by Robert A. Waters
Highway 40 cut across the center of Florida and through the heart of a town that was quickly becoming a city. Ocala. Locally, the highway was called Silver Springs Boulevard. The Florida Highway Patrol station sat near the eastern edge of town, on the Boulevard. You couldn’t miss it—-an ugly red and white metal tower stood behind it, rising maybe two hundred feet into the sky.
Lena Scofield and her twelve-year-old daughter, Dorothy, nicknamed “Dee,” arrived a few minutes after noon. Lena needed to get her driver’s license renewed, and Dee had accompanied her mother. At four-feet-ten, and weighing nearly one hundred pounds, Dee was beginning to develop a figure. She wore blue jeans, a red blouse, and brown tennis shoes. She had brown braided hair and wore glasses with teardrop-shaped gold frames.
While in line, Dee asked to walk over to the J. M. Fields department store. She’d recently bought a pair of sandals there and wanted to exchange them. The store was about a football field’s-length from the Highway Patrol station.
According to an article in the Ocala Star-Banner, “Mrs. Schofield (sic) first indicated displeasure with the idea, but then relented, telling her daughter if she got through first, she was to return to the FHP station. In turn, Mrs. Schofield (sic) said if she got through with the test first, she would go to the shopping center and meet her daughter.”
As the sun scorched the parking lot between the FHP station and J. M. Fields, Dee walked away, swinging her bag with the sandals.
By one o’clock, Lena was done. She drove over to Fields and began looking for her daughter. She spoke to several clerks who’d seen Dee in the store. At least one employee had noticed the girl leave through the double-doors at the store’s entrance.
Thinking that they’d missed each other, Lena drove back to the FHP station. When she couldn’t find her daughter, she reported Dee missing to the officer in charge.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers interviewed Lena. They learned that Dee was an honor student at Marion Middle School. During the summer, she’d been working at her parent’s barbecue restaurant. According to police, she was “obedient...from a close-knit family.”
An All-American girl, police didn’t believe she would have run away. Using the FHP station as a base, Joe and Lena Scofield waited for information. All Lena could do was cry and second-guess herself. How could someone just vanish from a crowded parking lot?
Joe was in shock. Marion County, he thought, is larger than some states. Much of it is rural. “You could go three or four miles from here,” Joe said, “and find thousands of places to hide somebody.”
The Ocala Police Department had jurisdiction, but troopers from the Florida Highway Patrol and deputies from the Marion County Sheriff’s Department helped in the search for Dee. A sales receipt confirmed that she’d been in the department store and had exchanged her sandals. A clerk remembered the girl browsing at the jewelry counter. Investigators and employees searched every inch of the store. Then they moved next door to a bowling alley that was under construction. They worked their way across the Boulevard to the Sears Town Plaza. Throughout the afternoon, police and volunteers combed the area.
There were few leads. In fact, investigators initially labeled the disappearance as a “missing persons case” because there was no solid evidence to show that Dee had been abducted.
Then they got the only clue they would ever get.
Nuby Shealey’s store is a landmark in Marion County. It sits at the intersection of Highway 40 and State Road Highway 314, less than a mile from the Ocala National Forest. It is a combination gas station and restaurant and bait shop. Locally, it has always been known as “Nuby’s.”
When the good old boys show up, one of the major topics is whether there’s a world record bass in one of the thousands of lakes and ponds that dot the Forest. They still laugh about the former chef who drove in from Mississippi and “guaranteed” that he would catch the record bass. He claimed to have a secret bait. Turns out he used wild eels, something unheard of among the locals. After a year of frustration, he gave up and went back to cooking.
The day after Dee vanished, detectives interviewed a clerk at Nuby’s. According to an article in the Star-Banner, “A woman employe (sic) at the store positively identified a young girl who had been in the store as the missing Schofield (sic) girl.” Sergeant Gordon Welch of the Ocala Police Department said the clerk “described the girl and clothing she was wearing before police presented her with a description.” The clerk said that the girl entered the store with two men--she was shaking and crying and looked uncomfortable.
Because of this tip, the search shifted to the Ocala National Forest. The Forest is huge. It consists of more than six hundred square miles of scrubland and swamp. Wild critters such as bears, alligators, coyotes, and bobcats roam the Forest. It’s a hunter’s delight, and every year hundreds of deer are bagged. Dozens of ten-pound bass are taken from Forest waters annually. Unfortunately, it’s also a good place to hide a body.
Police and volunteers fanned out, trudging through the rattlesnake-infested hills and slogging through cotton-mouth swamps. Hunting cabins were checked. A helicopter flew over the area for days, looking for any sign of the missing girl. The desperation of the searchers was evident when the cops turned to self-professed psychics for help. As usual, they offered only vague leads that came to nothing.
The Scofields offered a $1,000 reward, all they could afford. They moved into a trailer near the Forest. Dozens of family members from all over the country converged on the trailer. Lena and the women cooked all day and manned the phones while the men searched.
Day after day, the searchers went out fresh and hopeful, only to return filthy and exhausted and discouraged.
In the end, it was all in vain. The searchers went home, the cops gave up, and the case went cold.
It’s been 38 years now since Dorothy “Dee” Scofield disappeared. Unless her abductor is still alive, no one knows what happened to her. During those early days of the search, Lena vocalized her frustration. “I just can’t imagine why they took her,” she said. “No, I can imagine a lot of reasons, but I don’t want to admit it to myself. [This] person has got to be sick.”
[Today, J. M. Fields no longer exists in Ocala. The building is now the Marion County Public Library. But occasionally, as I search for some new book, I want to ask employees if they have ever encountered the ghost of a twelve-year-old girl. If so, it would be Dee Scofield, a little girl lost and never found.]