Error compounds a mother's grief; Loss: After 4 years of searching for her missing son, she learns his body had been found 6 days after he vanished.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Arnita Fowler spent the past four years searching New York for her missing son. She made fliers. She wandered around his college campus. She moved east from California. She kept up hope but was prepared for the worst.

Or so she thought.

Two weeks ago, Fowler learned that her only child had been dead all along, his body discovered in the East River six days after he disappeared in 1995.

The authorities had made a mistake. The FBI had matched La-Mont Dottin's fingerprints with those taken from the body soon after it was pulled from the water. But no one told his mother.

And so, while Fowler was crisscrossing the country, questioning police and struggling to keep her sanity, her 21-year-old son was lying in an unidentified grave in a potter's field, home of the unknown and unclaimed.

"They've just stabbed me all over again," said Fowler, 42, a former Air Force supply technician. "I had just learned how to walk again."

Today, La-Mont Dottin will get a proper funeral at a Baptist church and burial at a military cemetery on Long Island. But Fowler isn't putting the matter to rest. She is incensed by the way her son was treated. She wants a murder investigation opened. She wants procedures changed for dealing with missing people. And she said she plans to sue law enforcement authorities.

"I served my country," Fowler said. "His father is a police officer. What kind of people do you have to be to get the most from your city officials?"

Fowler's ordeal appears to be the result of bad communication between the FBI and New York City police. Police said the FBI failed to alert them to the fingerprint match but acknowledged that city detectives did not make a follow-up call until recently. An FBI spokesman said the agency's fingerprint databank notified city police of the match in writing, which is standard procedure.

Recent reforms in the city's missing persons unit led to a review of old cases and the subsequent discovery, a police spokesman said. But Fowler maintains that it was her routine phone call early this month that prompted police to call the FBI.

In any case, the mistake led to four years of protracted agony for Dottin's mother and his father, Norman Dottin, 44, a New York transit police officer who lives on Long Island.

The parents, who were high school sweethearts in Jamaica, Queens, have remained in close contact since Fowler joined the Air Force in 1980, when La-Mont was 6.

After moving around on assignments, mother and son eventually settled in Sacramento, Calif., where they were part of a close-knit military community. La-Mont, a tall, slender, witty boy, loved computers and math, sang in the church choir and escorted his mother to military balls. He knew the Bible so well he lectured Jehovah's Witnesses who came to the door. At 17, he and his girlfriend had a baby daughter.

Though Fowler's family was back in Queens, she preferred raising her son in Sacramento. New York scared her.

But as the son grew up and headed for college, the two decided to reunite with the family. Dottin had been through a rough teen-age phase -- he started and quit junior college, worked a number of jobs and was arrested for gun possession -- but seemed to be putting his life on track, his parents said.

In fall 1995, he enrolled at Queens College and moved in with his grandmother. His mother, who was finishing her undergraduate degree in California, planned to join him.

A month into his first semester, on Oct. 18, 1995, Dottin went to the post office to mail his mother $25 from a college stipend to start a bank account. The package arrived, but he disappeared.

"I knew right away something was wrong because we talked almost every single day," Fowler said.

Running into roadblocks

When she tried to report him as a missing person, she ran into repeated roadblocks from police. One, he hadn't been gone long enough. Two, he was an adult, so searching for him would be deemed an invasion of privacy (a policy that has since changed).

At one point, Fowler says, police told her that it was not unusual for a black man to leave home.

So she made fliers. She rode his bus route. She roamed the college campus, questioning security guards. She made a presentation before each of his classes, and the college newspaper subsequently ran the story on its front page. She checked in with the police weekly.

Just a few miles to the west, in Manhattan, a body was fished out of the East River on Oct. 24, six days after Dottin vanished. There was no sign of foul play, and the case was ruled an accidental drowning. Police sent fingerprints from the body to various agencies, including the FBI.

On Nov. 13, city police officially listed Dottin as missing.

Meanwhile, Fowler carried on her studies by mail. By Christmas break, she was spending much of her time on her mother's sofa in a daze. Strangers -- including psychics -- were calling to report they had seen her son.

On Feb. 13, 1996, the body was buried in an unmarked grave.

About that time, Fowler decided to return to college in Sacramento to complete her last semester. Her granddaughter, age 3 at the time, needed her. "I was going to die if I didn't get out" of New York, Fowler said. Still, she kept regular contact with police.

Increasingly drawn to her faith for support, Fowler enrolled in a master's program at Golden Gate Theological Seminary. But a year later, in 1997, something pulled her back to New York; God was calling her, she says. Since then, she has worked temporary jobs and made plans to return to school in New York for a master's in public policy and a law degree -- which she hopes to use to help her Baptist church and community. She is also training to become an ordained minister.

"I felt like I had to keep going," she said. "I learned four years ago that if I stumble, I might not get up."

An unusual request

Early this month, Fowler called detectives to set up a meeting on the case. A few days later, on Sept. 7, they asked whether they could come to her family's house in Queens, which she knew was unusual. Surrounded by family members and her pastor, who held her and prayed with her before the detectives arrived, she listened to the news that her son had been dead for four years.

"I had learned how to go to bed at night and get up in the morning," she said. "I had learned how to hope. I had learned to keep my mind. Here I am four years later at that same point, like I had hit a wall again."

Norman Dottin said the debacle has left him unable to trust any information on the case.

"To this day I'm hoping that it's not [La-Mont]," he said. "Even with all the tests they do, somehow I'm not going to ever be absolutely sure that's my son in that coffin."

Sgt. Rafael Andalia, the city police spokesman, said there are no plans to open a murder investigation because the case was ruled an accidental drowning.

But Fowler and Dottin say they will fight for answers. No one goes swimming in the East River in October, they said. And those close to Fowler -- headstrong and persistent -- say somehow, this mystery will get solved.

"One thing about Arnita is this isn't going to rest," said Claudia Phelps, a friend and former colleague in the seminary.

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