Sunday, May 2, 2004

Dig for victim's body enters Day 4

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Debbie Culberson used binoculars Saturday to watch the search for the body of her daughter, murder victim Carrie Culberson.

The Cincinnati Enquirer/TONY JONES

PERRY TWP. - After a third day of digging for the remains of murder victim Carrie Culberson in this rural Brown County community, authorities suspended the search about 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

The effort, a combination of sheriff's agencies from Brown, Clermont and Clinton counties and the Cincinnati FBI office, is expected to resume at 9 a.m. today.

Shortly before searchers ended their work Saturday, a sheriff's official took Culberson family members and their attorney to the site at a 30-by-40-foot pole barn, about 150 yards from where the property meets Fayetteville-Blanchester Road.

It is 40 miles east of Cincinnati and a few miles south of Blanchester, where Carrie Culberson was last seen in August 1996.

The family and their attorney were shown the work progress and were told authorities wouldn't give up.

Carrie's mother, Debbie Culberson, said the site, where digging went as far Saturday as eight feet deep in some areas, looked like a large "mud hole."

Culberson was hopeful. This search, she said, is different, and she feels positive about it.

"I've waited a lot of these out, and so I can continue. We were hoping (Saturday) would be the day, but maybe (today)," Culberson said. "I was kind of hoping they would tell us something, but at least they are not quitting."

A police cadaver dog had its strongest reaction yet about 7 a.m. Saturday in the rear of the pole barn, Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger said.

Officials obtained a search warrant for the site after a police dog reacted to it; they started digging Thursday night and continued Friday.

Wenninger again Saturday declined to say what led authorities to the site.

He said the search will go on the next four days and could run as deep as 12 feet into the ground if necessary.

Workers removed most of the concrete floor and gravel below it. Depending on whether anything is found in the dirt, work could continue for days, Wenninger said.

"You can't be 100 percent positive, but with the dog hitting a few times in the same area, we feel confident," he said.

"Everyone's exhausted," added Wenninger, who was seen at times throughout the day operating a Bobcat himself. "We are just taking it one piece at a time."

About 30 relatives and friends, including Carrie's mother and father, Roger Culberson, and her younger sister, Christina, gathered to watch and wait.

Doughnuts, pizza, sandwiches, coffee, bottled water and soft drinks were brought in from friends, businesses and relatives. Some sat on folding chairs or on the side of the road in circles or stood in groups and talked.

This is at least the seventh major search for Carrie's body since she disappeared more than seven years ago, but there have been hundreds of smaller search parties in fields, barns and other sites, mostly in southwestern Ohio, relatives recalled.

Debbie Culberson organized many highly publicized searches for her daughter.

"We are hoping today is going to be the day we can put Carrie to rest," she said Saturday morning. "It looks like they have got a lot accomplished today."

Culberson, who remained rock-strong throughout the day, hugged many who came to see her, gave countless media interviews and even used binoculars at one point to watch a police dog sniff around the pole barn and in a tall pile of dirt nearby that had been excavated.

"I know her body and her spirit and soul are separate," Culberson softly said. "It's just that was the body I held in my arms so long. That's why I need to find the body."

Coincidentally Friday, Culberson and one of her attorneys had been on their way to the dedication of a memorial for Carrie on the lawn of Blanchester's municipal building when a friend called to tell her police were digging for a body.

The dedication, of a 5-foot-high statue depicting a woman in a flowing dress and several large "stepping stone" rocks, is postponed. It is the result of the family's 2001 federal court settlement with the Village of Blanchester for Carrie Culberson's death, court records show.

The establishment of the memorial, law enforcement training for the Blanchester Police Department in domestic violence and the Clinton County Domestic Violence Coalition were part of the settlement.

In addition to operating an antique and gift shop in Blanchester, Debbie Culberson serves as a board member on that coalition and has made it her life's work to raise awareness on domestic violence.

Carrie Culberson's former boyfriend, Vincent Doan, was convicted in 1997 of murder and kidnapping, despite the lack of a body, and is serving a life prison term. Culberson was 22 when she disappeared.

At Doan's trial, witnesses testified that he and Culberson had a violent relationship and that he had injured her on several occasions.

The jury convicted Doan on the strength of testimony about the escalating violence before her disappearance, including a fight on the night she vanished.

"If I can help one woman where I could not save my own daughter," she explained of her work on the coalition. "Domestic violence is not the norm."


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