11/29/07 — Sifting for clues in suspect's yard

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Sifting for clues in suspect's yard

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on November 29, 2007 1:46 PM

GRANTHAM -- State and local investigators carefully combed through mounds of dirt pulled from beneath the steps of a Selah Church Road home on Wednesday.

In a shallow grave beneath the pre-fabricated concrete staircase and small wooden deck, they say, was the body of Patricia Ann Herring, once of Bruitt Street, LaGrange.

Buckets of dirt carefully scooped from around the body were sifted using a color-coded system -- an effort to ensure no shred of evidence went undiscovered.

Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders and his investigators said the grave -- about 20 inches deep -- was dug by David William Best, 24, Ms. Herring's live-in boyfriend.

Best, of Selah Church Road, Four Oaks, is charged with Ms. Herring's murder.

He was the last person to have reported seeing her, telling Ms. Herring's sister Kathy Holt Alfaro that he left her walking outside the Mount Olive Wal-Mart in May.

Ms. Alfaro eventually reported her sister's disappearance to Mount Olive police. Chief Ralph Schroeder said he entered Ms. Herring's name into the National Crime Information Center.

Then the search for Ms. Herring came to an end when the Johnston County Sheriff's Office received a tip there was a body buried at the single-wide mobile home.

Johnston officers passed the information on to Wayne County authorities, who deployed investigators and canine officers around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

"We were able to find the location with the cadaver dogs," Winders said. "Of course it was revealed that there were some remains last night. At that point, we stopped."

Winders said procedure called for his officers to call in state authorities at that point.

"You have to sift the soil, make sure you get all the evidence," Winders said. "That is a drawn-out process. They're going to be down here many hours."

Winders' statement came just before noon and proved true, as both investigators and members of the Wayne County Sheriff's Posse Search Team stayed at the scene into well into the afternoon.

The hole under the staircase was not the only one the team had dug, but it quickly proved to be the one of interest.

The prefabricated cement staircase that led up to the trailer's rear entrance was overturned in the back yard, allowing access to the grave.

In unearthing Ms. Herring's remains, as many as six investigators led by a crime scene investigator, were on their bellies leaning headfirst into the hole, carefully removing dirt.

They would occasionally pause to comment on the noxious odors not just from their search, but from the property.

The sheriff said Best's property was littered with animal carcasses and fish entrails.

They weren't sure how long it would take to unearth Ms. Herring, but investigators still toiled at the site after 3 p.m. to remove her.

Care was important, investigators said, because they wanted to remove Ms. Herring's body in the exact state it was buried.

Investigators said that can help medical examiners determine the cause of Ms. Herring's death. Ms. Herring's body was expected to be transported to Chapel Hill for an autopsy, police said.

On the scene, investigators used box sifters to pour dirt culled from around the area looking for fragments of bone and other evidence.

Even fibers stuck to the box sifters were collected as evidence, as others looked for evidence in less obvious places.

In a roughly diagonal field of brush adjacent to single-wide trailer, the Posse Search Team used T-shaped metal probes to poke at the earth.

They formed a tight cluster as they methodically lifted dirt with shovels in areas where their probing made them suspicious.

As they left, one commented to investigators that he thought the search team and other officials had been very careful with their search.

"The whole lawn's aerated," said the search team member of the hundeds of holes poked in the lawn with T-shaped probes. "The grass should grow, now."