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    Leads keep running dry in search for boy, 8

    Police are continuing traditional investigative work to find Zachary Bernhardt, who was reported missing 38 days ago.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- The yellow ribbons that once hung from an oak tree at the Savannah Trace apartment complex, urging searchers not to give up hope, are gone.

    Also gone is the white plastic bag with "Bring Zack Home" scrawled on it in black ink and the "MISSING" posters bearing the 8-year-old's picture.

    Thirty-eight days have passed since Leah Hackett told Clearwater police investigators that she returned to apartment No. 634 after a 15-minute walk at 4 a.m. and found that her son, Zachary Bernhardt, had disappeared without a trace.

    Police launched a massive search for the boy that covered hundreds of acres of land and water. Although the search has turned up little in the way of clues, it continues on a smaller scale with what Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor called "traditional police work."

    "Running down leads, analyzing information and comparing notes," he said. "It's not particularly sexy, but historically it has proven effective."

    Shelor said the dozens of officers and investigators initially assigned to the search have been returned to their regular duties because the hundreds of tips on where to look have dried up.

    At the height of the search, Shelor said, about 50 investigators from the Clearwater Police Department were working around the clock looking for clues that would help find the boy, who disappeared Sept. 11.

    Police have found no evidence that suggests the third-grader at Eisenhower Elementary School ran away. None of his belongings are missing.

    "There were no significant leads as far as leading to closure of this case," Shelor said. "We had over 500 calls into our tip line early on, which has dwindled to a trickle at best."

    The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Manatee County Sheriff's Office, Tampa Police Department, Clearwater Fire Department, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI also helped cover hundreds of acres of woods, knocking on doors and searching the waterways looking for the child.

    Shelor said detectives have no evidence that a crime was committed, and they do not view Hackett as a suspect. However, police said last month that they think she knows more than what she had said about what happened to Zachary.

    "It's not beyond comprehension," Shelor said of the child's disappearance. "But it is certainly confounding to deal with a situation of having an 8-year-old child disappear with no indication of where he is or what happened to him."

    Hackett, who faced eviction for not paying two months' back rent, moved from her apartment at 2690 Drew St. On Wednesday, through the unit's window shades, a stained carpet, a half-empty 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi and a couple of end tables were visible.

    Shelor said investigators know where Hackett lives now but would not release that information.

    Zachary has blond hair and blue eyes. He is 4 feet 6, weighs 60 pounds and was wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts at the time he was reported missing.

    Anyone with information is asked to call the Clearwater Police Department at 562-4242.

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