Police return to dig at South Tampa house

After soil tests in October, they go back to look for Sandra Prince's body.

Published January 11, 2008

TAMPA -- The pounding of a jackhammer echoed through a South Tampa neighborhood Thursday, as detectives once again burrowed beneath a home in search of the body of Sandra Prince.

Temple Terrace police returned to 3908 W Vasconia St. at 9 a.m. after obtaining a warrant allowing them to search the property for evidence of the missing woman, who would be 61 years old by now.

A construction worker confirmed he was ripping up the floor inside.

In October, police conducted an extensive, five-day dig at the address, removing almost 300 pounds of soil samples from beneath the home's foundation. Forensic archeologists from the University of South Florida spent months sorting through the dirt, searching for evidence of Prince.

"The results are back," Detective Michael Pridemore said Thursday morning, "and we're back here to dig to find her."

Prince's neighbors reported her missing from her Temple Terrace home on Jan. 3, 2006. Her car was in the garage, and her blood was in the trunk.

Police now believe Prince is buried beneath this two-story peach stucco house, which her boyfriend built in 2006.

Earl C. Pippin III, the man police named "a person of interest" nine months after she vanished, dated Prince for five years. According to police, he is the full beneficiary of her estate.

Records show a city inspector approved a newly poured concrete slab at the Vasconia Street house on Jan. 5, 2006, two days after she was reported missing.

On Thursday, contractors arrived midmorning, unloading a jackhammer, iron rods, a large crowbar, a self-propelled concrete saw, brooms and a large bag of white rags.

Pounding and knocking could be heard from inside the house starting at about 11:15 a.m. Workers piled wood and other materials in the garage. Once a jackhammer started drilling, contractors and detectives walked in and out of the house wearing earplugs.

One worker talking loudly on his phone could be overheard saying they had disassembled part of the staircase.

Temple Terrace spokesman Mike Dunn would not confirm where work was taking place.

But in November 2006, detectives examined the slab with ground-penetrating radar, but noted later that they were unable to access areas under the large staircase, kitchen island and kitchen cabinets

Pippin's attorney, Paul Sisco, said his position about the investigation remains the same. "They haven't produced a shred of evidence and won't concerning Earl Pippin and the disappearance of this woman."

He would not comment on whether Pippin is still residing at Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County, where court records showed he moved following his August 2006 divorce from Gale Pippin, his wife of 20 years.

Prince lived a life of intense privacy, friends say, dedicated to helping those struggling with substance addiction. More than 30 years ago, she co-founded the Agency for Community Treatment Services, now a prominent social services agency. She was single, an only child, and had no children.

Susan Horton, a longtime friend of Prince's, gasped when she heard detectives were back at the house. "This is sickening," she said. "Really sickening."

Police wouldn't say what October's soil samples revealed that led them back here Thursday, exactly two years and a week after police began this investigation.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the forensic science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said that if a body was buried two years ago, all of the soft tissue would be gone. What would remain would be skeleton, teeth and hair.

Still, Kobilinsky said he was puzzled by what human remains detectives might have found in the soil that might not have been immediately visible to the eye other than hair.

He said soil does contain microbes, and microbes do contain DNA. It is possible forensic archaeologists tested all of the soil for DNA, although that would be an expensive undertaking, he said.

Nonhuman remains inside the soil could include clothing fibers or jewelry such as a ring or watch, he said.

At about 3:45 p.m., the contractors packed up their equipment and left. Detectives appeared to be stepping outside of the house to make phone calls.

Dunn, the Temple Terrace spokesman, said that while contractors had concluded their work, detectives were expected to work into Thursday evening and come back today. The Temple Terrace crime scene van left at 4:40 p.m.

Dunn said the investigators had not found anything yet.

Timothy McLeod, owner of the Vasconia Street house, said he lost a renter and potential buyer after the first dig in October, and hasn't been able to rent the home since.

"I think I should be compensated for lost rent," he said.

The first dig cost Temple Terrace $21,000, including the cost of restoring the home's landscaping, Dunn said.

McLeod said he expected the same would be done this time: "I feel very confident that they're going to put the house back the way it was."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.