Huffpost Chicago
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Protess Headshot

When a Child Vanishes in the Night

Posted: Updated:
LISA IRWIN
AP

A little girl disappears from her home during the night. Her father discovers her missing after noticing the front door is ajar. The parents claim an intruder may have entered the home through a window and snatched the child.

But police doubt their story. Why wasn't anyone awakened by the intruder, including the child's half-brother? Questioning the parents separately, the police learn that the mother's account of the previous night's events has changed. The parents become targets as the authorities obtain a warrant to search their home. Defense lawyers shut down further interviews by police, a sign of guilt to many in the media and the public.

Sound familiar? The Baby Lisa case in Kansas City, right? Yes. And no.

As I've watched the drama unfold surrounding 11-month old Lisa Irwin, who vanished overnight on Oct. 3, my thoughts have turned to an eerily similar case. The ordeal (described above) began on Sept. 10, 1988, when seven-year-old Jaclyn Dowaliby was reported missing in the Chicago suburb of Midlothian. She must have been abducted from her bed the night before, her frantic parents told disbelieving police.

It only got worse from there. Four days later, Jaclyn's body was discovered behind an apartment complex in a nearby suburb. She had been murdered. A resident of the complex would claim he had seen Jaclyn's adoptive father, David Dowaliby, at the very spot where Jaclyn's body was later found. That was enough for police to arrest David and his wife, Cynthia, Jaclyn's biological mother.

While the parents were being interrogated separately, Jaclyn's half-brother was questioned by child protective services. Disappointed that they did not get confessions, the authorities turned up the heat on the family by placing the half-brother in an orphanage.

Nineteen months after Jaclyn's death, David and Cynthia Dowaliby were tried for her murder. Cynthia, whose case was strictly circumstantial, was acquitted by the judge. But David's case had additional evidence -- the eyewitness's testimony -- and that was enough for a jury to find David guilty. He got 45 years.

In the course of writing a book about the case, Gone in the Night, journalist Rob Warden and I interviewed the eyewitness. He told us a startling story. He never meant to suggest that he'd seen David Dowaliby behind the apartment complex that night -- only a person with "a prominent nose structure." When police showed him a photo spread that included a mug shot of David, the witness selected it -- because David's nose was bigger than the others in the spread.

The nose-witness went on to tell us that he would likely have identified a picture of the prosecutor in the case because he, too, had a large nose. When we showed him a picture of the apartment complex's handyman, who strongly resembled David, the witness admitted that was the person he probably saw the night Jaclyn went missing.

In 1991, David's case was thrown out by the Illinois appellate court based on insufficient evidence, and he was reunited with his family. He had spent 18 months behind bars for a crime he did not commit. The actual killer? Turns out it likely was Jaclyn's psychotic uncle, who made damning admissions to us in an audio-taped interview. (The uncle died soon afterward.)

The Dowaliby case provides a cautionary tale for the officers investigating Baby Lisa's disappearance. So does the case of JonBenet Ramsey, stolen in 1996 from her Boulder, CO. bed and murdered. The authorities targeted her parents until DNA cleared them. And there is Elizabeth Smart, abducted in 2002 from a bedroom she shared with her sister in their Salt Lake City, Utah home -- and found alive nine months later. Police did not buy the sister's story, lost precious time and arrested the wrong man before finally nailing the actual perpetrators.

The public wants to believe that a child's bedroom is a safe haven from predators. It's reassuring to think that family members are responsible when a child vanishes, especially from her home. And that's often true. The family should be questioned as possible suspects under these circumstances.

But when the primary focus is on the parents, tunnel vision can take hold and the trail for other suspects can grow cold. Putting the parents under a cloud of suspicion will also prompt lawyers to insulate even innocent clients, depriving the authorities of information that might prove useful in their investigation.

I don't know whether parents Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley are truly innocent, as they have said, or what fate has befallen their baby. But I certainly know that if they played no role in Lisa's disappearance, they are being doubly victimized -- first by a kidnapper, and then by law enforcement.

That nightmare will haunt David and Cynthia Dowaliby, and parents like them, for the rest of their lives.

Keeping You Posted.
With nine days left until Hank Skinner's scheduled execution, the Texas condemned man has garnered new support in his fight for DNA testing that could prove his innocence. On Oct. 27, more than a dozen lawmakers, law enforcement-types and a former Texas governor appealed to Gov. Rick Perry and others to halt the execution and test the evidence. Skinner's wife, Sandrine, a French national, has arrived in Texas after spearheading an on-line petition drive that has gotten more than 12,000 signatures. Sandrine tells me that today is the last day to sign before she submits the petition to DA Lynn Switzer, who currently controls access to the untested crime scene evidence. A Texas judge is expected to rule shortly on Skinner's motion for a stay of execution. Although Skinner's fight has largely escaped the attention of mainstream media, you can follow late breaking developments in the Texas Tribune and, of course, HuffPost. For more, see my Oct. 4 and Oct. 25 posts about the Skinner case.