Monday, May 10, 2004

Culbersons keep up hope

Long search extends their painful vigil

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BLANCHESTER - The painful mystery of Carrie Culberson's disappearance has persisted for eight years.

Now there is renewed hope of finding her remains, as investigators enter their second week of a search in rural Brown County.

Carrie Culberson's mother Debbie Culberson wipes tears as she stands at the scene on Fayetteville-Blanchester Road where authorities have been digging in a search for Carrie's body.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Despite digging more than 15 feet deep at the site where five different cadaver-sniffing dogs indicated a human scent, investigators have found no sure sign of the young Clinton County woman or her red Honda CRX. They have unearthed several items that might be connected to Culberson, but have not revealed what they are.

For those with a stake in the case, finding Culberson's remains feels as urgent now as it did before her former boyfriend, Vincent Doan, went on trial. He was convicted of killing her in a sensational murder case that lacked a body as evidence.

For Culberson's family, no body has meant no formal goodbyes, no gravesite for grieving and no end to the gruesome speculation.

For Doan's relatives, it's meant feeling that he was wrongfully convicted, that they have been unfairly vilified and that she may even be alive somewhere.

And for many in this Southwest Ohio village of 4,250, it's meant aligning with one camp or the other - or being torn between the two.

"These two families, they've always been here, so a lot of people take sides; I don't," said lifelong resident Lelia Hamm, 58, as she picked up her lunch Friday at Winedog's Cups & Corks Bistro on Main Street. "I know both families ... and I feel bad for both of them. One mother doesn't have her child anymore, and the other one has to go to prison to visit hers."

Day after day, Culberson's mother, father, sister and their supporters have kept a vigil at the search site on Fayetteville-Blanchester Road. They wait from morning until evening, in pouring rain and searing sun, hoping to hear that investigators have found some sign of Culberson, who was 22 when she disappeared. The search was suspended Sunday for Mother's Day.

Even with little news to buoy their spirits, the Culberson family and their supporters exude optimism and determination.

"Carrie is coming home," declared Sandy Creager, a family friend, karate-chopping one hand against the other for emphasis. "Anybody you see out here has never given up on finding her ... and if she isn't here, we keep going."

Universally, the Culbersons' supporters say they admire the strength of Debbie Culberson.

She says the supporters uplift her. After a man in a truck stopped by to drop off a single red rose and a note, Debbie Culberson said, "I gave him a hug and said, 'Thank you.' It makes me want to cry. All the support has helped us so much."

After nearly a week of searching had produced no tangible evidence, Culberson said the investigators' attitude has also helped her. "As long as they're positive, I'm going to be positive," she said.

Investigators from the FBI and three area sheriff's offices have been sharing duties, including guarding the scene around-the-clock to prevent intruders from disturbing possible evidence.

Authorities are especially focused on keeping this scene secure because Blanchester police abandoned a search for Culberson's body in a junkyard pond on Sept. 3, 1996, just a few days after she disappeared. In 2001, the village acknowledged that blunder and signed a $2 million settlement of the Culberson family's civil lawsuit.

"The village knew they had found her body and they let it go," said Jennifer Branch, a lawyer for Culberson's family. "If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't be where we are now: still looking."

Word of the latest search leaked to the Culberson family and news reporters on April 30, two days after it began unnoticed. Since then, police supervisors have been updating Culberson's immediate family several times a day.

Typically, Culberson's mother, Debbie, walks alongside her ex-husband, Roger, and holds hands with her daughter, Christina Knox, as they make their way down a gravel path, past junk cars and a house to see the work investigators are doing inside a gray building at the rear of the property.

"There are a lot of things that came together and put us right here, at this spot," said Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger.

His office began working with sheriff's offices in Clinton and Clermont counties about a year ago on the case, Wenninger said. A search warrant, which will remain sealed until the search is over, explains what led investigators to focus on the site where Jarrod Messer, an acquaintance of Doan, once lived.

Wenninger said investigators removed the concrete floor from the 30-foot-by-40-foot pole barn.

Then, using cadaver dogs' signals, investigators began excavating an 8-by-8-foot area, using a piece of equipment called a "mini-excavator," equipped with a large scoop for digging into dirt. John Dunn, Brown County Sheriff's chief deputy, said investigators are running out of places to pile the scooped dirt.

They are also using pumps to keep the pit clear of groundwater as the work continues.

On Friday, investigators unearthed some items they wouldn't describe. But they said the articles came from an unusual depth, so they are considered significant.

About 8 miles away from the search site, Priscilla Doan keeps two hand-lettered signs posted in the front window of her Center Street home: "Proven Innocent by Facts, Found Guilty by Theory," and "The Proof Doesn't Fit You Must Aquit (sic)."

Doan said she not only believes that her son, Vincent, is innocent, but she also thinks Carrie Culberson may still be alive. "We're all hoping Carrie is still alive," she said. "If it is her (at the search site), I hope they do find her there so the truth comes out."

She acknowledged that the Culbersons believe they already know much of the truth: that her son killed Carrie Culberson - and a jury said so, too.

But Priscilla Doan said she has reasons for believing her son didn't kill Culberson: "There was no blood, really no crime scene, no weapon found, no body."

Doan, 57, has lived in Blanchester since she was 16, but since her son's conviction, she said she has felt stigmatized. "Just some of the looks you get," she said. "Sometimes, if looks could kill, I'd be dead. I got one of those looks the other day in Kroger. ... They try to make us out to be such terrible people."

A mother of three, Doan said special occasions, such as Mother's Day, are especially hard while her son is in prison. Now 31, he is serving a life sentence. She drives about 140 miles each way to see him two or three times a month at Mansfield Correctional Institution.

She's pleased that a bright pink azalea bush - a Mother's Day gift from her son months before Culberson's disappearance - is in bloom. "It just makes me happy and it makes me think of him," she said.

Vincent's half-brother, Tracey Baker, is serving an eight-year term after being convicted of helping Vincent Doan cover up the crime. "Tracey's mom is just as heartbroken as I am. ... She misses her son just as much as I miss mine."

As for Debbie Culberson, Mrs. Doan said, "I don't have Vincent here and she doesn't have Carrie ... and I feel sorry for her, I do."

Tom White, village mayor for four months and a resident for nine years, said Priscilla Doan isn't alone in thinking Carrie Culberson could be alive. "I had a guy tell me the other day, 'Oh, she's in Mexico. She'll show up,' " White said.

Few others share that opinion, he said.

He also disagrees with descriptions of the town being divided over the case, and said the village didn't relish the "negative publicity" the case brought eight years ago.

"The majority of people would have to be on the side of the mother who lost a girl," he said. "Everybody wants it to be over for Ms. Culberson, so she can have closure ... and hopefully we can get this behind us."



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