorce court for more than a year. He'd been fired twice in three months from jobs at auto body shops.

Anyway, it was afternoon.

No one else was in the house, a half-century-old white-brick colonial that Carl and his brother, Charles, rented at 9129 Sudbury Rd. in Silver Spring. Carl, then 33, was at the dining room table reading a newspaper when Michele came bounding downstairs.

She had on a bathing suit that her mother, Dorothy, had bought for her -- a hot-pink one-piece by Oshkosh B'Gosh with white polka dots and a pink-and-white ruffle at the waist. Mom and daughter had picked it out at Lakeforest Mall, near the town house they shared just north of Gaithersburg -- and now, visiting her father for the weekend, Michele could hardly wait to play in the water. Carl had filled a green plastic wading pool in the back yard.

Dorothy had written in a sworn statement that Carl had threatened to 'meet our daughter, age 6, at the bus stop to abduct her.' So when Michele disappeared a few months later, it didn't look good for Carl.

Michele strode barefoot through the kitchen toward the back door, dragging a towel. She was 3 1/2 feet tall and had shoulder-length brown hair, bangs that fell to the tops of her blue eyes, and a splash of freckles across her nose. Because of her parents' divorce, she didn't smile as often as other kids -- "She had seen too much for a 6-year-old," her mother says -- but the smile, when she revealed it, was a kindergarten classic: a slight overbite and a gap in the middle where a tooth had fallen out.

Carl watched her go. He heard the screen door in the kitchen open, then ease shut, as Michele walked out to the porch and down the two steps to the small back yard. Memorial Day had fallen the Monday before. It was lovely out: near 90 degrees, the sky pale and cloudless.

He turned back to his newspaper for a while. His brother was at work, selling cars. Carl had nothing planned for the afternoon, except a trip to the pool at Montgomery Village, the community where Michele lived with her mother. With hours yawning before him, he tidied the kitchen; he looked over his bills; he sat down occasionally and watched TV. The Indianapolis 500 was on from noon until about 3, having been rained out the weekend before, and the race easily caught his attention.

The old house had no air conditioning, so Carl had opened a few windows, and at some point -- after the Indy 500, he thinks -- he heard children playing in the distance.

He looked outside. The back yard was undisturbed: At the foot of the porch steps was a barbecue grill, and next to it a picnic table. Beyond them was the metal swing set Michele liked to play on when she visited, and to the right of that stood a detached two-car garage. In the middle of the yard was the green plastic pool. The water in it was still.

Michele was nowhere around.

The children Carl had heard playing were in the yard two houses to his right as he looked out back. He could see them -- two small boys kicking a soccer ball behind their father's house.

They were the sons of Geoffrey Clark, then 31, another weekend father going through an ugly divorce. Though the two men were only casually acquainted, Carl knew that in addition to the boys, Geoff had a daughter, Elizabeth, who was a year younger than Michele. When the girls' visits to Silver Spring coincided, they often played together. Now, seeing the boys in the yard, Carl assumed that Elizabeth was in the house -- and that Michele had gone looking for her and was inside, too.

He looked again about 4 o'clock -- he's sure of the time, because he planned to take Michele to Montgomery Village then -- but still neither girl was outside. He figured Michele would probably rather keep playing and decided to leave her be.

Supper time came -- 5:30, maybe 5:45 -- and he went to the Clark house to get her. He saw Elizabeth in the yard with her father, her brothers and a woman he didn't recognize -- they were having a cookout -- but where was Michele? None of them knew. None of them had seen her.

"It freaked me out," Carl says now.

He jumped in his old Dodge Colt and started cruising the neighborhood in a mounting panic. He peered between houses and asked folks in their yards if they'd seen his daughter, but he could find no trace of her. It was 6:30 when he showed up at the Montgomery County Police Department's Silver Spring station to report her missing. (continued in Part Two)

Part Two    |    Part Three    |    Part Four    |    Part Five

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