Six years later, hoping to close a painful chapter

Cautious: With a possible suspect under investigation, Harley and Sadie Showalter remain circumspect about leads in their daughter's death.

May 07, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

HARRISONBURG, Va. - One day not too long after their daughter's body was found in a crude grave in north central Virginia, Harley and Sadie Showalter got the call they had been waiting for.

Investigators probing the abduction and killing of Johns Hopkins University doctoral student Alicia Showalter Reynolds, 25, had identified a solid suspect - so solid, that they wanted to make certain the couple kept their cellular telephone on during a weekend trip to North Carolina.

Six years later, the Showalters are still waiting for that call - for word that investigators have found the man who killed their oldest daughter and terrorized a Virginia community. They need his arrest, they say, to bring about a "resolution" to a painful chapter in their lives.

Still, they're patient, even as another anniversary - a logger discovered Reynolds' remains May 7, 1996 - arrives today. And they're wary about getting their hopes up again.

So when word came that investigators were checking out a previously unmentioned man, Darrell David Rice of Columbia, after his recent arrest and charges in the killings of two women in Shenandoah National Park in 1996, the Showalters were circumspect.

"We will not speculate that it's him," Harley Showalter said quietly, as he sat in a conference room in the building that houses his Harrisonburg, insurance company. "We'll just wait and let the investigators do their jobs."

"You hope that something comes of it," his wife added. "Realistically, you realize it's a long shot."

Virginia State Police, who are handling the investigation, will say only that Rice, 34, hasn't been ruled out as a suspect.

Rice's appointed attorney in the Shenandoah killings, Fred Heblich of Charlottesville, Va., said he has no idea, beyond what he's read in media accounts, what authorities are doing to try to link - or rule out - his client with the Reynolds case.

"Anytime anyone gets charged in a case, they certainly run other unusual cases through to see if there's a chance," he said.

Over the years, state police say, they've checked out and cleared "hundreds" of suspects in the Reynolds case, which caused a spike in cellular telephone sales and left area residents doing a double take when a dark-colored pickup, like the one reported in the case, passed.

It wasn't just Reynolds' death that made residents jittery. It was the revelation, after the fact, that the man who killed her had likely spent the weeks before the killing practicing his routine. With her disappearance came word that more than 20 women had apparently encountered the same man, who was later dubbed "the Route 29 Stalker," in the Culpeper, Va., area.

In several cases, the man told the women he stopped that he saw smoke or sparks coming from their cars. Some women accepted rides to garages without incident.

Police believe Reynolds encountered the man along southbound U.S. 29 on March 2, 1996, about two miles south of Culpeper on her way to Charlottesville where she planned to help her mother shop for a dress for her twin brother's wedding.

Witnesses saw her talking with a man wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt and later getting into his pickup.

When her white Mercury Tracer was found on the shoulder of southbound U.S. 29 several hours later, it was locked and a white napkin - likely placed there to signal car trouble - was under the windshield wiper. Authorities could find nothing wrong with the car.

It would be more than two months before a logger found her body in rural Lignum - 15 miles away - after searching for the reason why buzzards were circling overhead.

In the weeks between Reynolds' disappearance and the discovery of her remains, her parents' imaginations ran wild.

"It was a terrible time because, you know, you play this ... scenario," Harley Showalter said. "What if she's living? What if she's in bondage? What if she can't see because her contact lens is dried up?"

In the six years since, they've created a scenario for what must have happened after their petite, athletic daughter got in the man's pickup: She died quickly, they figure, in his pickup. And she put up one hell of a fight.

"It's best not to know how much she struggled," Harley Showalter acknowledged. "But the consolation is it didn't last long."

Given the calls that flooded police lines after police publicized Reynolds' disappearance, investigators were confident that they'd not only solve her homicide, but solve it fast.

They had a lot going their way: Multiple people had come in contact with the man. A sketch of the suspect and a criminal profile were released to the public. Residents were more aware.

"Of course, you start looking at all the small, dark pickup trucks and suddenly, you realize, all your friends have small, dark pickup trucks," said Lou Preihs, 42, of Culpeper. "There were rumors flying right and left. Someone would suddenly leave the area and grow a beard."

Leads came - and went. Suspects looked promising - and were scratched off the list when an alibi or other evidence checked out.

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