What Happened to Shaquita Bell?

When Jackie Winborne last said goodbye to her daughter, Shaquita Bell, she never imagined she would not see her again. For the past 11 years, she has been painfully longing to know what happened to her, and the passage of time has not diminished the determination or the momentum to find answers.

Shaquita was last seen with Michael Dickerson, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, on June 27, 1996 in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan region. A mother of three children, they were young at the time of her disappearance--Alexis, three months old, Devontae, three years, and Ashley, five years-old. When Bell did not return home, family members became worried and her mother, Jackie, called Dickerson who told her that he, too, was looking for her. He provided Winborne two different stories in response to her inquiry. First, Dickerson said that Shaquita exited his vehicle on Minnesota Avenue in D.C. because they were arguing. Secondly, he stated he was at his house, and Shaquita had called a cab or someone picked her up.

Extremely concerned, Winborne's husband, Thomas, called Dickerson's father who indicated his son had planned to take off from work. Mr. Winbourne explained that Dickerson had offered two different stories, and Dickerson's father confirmed that his son was with Shaquita. He also told Winborne that he had seen Shaquita's belongings in his son's home and questioned where Shaquita was. but received an answer that made no sense to him. "Call the police and expect the worst," Dickerson's father told Mr. Winborne.

The family members immediately began circulating flyers about Shaquita's mysterious disappearance, and they pursued this activity daily for four and a half months. Local businesses were generous and donated fliers for the endeavor. Everyone was helping with this effort, including Ms. Winborne's brother, husband, and friends from her job. While all this was occurring, Michael Dickerson did not show up to help, but instead went into hiding for five days.

At the time of her disappearance, Shaquita was 23 years old. Her mother reveals that Dickerson would not allow her daughter to attend church. "I could see sadness in her face." She also observed dark circles around her daughter's eyes, revealing signs of abuse, though Shaquita never confided in her mother that she was a victim of domestic violence. "She would never tell me that. She wouldn't want to hurt my feelings," says Jackie Winborne. However, neighbors heard screaming and indications of violent behavior.

Prior to her disappearance, Shaquita filed charges against Dickerson for assault; he had beaten her, and she was badly bruised. The case was tried after Shaquita's disappearance, without the victim, and Dickerson was convicted. He was sentenced to serve a total of 15 years with no parole, and he is currently incarcerated.

According to Jackie Winborne, Shaquita's purse was found in the vehicle of Dickerson's friend, Jonathan Shields, who later claimed that Dickinson told him that her daughter was killed in the District of Columbia, and her body was buried in Prince George's County, Maryland. Shields agreed to testify concerning this information before a Grand Jury, but he was murdered the day before his scheduled testimony.

Following her daughter's disappearance, Jackie Winborne talked to Dickerson's mother. "You know where your son is. I don't know where my daughter is," Winborne told her. Whenever they heard of any possible leads in the case, Mr. and Mrs. Winborne went to various sites searching for clues, and they proactively contacted police.

Acknowledging her dismay with what she perceived to be a lack of response by former police chiefs who served during the time frame of her daughter's disappearance, Ms. Winborne and 25 others, picketed in front of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (DCMPD) one day. "At what point do we not become important? Let us know we are important and that work is being done. Are you so busy that you can't contact families?" she asks. Following the demonstration, she received a call stating the case was not closed.

Not long ago, Ms. Winborne was on television, and she noted the presence in the department of newly appointed Chief Cathy L. Lanier. "If I could only meet with Chief Lanier, it would be a blessing for our case. She seems to have such compassion," she said. Chief Lanier, who saw her on television, took the initiative to contact Ms. Winborne, and they had a face-to-face meeting on July 4, 2007. "What would you like to see done?" asked Lanier. "I'm here until we solve this case," and she hugged Ms. Winborne. "It just touched my heart," says Winborne. Since that time, Ms. Winborne now talks to Chief Lanier weekly. "Jackie has shown tremendous grace under the circumstances. As a mother, I admire her sheer determination to bring her daughter's killer to justice. More importantly, she's managed to come through it all without being angry or bitter. She is one of the finest human beings that I have ever met," says Lanier.

Following their meeting, Lanier reassembled a team and coordinated with the Prince George's County (MD) Police Department to return to the site where it was alleged Shaquita was buried. On July 28, 2007, officers, cadaver dogs, helicopters, and even a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Doug Owsley, accompanied the crew in search of clues. They spent three days at the site in Ft. Washington, but left with no new discoveries. DCMPD Detective Jim Trainum and Project Director for the Violent Crime Case Review Project of the department arranged the search. "The problem with these cases is they fall through the cracks--they are not quite a homicide, but they are missing. These are 'no body' cases. The family themselves can do a lot to improve the response to these cases by becoming active and sharing concerns with others," says Trainum. Reflecting on the case of Shaquita Bell, he states, "They did a lot of investigative work in her case."

Ms. Winborne and her family continue to hope they will locate Shaquita's body and resolve what actually happened to her. The years pass, but time lingers in their desire to obtain answers. When asked how she manages to keep going, Winborne says, "I have my bad days. I pray. I read the Bible. Family makes a big difference but, of course, it doesn't make up for her. I'll never give up until I find out what happened to her. I couldn't give up."