The passenger door opened and Ms. Lannerd realized it was just the Culberson girl again.
Carrie Culberson had that girlish popularity that kept her busy - always in and out of the modest blue home she shared with her sister and mother at 127 Bourbon St. At 22, Carrie had maintained the fresh face and charisma she had since her days at Blanchester High School.
As the car drove off, the taillights illuminated Carrie's petite frame moving from the street toward the house.
Seconds later, Ms. Lannerd noticed Carrie's red 1989 Honda CRX back out and head down the street. Carrie didn't turn on her headlights for several blocks. Mashing the last of the cigarette beneath her foot, Ms. Lannerd wondered whether Carrie was sneaking out.
Ms. Lannerd went back inside and to bed. It was about 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 28 - the last night Carrie was seen here.
Since that warm summer night five months ago, the search for Clarissa ''Carrie'' Culberson has become almost an obsession in this town of 4,600. Within weeks, hundreds of posters bearing her picture went up, and remain up throughout Clinton County. Community searches were organized, and TV news crews broadcast pleas from her mother for her return. Property belonging to her boyfriend's family was searched by authorities.
So far, no trace of the attractive ex-cheerleader, or her car, has been found.
The case of Carrie Culberson is a rarity, law enforcement officials say. In the Tristate, only a handful of cases remain on file in which women disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and have never been found.
While no one has proof that Carrie has been a victim of foul play, the search has given friends, family and an entire community pause. People recall the glimpses they caught of a woman who always smiled, but rarely shared her problems.
Interviews with friends and family reveal a free-spirited woman who spoke her mind. Most describe Carrie as a good kid - the sun-kissed beauty with a steady boyfriend, a young woman who loved parties and going dancing with her girlfriends.
She worked at her urban funk style, with a closet full of Express and Gap clothes, clunky Dr. Marten's shoes and designer watches and purses. She was the health nut who worked out daily, and lectured family, friends and co-workers about the virtues of healthy eating.
Image is what Carrie spent years cultivating.
Since she disappeared, though, some of the darker elements of her life have emerged. Friends say she experimented with drugs. But few people knew she frequently tiptoed out of her Blanchester home in the middle of the night to spend a few hours with her boyfriend, Vincent Doan.
And fewer still knew of her fear of breaking ties with Mr. Doan, against whom she filed an assault charge last summer.
Mr. Doan says he doesn't know where Carrie is.
Recipes for living
Except for the hum of a window air conditioner and a fan, the Culberson household was quiet by 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 28.
Carrie's parents, Debra and Roger Culberson, and her sister, Christina, had been in bed for more than an hour.
Mrs. Culberson remembers sleeping soundly through the night. Carrie never made her late-night entrance - letting the door slam and clomping across the living room to bed.
It would be the last night Mrs. Culberson would sleep well.
Since then, thoughts of her missing daughter consume her days and nights. Both she and authorities from Blanchester and Clinton County believe Carrie is dead, but Mrs. Culberson said there are days when she hopes her daughter will come back.
On the afternoon before she disappeared, Carrie had gone over to Blanchester High to pick up her 15-year-old sister. They exchanged a ''Hey, stupid'' greeting and a laugh, Christina recalled, as she climbed in the car.
They were as close as two sisters could be, sharing clothes, their room and a queen-sized bed. They had even gotten their navels pierced together, but Mrs. Culberson put the kibosh on tattoos for Christina, although Carrie had two.
As they zoomed out of the school lot, Carrie drove to the local Kroger. She had found another healthy recipe she wanted to make for the evening meal: low-fat chili.
Her speeches extolling the virtues of a healthy diet were often peppered with sarcasm if she felt her audience wasn't receptive.
''She was my worst critic. She was always telling me I should go on a diet,'' Mrs. Culberson said.
Even Carrie's boss would get the lecture.
''She'd always say, 'Some day your body's just going to revolt,' '' said Desiree Gruber, owner of G&G Hair Studio in Wilmington, where Carrie was a part-time nail technician.
So Carrie often found herself using her mother and sister as guinea pigs for her low-fat recipes, as she did that August afternoon.
It seemed that Carrie and her sister had just sat down to eat their meals in the living room when Mrs. Culberson heard a door slam. Carrie had left.
She had mentioned to Christina she was going to visit Mr. Doan, but did not talk about it with her family or her friends, with whom she played volleyball that evening.
Always on her way somewhere
Carrie was in an unusually good mood that night, her friends recalled.
About 7 p.m., pals Tonya Whitten and Jessica Williams arrived at the Culberson house to pick up Carrie. She gave her family the typical ''buh-bye now'' and headed out the door.
Friends say Carrie was always on her way somewhere, always involved.
''She likes to do things, she doesn't like to sit at home,'' said longtime friend Cicely Kukuk, who lives now in Jackson, N.C.
From the time she was in grade school, Carrie was a joiner. In addition to cheerleading, she played soccer and other sports.
To her junior high and high school teachers, she was the average student who excelled at extracurricular activities - not the least of which was her social life.
''I don't know that she had any big dreams,'' said Harry Brunbaugh, Blanchester mayor and a former American history teacher at Blanchester High.
''She was a typical girl growing up in a small town. I always thought she'd grow up, marry early and become a housewife.''
She enjoyed going to bars and dancing. But Mrs. Kukuk recalls that some of the best times they had were hanging out at someone's house with their mostly male circle of friends.
''We would do shots, and have a contest to see who could down a beer the fastest,'' Mrs. Kukuk said.
Jason Crosley, 26, and his roommates, all part of that close-knit group, often held those parties at the Blanchester house they rented. To Mr. Crosley, Carrie was a real buddy. The voice of reason. The girl who could always soothe hurt feelings.
''If something was going wrong, Carrie was always the one to cheer you up,'' he said.
But she was not one to talk about her problems.
''She was real hip, the class clown, athletic, but not a tomboy,'' Mrs. Whitten said. ''She was a beauty queen. She didn't just come out and open up. Carrie would tell you as much as she wanted you to know.''
That's why Mrs. Whitten asked no questions as she, Mrs. Williams and Carrie drove to their volleyball game the evening of Aug. 28.
They made an agreement: If Mr. Doan showed up at the bar where they played, Carrie would stay with them, no matter what.
They parked at the Rolling Hills Tavern just outside nearby Morrow, and Carrie went inside. As Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Whitten got out of the car, Mr. Doan drove up in his black Mustang. He inquired about Carrie and went inside.
The couple had two brief discussions. In an interview in January, Mr. Doan said he asked Carrie whether she was sober enough to drive. Mrs. Whitten says that Mr. Doan was browbeating Carrie, but she stuck with their plan: she had to take her friends home because they were too intoxicated to drive.
With that Mr. Doan left, by several witness accounts, in a rage.
After the volleyball game, Carrie and her friends drove back to Blanchester. They drove around town, stopped to pick up Mrs. Whitten's husband, Brian, and went to a friend's house.
It was after 11 p.m. when Mrs. Whitten and her husband decided to go home. The four piled into Mrs. Williams' car. She dropped off the Whittens and headed to the Culbersons' to drop off Carrie.
Carrie talked little of her two-year relationship with Vincent Doan. But those who know her - and even Mr. Doan himself - described it as tumultuous.
They had attended the same high school but didn't start dating until the end of 1993 or beginning of 1994, a couple of years after Carrie graduated.
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Mr. Doan, then 21, was two years older than Carrie. He had just been released from the Clinton County Jail for shooting his best friend, Bobbie Montgomery, in the face. According to court records, the gun went off while the two men were arguing over a woman. He was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of assault.
Carrie apparently felt sorry for him, but sometimes her sympathies were misplaced, Mrs. Kukuk said.
The couple became very close. Carrie would sneak over to Mr. Doan's house for middle-of-the-night rendezvous, Mrs. Kukuk said. Mr. Doan even proposed to Carrie at one point, and gave her a ring. But those plans were discarded.
Her mother and sister maintain that Carrie never ventured out after she would come home from an evening out.
Mr. Doan would call Carrie several times a day - at home, at work and at the gym.
Mr. Whitten, co-owner of the gym, said it appeared Mr. Doan was checking on Carrie's whereabouts. Mr. Doan says his girlfriend asked him to call her.
''She would get mad and say I didn't love her if I didn't call,'' he said.
Their fights were frequent and furious. Mrs. Culberson said she found herself refereeing one too many arguments and finally banned Mr. Doan from their home.
A police report filed July 28 contains allegations that Mr. Doan threw a space heater at Carrie and struck her in the head. Doctors used surgical staples to close the wound. Assault charges were dropped, however, after Carrie disappeared.
When questioned about the report in January, Mr. Doan abruptly ended a telephone interview from the Hamilton County Justice Center. He is serving a 90-day jail sentence there for operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver's license. He is to be released Friday.
Mr. Doan told The Enquirer during an earlier interview that Carrie had gotten mixed up with drugs, and that her friends were a bad influence.
Both he and Mrs. Kukuk say that Carrie smoked pot, took prescription pills and ingested cocaine. Mrs. Kukuk says her best friend merely experimented with the drugs. Mr. Doan said she had a serious problem.
Mrs. Culberson said her daughter admitted to trying marijuana, but she never discussed any other drugs. And most of Carrie's friends said that she was too much of a health nut to succumb to drug and alcohol addiction.
Most of Carrie's friends agree that her deepest problems stemmed from her relationship with Mr. Doan. In the months leading to her disappearance Carrie confided to Mrs. Kukuk that it was time to break ties with Mr. Doan. She was weighing a move to North Carolina, and on Aug. 27 she had taken a placement test to begin nursing course work at Southern State Community College's Wilmington branch.
But those plans weren't her real goal in life.
''She wanted to be a mom, she wanted a family some day,'' said Mrs. Gruber, her boss. ''She told me all she wanted was some kids, a house and a husband who said he was her best friend.''
Search goes on
Today, the only sign of Carrie here is the face of a smiling and confident young woman on ''Have You Seen?'' posters, tacked up by the hundreds throughout Clinton County and surrounding communities.
Carrie's fate is a common topic of chitchat among breakfast diners in the Corner Quik-Stop cafe and other gathering spots here. Theories about her disappearance abound; some people blame Mr. Doan, while others wonder if Carrie did a little more than just experiment with drugs. Still others think she really did sneak out of town and doesn't want to be found.
Authorities don't discount any of those possibilities. Their search has reached into Kentucky, Michigan, Florida, West Virginia and Indiana. They have questioned some of the people who were last seen with Carrie, and those who know her. Several have been subpoenaed to testify before a Clinton County grand jury.
''She's a typical 22-year-old. There's good, bad and neutral to anyone,'' said Blanchester Police Chief Richard Payton. ''But she was loved by these people and she deserved a better fate than this.''
"In our hearts all the time'
Jan. 31 was Carrie Culberson's 23rd birthday. Her friends met at the Culberson home the night before to boost the family's spirits.
It was not the first time friends and the community have reached out to Carrie's family.
At Christmastime, strangers helped decorate a large pine tree in front of the Culberson home with angel ornaments. They will be left there, the family says, until Carrie is found.
The angel theme seemed to resonate with a community looking for hope, for answers. The sign at Leona's Pizza, east of the village on Ohio 28, reads: ''Angels are among us. Keeping Carrie in our hearts and prayers.''
At the little blue house on Bourbon Street, Mrs. Culberson blinked back tears as she talked recently about the loving support her family has felt from people here.
She remembered, in particular, a letter she received from one of Carrie's friends.
''You know that she's in our hearts all the time,'' it read. ''I leave a spot for her on the dance floor.''