Trinity county cold case solved
By Rob Rogers (Contact)
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Donna Lee Fowler
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- Munns' family and others seek information on their kidnappings and murders
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WEAVERVILLE - Local investigators think they can finally close the case of a first-grader who went missing nearly 30 years ago.
Donna Lee Fowler, who was 7 at the time, disappeared from downtown Weaverville on a chilly November afternoon, after she had threatened to run away from home.
Wayne Harvey Smith, who is now 61 and serving a life sentence in Los Angeles County, admitted in December to killing Donna and dumping her body in the town's landfill, said Detective Bryan Ward of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department.
Donna was last seen by a friend - the granddaughter of Weaverville resident Mary Adrian - about 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 1980.
"They were on their way home, sitting on the steps of the (Joss House) museum," Adrian said.
The two girls got up, and Adrian's granddaughter went one way and Donna went the other. Adrian declined to name her granddaughter.
"She doesn't want to get involved," Adrian said.
After Donna failed to come home later that evening, her mother, Darcy Cook, called the Sheriff's Department about 11:30 p.m. to report her missing daughter. At the time, Cook told investigators that she had waited so long to call because she believed her daughter had run away to a friend's house, according to news accounts at the time.
Donna's grandfather had helped her pack a suitcase, later telling family that he thought she was just playing a game, according to news accounts. When it was clear Donna was not with friends and not coming home, Cook reported her missing.
At the time, investigators suspected Smith was involved with the disappearance.
"(He) was the lead suspect because he was mom's boyfriend at the time," said Trinity County Sheriff Lorrac Craig, who joined the Trinity County Sheriff's Department in 1988.
An intense manhunt began the next day on Nov. 11. News accounts at the time revealed that local temperatures had dropped to 15 degrees the night before and investigators worried they would find Donna frozen to death.
A special search and rescue team was flown in by helicopter from Truckee and German shepherds aided in the search. Later, volunteers brought in bloodhounds, news accounts reported.
Donna was never found. Smith, who was 33 at the time, left town several days after Donna's disappearance, Ward and Craig said. He had been questioned by investigators a couple of days after Donna's disappearance, but refused to take a polygraph test and wouldn't cooperate with deputies.
"There wasn't enough evidence to issue a warrant and go after the guy," Ward said.
So deputies didn't chase after Smith to seek an arrest, he said.
Five years later, Smith turned up in Los Angeles where he had been convicted of murder and was sentenced to life without parole, Ward said. Nearly two decades later in 2004, DNA linked Smith to a second Los Angeles County murder that happened in 1983, he said.
With Smith already serving a life sentence, Ward said prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty against him for the second murder, but Smith agreed to give the details of Donna's disappearance so long as prosecutors didn't pursue the death sentence.
Craig added that part of the deal included Trinity County not prosecuting Smith for Donna's murder as well. But even with a confession, law enforcement in Trinity County still couldn't prosecute Smith.
"We didn't have enough evidence - we didn't have any evidence," Craig said. "We still don't."
With Cook's blessing, prosecutors agreed to the deal in October, Craig said.
Smith admitted to murdering Donna the afternoon she disappeared and to dumping her body in the town's landfill, Ward said. Smith told investigators he was angry with Donna and strangled her because she wouldn't leave his house.
Officials and Cook decided not to attempt the recovery of Donna's remains, Craig said.
Rob Rogers can be reached at 225-8217 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.