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August 13, 2012

Dinwiddie Case: 800 leads, no clues

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The State newspaper Sunday, Nov. 22, 1992

Two months after their daughter, Dail, was kidnapped, Dan and Jean Dinwiddie of Columbia nurture the hope that she will come back safe and sound.

As time goes on, though, they have tried to prepare themselves for the possibility she might not.

Dail Dinwiddie disappeared two months ago, Sept. 24. Since then, Columbia police say they have gotten more than 800 leads, interviewed about 250 people and then had different investigators re-interview the same people, hoping fresh information would emerge.

Law enforcement experts say the details of the case indicate someone planned the crime -- that it was not an impulsive move.

They also say that, like hundreds of other cases that occur each year across the nation, the Dinwiddie kidnapping poses one of the most difficult cases for police to solve because she vanished from Five Points without a trace.

So how do you solve a crime with no clues?

"The short answer is, you don't," said Jay Siegel, who runs a forensic science program at Michigan State University. "Sometimes you don't ever find these people. You've got to have witnesses or clues . . . and if you don't, you just have no place to go."

The lack of a crime scene to analyze -- for fingerprints, hair, anything -- leaves police with little to go on except theories.

Capt. C.R. Clark, head of Columbia police investigations, characterized the case this way: "We're just wide open." 'A target of opportunity'

A week after Dinwiddie disappeared, police labeled the case a kidnapping -- certain, after scores of interviews with friends and family members,that she wouldn't have left town without telling anyone.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dick Harpootlian said the lack of clues is a clue in itself. Whoever abducted the woman, he said, probably planned the crime.

"People that tend to commit crimes on a whim tend not to cover their tracks well," he said. "So if it's an impulse crime, the chances for apprehension are better for us."

Gene Stephens, who teaches at the University of South Carolina's College of Criminal Justice, agreed. "The longer this case goes without clues," he said, "the less the likelihood that it was done by some local person on impulse."

"If you can't find an obvious reason for her disappearance," added Tom Mauriello, an expert on investigative procedures at the University of Maryland, "then that leads to, maybe that person was not targeted because of who she was but because she was there; she was a target of opportunity."

Mauriello suggested police might consult the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, where data are collected in an effort to link cases by similar details. Clark said he didn't know of parallels with other cases.

Siegel, the forensics expert, said: "There are hundreds of people in this same situation each year. . . . They disappear without a trace."

The FBI's Washington office provided one for-instance: Tiffany Sessions.

On Feb. 9, 1989, the 20-year-old Sessions disappeared during her normal evening jog. She was last seen about a mile away from her apartment at the University of Florida.

An officer in Gainesville, Fla., talking about that case, said things that were similar to comments police have made about the Dinwiddie case.

"There was no apparent motive for her to just leave. It was out of character for her to just leave," Alachua County Sheriff's Investigator Eddie McCall said.

"We don't have any way to eliminate anybody. We can't tell you she's dead; we can't tell you she's alive. She's just missing."

Like the Dinwiddies, Sessions' family has made an intensive effort to find her. Living from day to day

The Dinwiddies said they're not aware of any breakthroughs in their daughter's case.

But in an interview Thursday, they said they feel confident that Columbia police -- along with SLED, the FBI and the Richland County Sheriff's Department -- are doing all they can to find their 23-year-old daughter.

"Sometimes they'll tell you they are working on some things. And you don't say, 'What things?' Because you know they'll tell you if they think it's appropriate," Jean Dinwiddie said.

Sometimes, worrying that they might sleep through a telephone call keeps them from sleeping at all. Jean Dinwiddie said she once went down to the police station at 1:30 in the morning just to sit and talk with officers. Dan Dinwiddie drove up to the Virginia line on impulse one day, putting up posters at rest stops and gas stations all along the way.

"Sometimes I think it's not really happening at all," Dan Dinwiddie said.

Dail Dinwiddie 's absence from the family, which includes a 16-year-old son, Drew, practically echoes through their Forest Hills home. Upstairs, her room remains unchanged. Frilly sachets she bought as Christmas gifts for friends are tossed on the sofa. Framed snapshots crowd the tabletops. Her walk-in closet has just begun to smell musty.

"Some days, I take both phones off the hook and lock the door and won't answer the door," Jean Dinwiddie said.

She, for the most part, has served as the focus for the considerable news coverage given the case.

Jean Dinwiddie admitted she is intimidated by television interviews, but she never turns one down. She said she has willed herself to "get through the thing" without breaking down.

The Dinwiddies have become something of investigators themselves, posting fliers depicting Dail's key chain in the thought that she might have dropped it in Five Points during a struggle or left it somewhere as a clue.

Jean Dinwiddie, her husband said, is particularly adept at tracking down people who were in the popular restaurant village the night of Dail's disappearance and convincing them they must talk to the police.

While they stay abreast of the investigation, they said they don't hear the rumors that periodically sweep through town.

They are grateful their friends shield them from the rumors. They are also grateful for the public's interest. Jean Dinwiddie said strangers often approach her, offering solace.

But Wednesday night, there was no solace for her. She got out a spiral notebook and began to write. She started at the top with, "Dail is . . . "

Following were images of sunshine and snowfall and red leaves on maple trees. Following were images of rain and darkness and sorrow.

"Dail is," her mother wrote in the stillness of her home, "happiness and a sense of tomorrow, sadness & wondering what her life was to be."

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