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August 13, 2012

Dail Dinwiddie case bedevils, consumes family and detectives

Editors Note: This story originally appeared in The State newspaper Thursday, Sept. 25, 1997

If anything, five long years of chasing shadows has made coping tougher.

Dan and Jean Dinwiddie understand that time is against them. They embrace hope - the hope that daughter Dail is somewhere out there.

"I run to the mailbox every day to see if there's a letter," her mother said. "Or if there's a phone call I think maybe it's Dail calling just to hear my voice or see if I'm all right."

Dinwiddie vanished five years ago this week after rushing from a Five Points bar about 2:30 a.m. There's been no sign of her since.

"This year we're not going to do anything special," Dan Dinwiddie said of the fifth anniversary of Dail Dinwiddie 's disappearance on Wednesday. "I don't know that it does any good, and emotionally, it's very hard on us."

Her father struggles to remain upbeat. "I've not given up hope that she's somewhere," Dan Dinwiddie added. He doesn't say the word "alive," but he believes she is.

Hope and frustration is about all that's left for those who love the Columbia woman, who vanished Sept. 24, 1992, and now would be 28 years old.

The rest is a black hole - a lack of hard facts.

That gnaws not only on Dinwiddie's family and friends but police officers, some of whom are pledged to finding the former Shandon resident.

But the ticking of the clock takes a toll on Dinwiddie's parents.

"It's like a circle. You just go over and over and over. You never get out of the maze," Jean Dinwiddie said, her voice choking. "It's really difficult."

There is less of a point to giving safety talks to University of South Carolina freshmen each fall because students no long know about Dail Dinwiddie 's disappearance.

The media don't pay as much attention and the phone calls have dwindled.

Taking the calls is an emotional roll of the dice, but fewer rings seems to say people have lost interest, the mother said.

Dan Dinwiddie said that one way the family has learned to cope is by letting their youngest child, Drew, live his own life.

He had just turned 16 when his sister disappeared after a rock concert at Williams-Brice Stadium. For months, the Dinwiddies made him wear a pager and report his whereabouts.

He went away to school for a while. Now, Drew Dinwiddie is 21, living and working in Florida and doing well, his father said.

Back in Columbia, police keep looking for a break. And keep smacking into the same wall.

"We don't have a crime scene," police Chief Charles P. Austin said. "We don't even know if a crime has been committed."

Police have investigated the disappearance as a kidnapping but can't be sure Dinwiddie didn't run away. Hers is the oldest missing-person case on the Columbia Police Department's books.

After untold hours of interrogations, of leads that looked promising, of digging in dirt and draining lakes for Dinwiddie's remains, detectives come back to this tiny bit of solid information:

A bouncer at Jungle Jim's, a Five Points bar, noticed her rush out of the club that fall morning. She ran across the club parking lot and up Harden Street toward Greene. Then she vanished.

The rest is conjecture and the pursuit of bogus leads.

Following leads, police brought in dogs trained to sniff out cadavers. They found deer bones and other remains, but not Dinwiddie's. The Lexington County Public Works Department dug up a farm after a caller told a television station about fresh mounds of dirt on the property.

Detectives tore a floor out of a Five Points-area house when the new tenants complained of a foul smell coming from a section that had been replaced.

Harold Chambers and Jerry Britt, the chief Columbia detectives on the case, fought their way through a Williamsburg County marsh on a tip that a body was there. "They gave us a gun in case a snake dropped down on us," Chambers recalls.

Still, Columbia police continue the search.

Earlier this year, five detectives who had never worked on the Dinwiddie case were assigned to review the files that fill a shoulder-high filing cabinet. They decided to interview 32 people again.

"These were fresh eyes and fresh minds to look at stale material," said Maj. Charlie Clark. They were asked, 'Do you see anything we didn't see?'" said Clark, the assistant chief.

They found no breakthroughs.

The Dinwiddie case has tapped the emotions of veteran, thick-skinned detectives.

Chambers appears as crusty as detectives come. He works quietly and doesn't have much use for attention from reporters or cameras.

But Chambers put off his retirement to try to solve the Dinwiddie case.

After surgery slowed him, he's back part time at the Columbia Police Department. Dinwiddie's case file is a couple of steps from his desk. Her missing-person poster hangs on his office wall.

"You can't say, 'I've had enough' because there's a woman and a man out there missing a daughter, and a boy missing a sister," the 30-year veteran said. "You just can't do that."

He understands in part because he has two daughters and a granddaughter.

Chambers has been a shield, a bulldog and more for the Dinwiddies.

He takes their phone calls at 2 in the morning. He warns well-meaning people to call police, not the family, with tips. "He's come to funerals of our friends," Jean Dinwiddie said. "He's just become a very good friend."

The disappearance also grabbed the attention of former Richland County Sheriff Allen Sloan.

Convinced that Dinwiddie's body would be found in Richland County, Sloan once dispatched 60 deputies to search a field off the Sumter Highway because two psychics sensed the body was there.

It was the first time he had ever acted on the advice of clairvoyants, Sloan said.

The best tip he ever got was from a convicted drug dealer who claimed to have been there when three men abducted Dinwiddie.

The man, whom Sloan wouldn't name, was willing to trade information for serving his 20-year sentence in South Carolina.

The information seemed solid, especially when the tipster named three people who have long been prime suspects. Sloan said their names were as common to police as "Adluh flour."

Her body was in the trunk of a car at the bottom of a lake on private property in Lower Richland, the tipster said.

Divers found a car and arranged for a crane to pull it from the water, for a forensic pathologist from Charleston to identify the remains and a flatbed to haul the sealed car and contents to the FBI lab in Virginia, said Sloan, who lost the sheriff's race last fall.

"We pulled the car up and nothing. There was no body in it. There never had been a body. He was lying all the way through."

So goes the Dinwiddie case.

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