Saturday, May 1, 2004

Once again, Culbersons wait in hope and dread

Eight years after Carrie vanished, barn floor dug up

By Jane Prendergast, Erica Solvig and Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Debbie (left) and Christina Culberson, Carrie Culberson's mother and sister, watch Friday as police dig up the floor of a barn in rural Brown County where a body might be buried under the concrete. Carrie Culberson has been missing for eight years.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG
PERRY TWP. - A barn in rural Brown County could hold the answer to the eight-year question of where 22-year-old Carrie Culberson's body was hidden after she was murdered by her boyfriend.

"The feelings are just as strong as they were eight years ago," Debbie Culberson, Carrie's mother, said Friday as she watched police dig out the barn's concrete floor. "We have been cheated out of a proper grave, a proper funeral, all the things people need to grieve."

Workers dug for about eight hours Friday before stopping for the night. They will resume this morning at the property, on Fayetteville-Blanchester Road in northwest Brown County.

The site is 40 miles east of Cincinnati and a few miles south of Blanchester, where Carrie Culberson was last seen in 1996. Her former boyfriend, Vincent Doan, was convicted in 1997 of murder and kidnapping and is serving a life prison term.

Authorities obtained a search warrant after a cadaver dog reacted at the property, Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenningersaid. He declined to elaborate.

Digging began in the 30-by-40-foot barn late Thursday. Crews returned Friday morning with heavier equipment.

Officers from Clermont, Clinton and Brown counties, as well as the FBI and Ohio State Highway Patrol, were at the site. Police would not confirm they were seeking Culberson's body, but Culberson's family was at the property most of Friday.

"I'm just doing what I do best, just waiting," Debbie Culberson said as she stood in the rain and watched. "If it turns out to be Carrie, then that's what we want. But if it isn't, we'll wait some more."

Coincidentally Friday, Culberson and her attorney, Al Gerhardstein, had been on their way to the dedication of a memorial for Carrie in Blanchester when a friend called to tell her police were digging for a body. The dedication was canceled.

Jarrod Messer lived on the Brown County property before being arrested on drug charges. The property is owned by Messer's mother, Jeanette G. Spangler, who is taking care of Messer's son while Messer is in prison.

Ron Spangler, Messer's stepfather, said Friday that Messer suspects a former associate made a claim to police that Culberson's body was buried on the property. Messer had called his mother Friday morning from prison, Spangler said.

"He said there ain't nothing there. Let 'em dig," Spangler said from his Goshen home Friday. "He said it was probably a couple of them people he was messing with when he got into that drug trouble. He's been in jail for a couple years and probably won't get out for a couple more years."

Spangler said he does not know whether Messer and Doan were friends. Debbie Culberson said she had met Messer, but did not think he had a relationship with her daughter.

Wenninger said he couldn't elaborate on what led authorities to the property.

"A lot of information has been gathered and we do act on tips that come about," he said.

Culberson disappeared in August 1996. Debbie Culberson organized many highly publicized searches for her daughter, each ending in frustration.

She criticized the performance of the Blanchester Police Department and eventually won a lawsuit against the village, saying it hadn't done enough to protect her daughter. There had been a history of escalating violence between Doan and Culberson before Carrie's disappearance.

Doan has refused to answer questions about where Culberson's body might be. Carrie Culberson was declared legally dead in 1998.

As part of the 2001 legal settlement with Blanchester, village officers were required to undergo domestic-violence training. The village was also told to create a memorial for Carrie Culberson.

Although Friday's dedication was postponed, about two dozen neighbors turned out in the rain anyway.

One memorial was placed earlier this week on the lawn of the municipal building. It's a large rock with a bronze plaque depicting angels and reading: "Dedicated To The Life of Clarissa Ann Culberson "Carrie."

A 5-foot-high statue depicting a woman in a flowing dress remained covered Friday and will remain so until the dedication ceremony can be rescheduled.

The word "Hope" was inscribed in the base of the statue and, alongside it, large rocks had been laid, each inscribed with words: "Faith," "Awareness," "Courage," "Justice" and "Respect." One rock held two words on each side: "Love" and "Support."

One of Debbie Culberson's friends, Georgia Falgner of Blanchester, said the memorial would serve as a place for Debbie to finally go and grieve for her daughter.

"She doesn't have any closure," Falgner, 43, said of Debbie Culberson. "She doesn't have anywhere to go. She doesn't have a memorial spot. We go to the cemetery. Where does she go?"

Blanchester Mayor Tom White said Debbie Culberson was at the memorial site Thursday evening, preparing it for Friday's service and making sure the stones were inscribed and placed just so alongside the statue.

"I would like to see something found that can give Debbie closure," he said. "It would be, in a sense, closure for the town, too. There are a few people out there, I think, that maybe don't believe she's dead. They never found a body. It would be closure for everyone."

The wounds of Carrie's disappearance divided the town at the time and still run deep today.

The village was split over those who supported the Culbersons and those who supported Doan.

"This town hasn't given them much respect," Heather Reimer, 27, of Blanchester, said of Culberson's family.

"They have been treated unfairly. It will always be that way. It's been such an issue for eight years. It divided the town and I don't think it will be fixed. It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody's business."

Debbie Culberson is a leading member of the Clinton County Domestic Violence Task Force, said fellow members Michelle Regan Roth and Carol Weber, both of Blanchester. The task force was formed about the same time as Culberson's disappearance.

"Debbie helped to draw up the protocol and police training on how to handle domestic-violence calls," said Roth, 47, a social worker.

Waiting for Friday's search, Culberson said she hopes there will finally be some resolution.

"I was thinking that maybe a higher power was playing a role in this," Culberson said Friday.

Sheila McLaughlin contributed to this report. E-mail and

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