Caroline Frazier has spent months dreading that her 18-year-old daughter may be buried 70 feet deep in a mammoth landfill. Making matters worse, she says, is that no one is searching for her there.
One of the five people charged with murder in Latisha Frazier's presumed death told investigators the teen's body was left in a Washington garbage bin that gets emptied into a landfill outside Richmond, Va.
Yet District of Columbia police and prosecutors who have spent months on the case have opted against a search, saying excavating the landfill would be dangerous, expensive and have minimal chance of success _ especially since authorities aren't even positive her body is there. A judge agreed last month, denying a public defender's request to order the search.
The decision left an unsettling conclusion for Frazier's mother, who's been unable to bury her daughter.
"We can't do no closure right now," Caroline Frazier said at the teenager's father's home in Laurel, Md., wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with bittersweet images _ one of her daughter as a young girl, beaming radiantly while perched on her father's lap; another of her as an adolescent, posing confidently with hands on hips.
"It means a lot to have my baby," she said.
Though Washington police reject the comparisons, the public defender, Eugene Ohm, has drawn stinging contrasts between the department's handling of the Frazier investigation and the case of Chandra Levy, the D.C. intern whose 2001 disappearance attracted worldwide attention and a search that spanned more than a year.
Police say there are numerous critical differences in the cases, not least the locations of the women's bodies _ Levy's was eventually discovered by a passerby walking his dog in a wooded park in the heart of Washington.
"There was never any landfill associated with that case in any way, shape or form," said Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham. "You don't have a fair comparison."
Experts say the decision not to excavate is unusual in a profession conditioned to do all it can to recover victims' bodies, but they also said it reflects the long odds of success the police felt they faced and the tricky calculus involved in any missing person case.
Frazier's father, Barry Campbell, says he's accepted that there won't be a search but has nagging thoughts that the case might have been treated with more urgency if his daughter were in the "big world." Police say that's completely false.
"Then you have the Latisha Fraziers, that's the small world _ helping people as far as at McDonald's or working the Metro. The blue-collar workers, the blue-collar people," Campbell said. "They're looked upon in a different light."
Frazier's parents recall her as a tomboyish young girl who schooled her dad on the computer, joined neighborhood boys in sports games and who, as she grew older, shed her childhood nickname of "Pooh" in favor of the more mature "Tish."
She moved out of her mother's home when she turned 18 and was working at McDonald's, raising her daughter, Diamond, and planning a cooking career. She valued family, spending the day before her disappearance with relatives at Chuck E. Cheese's and often riding along in her father's ice cream truck.
"She never ran away from home. She had no reason to run away from home," Campbell said.
Frazier vanished Aug. 2 from southeast Washington. Her family canvassed the neighborhood for months as police searched for suspects.
The big break came in January, when Brian Gaither was picked up on an unrelated charge. Though he initially denied wrongdoing, detectives say in court papers that he eventually admitted being part of a group that had invited Frazier to an apartment and then beaten her because they believed she had stolen money from one of them.
Gaither admitted placing Frazier in a stranglehold, prosecutors say, stashing the body in bag and disposing of it in a trash bin outside.
Authorities say the container most likely would have been emptied into a landfill in Chesterfield County, Va. But if Gaither is lying about his involvement, or incorrectly recalling the date of Frazier's death or the trash bin where the body was placed, then the corpse might be in a different location altogether.
Ohm, Gaither's public defender, tried to force police to find the body, arguing the recovery could shed light on the cause of death and possibly bolster his defense.
Police and prosecutors said the search would have exposed officers to toxic levels of methane, needles and other dangerous refuse and would have cost millions of dollars and taken at least six months. They say officers would have had to dig through 500,000 cubic yards of trash just to reach the search area _ Frazier's remains are believed to be 60 to 70 feet below the surface _ and that even if they found them, it wouldn't greatly aid their prosecution.
"Tragically, if the decedent's body was present under these conditions, the potential forensic value of the body would be compromised," prosecutors wrote in court papers.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York police officer and prosecutor who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that while detectives have to be wary of a defendant's statements, it is unusual for police to abandon efforts to recover a victim's body.
"The police took great risks and spared no expense and literally people got injured while they stood on a pile in Fresh Kills Landfill" on Staten Island, N.Y., searching for remains of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, O'Donnell said.
The Frazier decision followed the recommendation of experts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has assisted in other landfill excavations but in this case said the risk of chemical poisoning coupled with the sheer enormity of the Shoosmith Landfill in Chester, Va. _ about 800 acres in surface area and roughly 100 feet deep _ made the undertaking all but impossible.
It was a tough decision to make, said center president Ernie Allen.
"In these kinds of situations, at least they have the opportunity to bury their child. They get some sense of closure or justice and that's what's painful about Latisha Frazier," he said. "We don't ever want to give up searching for these kids."