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Police dig in case of missing woman

The search for Sandra Prince turns to a South Tampa house.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO, CATHERINE E. SHOICHET and JOHN MARTIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 18, 2007


TAMPA -- The search for a missing Temple Terrace woman turned Wednesday to the back yard of a new South Tampa home.

Police wouldn't say why they believe the two-story rental at 3908 W Vasconia St. might contain clues to finding Sandra Hamby Prince, last seen Dec. 30, 2005.

But the house was built by a man police describe as Prince's boyfriend and their "person of interest" in the investigation, public records show.

Workers poured a concrete slab there just about the time she vanished, according to building inspection records.

Prince, a social worker who more than 30 years ago helped found the Agency for Community Treatment Services, a drug treatment center, was reported missing Jan. 3, 2006, by a concerned neighbor.

Police found blood in the trunk of Prince's car, and her cell phone on the kitchen counter. ATM video surveillance showed a man with his face covered trying to access her accounts in the days after her disappearance.

Police have openly focused their attention on Tampa contractor Earl C. Pippin III, naming him a "person of interest" in September 2006. They said Pippin is the sole beneficiary of Prince's $2.8-million estate. Pippin's attorney said Wednesday he has no evidence of this vested interest.

Prince's will is sealed in a Hillsborough court file. A judge recently denied Pippin's request to view the file.

Homeowners Timothy and Maiti McLeod hired Pippin to be their general contractor at the site beginning July 19, 2005, according to public records. Inspectors approved the house slab there on Jan. 5, 2006, less than a week after Prince's disappearance.

When she disappeared, Prince was unmarried and had no siblings and no children. Her widowed mother died in March, leaving part of her North Carolina estate to the Temple Terrace Police Department.

On Wednesday afternoon, two detectives looked on as men with shovels bent over a waist-deep hole at the two-story Vasconia Street house that public records show Pippin helped build two years ago.

Temple Terrace spokesman Mike Dunn said police received a warrant to search for any kind of evidence -- including the possibility of human remains -- that may be linked to Prince's case.

Investigators didn't recover anything during their daylong search, Dunn said. But they expect to resume the dig this morning.

'I'm not involved'

Reached at an auto repair business he owns in Tampa, Timothy McLeod said Pippin built the house for him and a business partner whom he declined to name. He said he didn't have many dealings with Pippin because his partner handled the matter.

Asked if police had told him anything of their progress in the search, he said: "That's their business. I'm not involved."

McLeod, said he doesn't know Prince.The house was finished about a year ago, and he has been renting it to tenants for about six or seven months, he said.

Brennan Calkins, 30, lives across from the Vasconia Street house with her husband and two children. She said that while the house was still under construction about a year ago, she noticed police officers searching the premises one day, looking inside portable toilets and inspecting other parts of the site.

On Wednesday, as the diggers tossed upturned soil into piles around them, an unnerved Calkins joined her neighbors curbside to watch.

Worse than the commotion of camera crews and reporters, she said, were the rumors she was hearing about why they were there.

"It's just nerve-racking that all of that time a man that could have murdered his girlfriend and buried her in the backyard was around my kids," she said.

That's exactly the perception Pippin's attorney, Paul Sisco, said his client has been unfairly subjected to during the police investigation. Investigators, he said, have given the Prince family false hope by pointing their finger in Pippin's direction when others with financial motives have escaped scrutiny.

"They can dig all they want," Sisco said after stopping at Vasconia Street to talk to reporters late Wednesday. "They're going to find no link between Mr. Pippin and her disappearance."

Sisco said Pippin passed a polygraph administered to him by an examiner with 30 years' experience in the FBI. What's more, he said, police have dug at the site before -- a claim Temple Terrace spokesman Dunn declined to discuss.

"I've seen no evidence that Pippin is a beneficiary of this will," Sisco said. "He has no financial interest in this whatsoever. He has an interest in her being found or being returned to the Tampa area."

Pippin, who in recent months has declined to talk with the St. Petersburg Times, co-owns property with Prince at Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County. Police said he dated Prince for five years while he was still married. Court records note his primary residence since his divorce to be at Lake Panasoffkee.

Back at the South Tampa house Wednesday, Brennan Calkins' husband, Sam, 33, said it appeared an archeological team from the University of South Florida assisted police for part of the day. He said an SUV labeled with a USF archeology department sign was parked in front of the residence.

Dunn declined to comment about the types of equipment used at the house.

But if police believe there's a body buried under a house, experts say, there are ways to find it.

New technique

One option is called ground-penetrating radar, said professor John J. Schultz, an anthropology professor at the University of Central Florida.

Schultz has used the radar, called GPR for short, to see under the ground. That way, there's no need to tear up property right away, he said. The radar works by transmitting an electromagnetic wave into the ground. It doesn't give a clear image like an X-ray or a sonogram, but it does show if there's anything unusual.

"You won't see a body," he said. "If you bring it into a cemetery you won't see a casket."

The radar does give the size of the object. If it matches a body, it might be time to dig, he said.

"Ultimately, you have to go through the foundation," he said.

Dunn said it would take a court order to start burrowing into the slab of the two-story, maize colored house, and investigators are not at that stage at this point.

Susan Horton, a longtime friend of Prince's, sounded both relieved and horrified to hear about the police dig.

"You have got to be kidding me," she groaned when reached at her Venice home. "That's just unbelievable."

For two years Horton has tried to get the media to pay attention to her friend's disappearance. The problem, she said, is that whenever there is a break in the case that brings out the cameras, a sinking reality follows: Sandra is still gone.

Times staff writers Abbie VanSickle, Sue Carlton and Kevin Graham contributed to this report.

 

HOW TO HELP: Reward
There is an $80,000 reward for information leading to Sandra Prince's location. Call Temple Terrace Police Detective Michael Pridemore at (813) 989-7110 with information.