Culberson not found in pond

Friday, August 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fire chief Don Walker consoles Debra Culberson after the search.
(Ryan Miller photo)
| ZOOM |
BLANCHESTER -- Debra Culberson has been here before.

Not on the banks of the algae-covered pond firefighters drained Wednesday and Thursday to find some trace of her daughter, but on the edge of hope.

She's held tight for two years to faith that the next tip might be the one to put an end to the nightmare that started when Clarissa Ann "Carrie" Culberson left her parents' house Aug. 28, 1996, and never came home. This week, she prayed investigators would find some evidence of her daughter's murder on the muddy bottom of a 100-by-300-foot pond along the borders of Clinton and Warren counties.

Carrie Culberson
Carrie Culberson
They didn't.

For two days, volunteer firefighters from the Blanchester-Marion Township Fire District pumped 600 gallons a minute out of the farm pond and into the fields and ditches along Ohio 133. When the pond was empty, there was no sign of Ms. Culberson's body, car or a weapon.

"I've been through it so many times," Mrs. Culberson said, sitting on the bank of the pond. "You get used to getting your hope up and being let down again."

It wasn't a new tip that led to draining the pond, said Bill Hidy, an investigator for the Clinton County Prosecutor's office, but the lingering question of whether "we did it good enough the first time."

About a year ago, investigators dragged the pond but found nothing.

"It's been talked about so much," Mr. Hidy said of the pond. "We did it to satisfy ourselves."

Draining the pond was not related to the start of Lawrence Baker's trial on Monday. Mr. Baker, whose son, Vincent Doan, was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Ms. Culberson, faces charges of obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence.

The pond's property owner, who asked not to be identified, said he didn't mind the search: "If I thought my kid was in it, I'd drain it."

His grandparents dug the pond about 30 years ago. Since then, family and friends -- including Mr. Doan and his half-brother, Tracey Baker, who was convicted for helping cover up the crime -- have fished for bass and bluegill, the owner said.

Mrs. Culberson pitched a blue-and-white dome tent next to the pond and spent most of Wednesday night talking with a friend and watching over the water.

"I didn't want the same thing happening here that happened before," she said.

In the week after Ms. Culberson's disappearance, Mrs. Culberson said then-Blanchester Police Chief Richard Payton called off a search of Lawrence Baker's property, where investigators wanted to drain another pond.

Testimony during Tracey Baker's trial indicated a bloodhound picked up a scent at a pond on the property. Later that day, a cadaver dog -- trained to pick up the scent of a dead body -- indicated there was something in the pond. The pond wasn't searched until the next day, and no police officers or deputies guarded the property overnight.

A wrongful death lawsuit the Culbersons filed against Mr. Doan, the Bakers, Chief Payton and the village of Blanchester states: "When the pond was drained the next day, footprints were clearly visible on the bottom of the pond and there was also a path of muddy weeds leading from the pond."

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