25 years later, Dail Dinwiddie disappearance a case full of mystery and misery

Leon Lott sometimes gets a call in the middle of the night from Jean and Dan Dinwiddie.

Twenty-five years after their daughter, Dail, vanished from Five Points, the couple stays in touch with the Richland County sheriff to talk about her disappearance and the investigation. As the father of four daughters, Lott is sympathetic to their plight.

“I can seen the pain in their eyes and hear it in their voices,” he said. “But they are still focused, and that has fueled us.”

But Lott and the dozens of investigators who have worked on the case through the years remain frustrated by a lack of evidence and eyewitnesses. Dail Dinwiddie vanished in the early hours of Sept. 24, 1992, seemingly without a trace.

Here’s what investigators know:

Dinwiddie, then 23, was among a group of a dozen friends who attended a U2 concert at Williams-Brice Stadium earlier in the evening.

She joined some of them in going to Five Points afterward, ending up at one of their favorite spots, the now-closed Jungle Jim’s.

Around 1 a.m., she got separated from friends. Her companions left, apparently thinking she would get a ride home from someone else or call her family.

“She lost touch with her friends and began to search for them,” according to a statement released Tuesday by her parents.

She left the bar once but returned a few minutes later. She eventually told the bouncer at the bar goodbye and headed toward Harden and Greene streets.

There’s been no sign of her since. Unlike today, there were no security cameras in Five Points and police presence was much lighter in 1992.

The next morning, her father let out the family dog and discovered Dail’s empty bed. Her parents called her friends, but nobody knew her whereabouts. Her family then called police.

“She walked out the door and evaporated,” said Columbia lawyer Dick Harpootlian, who as 5th Circuit solicitor at the time oversaw initial efforts to determine what happened.

An intense local hunt for Dinwiddie soon became national:

Members of U2 displayed Dinwiddie’s face on a video screen at the band’s concerts two weeks after she went missing. Family friends distributed flyers seeking help at one concert.

The mystery has been featured on television shows, websites and in several publications.

National news columnist Kathleen Parker of Camden has appealed for clues that could reveal what happened to her former nanny.

Billboards featured her image and a plea to call with information. In recent years, posters featuring a photo of her as a young adult and an image of what she would look like today have been circulated.

Into thin air

The lack of clues suggests it was a carefully planned abduction, Harpootlian and others believe. Anyone who kidnapped her on impulse would most likely have been sloppy, leaving behind clues, Harpootlian said.

“She disappeared without a trace,” he said. “Somebody vanished her.”

Through the years, police have received and checked out slightly more than 1,000 tips. Investigative records fill an entire filing cabinet and three more boxes at the Columbia Police Department.

The search has led investigators to dig up bones that proved to be from a deer, check properties with ground-penetrating radar, tear up a floor at a Five Points home to find the cause of a foul odor and pull a car from a pond in Lower Richland at the suggestion of clairvoyants.

Investigators traveled across the Southeast and as far away as Las Vegas and Minnesota to interview criminals who claimed to know something or were ready to confess. Their stories were easily debunked, police said.

FBI, state and local investigators check new suggestions monthly. They also investigate any captured serial killers or kidnappers who have ties to Columbia.

DNA taken from unidentified bodies is compared to a sample gathered from Dinwiddie’s hairbrush.

“It’s like a big puzzle with a lot of missing pieces,” Lott said.

Meanwhile, Dinwiddie’s family remains on an emotional roller coaster.

Her parents declined to be interviewed by The State, instead issuing the brief statement on Tuesday saying they “still hope and pray every day that someone will come forward with information that will lead us to Dail.”

Her brother, Drew, told The State that he and his parents “haven’t forgotten about Dail and won’t.”

Coping with what-ifs and unanswered questions is “a daily battle” for the Dinwiddies, said a childhood friend of Dail’s, Katherine Nelson Todd of Columbia.

“I wish this misery would end for the family,” said Parker, a part-time Camden resident who hired Dail as a nanny for her son in the summer before the disappearance.

“This is the worst thing that can happen to anybody, but particularly parents,” said Columbia police investigator Mark Vinson, who has taken part in the search since 2006.

The search is the oldest missing persons investigation for Columbia police and one of nearly 800 unsolved in South Carolina.

Police are convinced Dinwiddie was kidnapped. “There was nothing in her background (to indicate) that she would deliberately go away,” Vinson said.

Todd described Dinwiddie as “careful and pragmatic,” unlikely to go off with strangers on a whim.

Lott wasn’t sheriff when Dinwiddie disappeared, but has promised her parents that the search for their daughter will continue.

The 25th anniversary of the disappearance could produce a tip that proves to be the long-sought key to what happened, officials hope. This week, fresh tips started coming in after Dinwiddie’s parents issued their statement on Tuesday, Lott said.

‘Death of our innocence’

Dinwiddie remains a presence in the lives of many friends.

Rennie Rosenthal Moorman of Mount Pleasant keeps letters, cards, notes and the book “The Velveteen Rabbit” that Dinwiddie sent her.

“I read them often,” Moorman said. “I keep up with the memory of who she was.”

Those who grew up with Dinwiddie in the Forest Hills neighborhood said her disappearance has had a lasting impact on them.

“It taught us that bad things happen,” said Todd, who went home after the U2 concert without going to Five Points. “It was the death of our innocence.”

Dinwiddie’s friends said they keep a close eye on the safety of their children.

“It’s something we all live with,” said Johnston Cox of Columbia, who remembers exchanging a smile with Dinwiddie as he left the bar the night she disappeared. “It colors my protectiveness.”

Like her family, some friends hope an answer will come soon. Some cling to hope that she might be alive, noting news reports of kidnap victims who are freed years after being abducted.

Dinwiddie graduated in 1991 from Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., with a degree in art history. Last year, her former classmates dedicated a plaque to her at their 25th reunion.

“We still think about her a lot,” said Alison Buckley of Columbia, Md., who helped organize the effort. “What happened is so unsettling.”

Eileen Wallis, a college friend of Dinwiddie, mourns “the gap of her absence all around us.”

Wallis, who lives in Dubai, said she cherishes photographs of times shared with Dinwiddie.

“We have all been denied the presence of someone who was passionate, kind and destined to do amazing things in her life,” Wallis said.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483

Do you have information?

If you have information about Dail Dinwiddie, contact Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott at (803) 576-3021 or Columbia police investigator Mark Vinson at (803) 315-3750.