What might be the Midlands’ oldest whodunit, the abduction of Dail Dinwiddie, got a jolt of publicity Monday, when leading law officers released an age-adjusted photo of what Dail Dinwiddie might look like today, nearly 20 years after she disappeared.
The photo, put together by a SLED forensic artist, apparently has a double message. If Dinwiddie is alive, it might help identify her, but if she’s dead, it might trigger a pang of conscience in someone who will let police or the family know where her body is.
Officially, police aren’t conceding Dinwiddie – a petite, bright college graduate who at age 23 vanished Sept. 24, 1992, after leaving a Five Points bar – is dead. She had no history of drug or alcohol abuse and was regarded as a responsible young adult.
“I’m not willing to say Dail is deceased until you give me some proof that she is deceased,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said, referring to the Elizabeth Smart case. Smart, 14, was kidnapped in 2002 from her Salt Lake City, Utah, bedroom and was found alive nine months later. Her abductor is serving a life sentence.
Underscoring the importance of Monday’s news event was the presence of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and SLED Chief Mark Keel. Both have been involved in the case since Dinwiddie disappeared.
“This is a case I can’t call cold because it’s being worked on every day,” Scott said. The lead detective is Investigator Mark Vinson, Scott said, who works with SLED and Richland County officers.
In recent years, investigators have checked out leads in North Carolina and in South Carolina, including in the vast Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston, Scott said.
Lott, who was a captain in the Sheriff’s Department in 1992, used the news conference as a forum to offer a $20,000 reward for anyone who furnishes information that leads authorities “to find Dail.”
Dinwiddie’s mother, Jean, her face a study in anguish, read a statement.
“A mama never rests when any of her children is not known to be safe,” Jean Dinwiddie, 73, said. “Today, 20 years after the abduction of my child, I still cannot rest easy because I don’t know where she is.
“We ask that even if you will not help us solve this crime, would you please let us know how to find Dail,” she said, choking back tears. She asked that if a source fells “more comfortable speaking with the Dinwiddie family,” to call them at home at (803) 254-1690.
Police declined to comment on whether they believe Dinwiddie was abducted at random or was targeted.
Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer who was solicitor from 1991-95 and worked extensively with police on the case, said Monday, “I always had the theory that a serial abductor was drawn by the U2 crowd and came to Columbia, and she was a victim of that. He would pick the Five Points area, where the crowds went after the concert, where students are known to go, and look for a young woman walking alone.”
Harpootlian, who like other current and former law officers says he remains “tormented” by the disappearance, said: “It just seemed like she evaporated into thin air. We talked to dozens and dozens of people. Every lead was pursued to the nth degree.”
What is known is this: Dinwiddie, wearing blue jeans, a forest-green pullover shirt and white Nikes with a blue stripe, was one of about 30,000 people who attended a U2 concert on Sept. 23, 1992, at Williams-Brice Stadium. She was carrying a blue nylon jacket, for the evening was unseasonably cool.
That night, Dinwiddie went to the concert with a friend, a USC medical school student, with the understanding that he would take her but she would have to find her own way home, said her father, Dan Dinwiddie, 72.
Dail had grown up in Columbia and graduated from Heathwood Hall and Randolph Macon College, where she won a senior prize for the best art paper. She was preparing to study art history at USC.
“She was very level-headed; she was rather athletic, in that she had ridden horses; she was not a wallflower, but she wasn’t somebody who stood up and said, ‘Hey, look at me.’ All her friends said around them she was funny, kind of a jokester. They also said she didn’t do drugs and, if she drank, she drank sparingly. She was really almost a do-gooder,” Dan Dinwiddie said.
“She would do the right thing – she was really what you would like for your daughter.”
At the concert, Dail met up with some longtime friends and new acquaintances – along with thousands of U2 fans – and then descended on Five Points, a popular restaurant nightspot area for young people. She and her friends wound up at Jungle Jim’s, a now-defunct bar, that was jammed with fans.
“Dail went to the ladies’ room, and when Dail came out, everyone she knew had left,” her father said. “We had always told her, if she needed help, we would come get her, no questions asked.”
The last person who acknowledged seeing Dail was Jungle Jim’s bouncer, who told police Dail was rushing across a parking lot as if looking for her friends about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 24.
Dinwiddie’s disappearance has been the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles and television news stories. Police have received thousands of tips. More than 75 psychics have offered help.
Dozens of city, county and state law officers have spent thousands of hours on the case. The FBI sent a special team to help organize all the information police were receiving. Various prison inmates and other suspects were targeted, interrogated and then cleared.
The case happened before modern technology.
In 1992, Five Points had no surveillance cameras as it does today. Young people did not carry cellphones, which today have GPS technology that can help locate people.
Over the years, the Dinwiddie case, like the cases of other Midlands women abducted, such as Bobbi Rossi and Shari Faye Smith in the 1980s, have served as a painful reminders that any young woman alone can be at risk.
“Columbia is generally a safe city,” Scott said, “but I strongly advise going with a friend if possible, because many crimes are crimes of opportunity, and we should do what we can to lessen that opportunity.”
Lott said Monday, “There’s somebody out there who knows.”
After the news conference, Dan Dinwiddie shook his head sadly.
“It’s like a damn Martian came down here and grabbed Dail,” he said. “Nobody saw anything.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.