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Death renews Clearwater family's three-decade-old pain

CLEARWATER — Elaine Wade still remembers what her mother was wearing the morning of June 14, 1974: a black checkered top, black slacks and white sandals.

Wade's sister, Sharon Jones, remembers waiting for Margaret Dash to honk the horn as soon as she returned home from getting medicine for a sick cousin.

"I was supposed to run out and get the medicine when she returned from the store," said Jones, now 51.

Youngest daughter Ladwayna Gilghrest stood at the front door of their home at 1142 Wildwood St. and cried. She wanted to go with her mother to the store. The

then-9-year-old's pleas were denied.

"I just remember waiting for her," said Gilghrest, now 43. "I'm still waiting for her. She's not dead. We can feel it."

It was the last time they saw their mother.

When Margaret Dash vanished at age 38, it sent her husband, Leon, and their four children on a 34-year voyage of despair, loneliness and hope. Her disappearance has never been solved.

But after having found ways to cope with the disappointment of not having their mother at their baby showers or Sunday family dinners, their carefully controlled grief was unleashed again in August.

Leon Dash Jr., 48, was beaten to death trying to break up a fight while working as a security guard for a party at the Atrium Martini Bar in downtown Clearwater. Police have yet to find his killer.

"We are still searching for Margaret," said Leon Dash Sr., who now lives in Homosassa. "And now for this to happen to Junior, it's a bit overwhelming."

Clearwater police said the Margaret Dash case is still open, although they haven't received any information recently. As for Leon Dash Jr.'s death, police say they are still searching for his killer.

"It's still under investigation, and detectives are asking anyone with information concerning the incident to call," said Elizabeth Daly-Watts, Clearwater police spokeswoman.

When Wade, Jones and Gilghrest received word that their brother had been injured in the early morning of July 30, they drove to the scene. They were directed to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and could hear the helicopter ferrying their brother to the hospital.

"It was like at the same time we said, 'Not again,' " said Wade, 52. "Leon's death brought back a lot of pain. It's so hard on the family. We had to grow up fast (after the disappearance). We didn't even know how to separate clothes all that well. We had to grow up and be women really fast."

• • •

After Margaret Dash didn't return home, Leon made a report to Clearwater police the next day. The next week, police gave him a polygraph test. A month later, Margaret's car was found in a St. Petersburg parking lot.

"It was devastating for me," said Leon Dash Sr., 74. "We had spent our life together. I was 17 and she was 15 when we met. We had been to together 20 years."

Shortly after her mother's disappearance, Jones joined the Air Force and needed a security clearance. The process stalled once they learned that her mother had not been found. The Air Force tried to locate Margaret Dash but there was no trace of her. Jones was given the clearance.

"That wasn't a good feeling at all," Jones said. "I was shocked. I just knew they would find her. I remember going back to the barracks and I cried all night."

Pinellas County sheriff's investigators linked Dash's disappearance to the disappearance of two other county women. Retha Hiers, 43, and Donyelle C. Johnson, 21, both of Largo, vanished in 1982 and 1989, respectively.

All three women had come in contact with Cleveland Hill Jr., an asphalt contractor who at one time was a minister at the church the Dashes attended, investigators said.

Hill was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison in 1992 for drug trafficking. He was released last month. Hill has denied any involvement in the women's disappearances. Police have never charged him.

The Dashes have never stopped looking for their family matriarch and over the years have hired private detectives to help. After rumors swirled that a woman was buried at 1201 Baskins Crossing, an unincorporated area near Largo, Leon Dash Sr. demanded that Clearwater police excavate the site. The April 1993 dig failed to reveal any clues about Margaret Dash's whereabouts.

• • •

Leon Dash Jr. was his usual cheery self on July 29. He spent part of the day sitting on the balcony of his sister's home, drawing.

He took pride in his physique. He was in impeccable physical condition.

"I still see him coming down the stairs like a 19-year-old instead of a 48-year-old," said Wade, who was allowing her brother to live with her in Palm Harbor at the time.

Later in the afternoon, Wade dropped Leon Jr. off at Gilghrest's home.

"He always had this thing about telling me about my driving," Wade said. "He said, 'You're speeding.' That was the last time I saw him."

At Gilghrest's home, Dash ate dinner and lifted weights before leaving for work at the Atrium.

Tashyra Dash, 24, Leon Dash Jr.'s daughter, never got to meet her grandmother. And her father never got a chance to meet his first granddaughter.

She couldn't even attend her father's funeral because she gave birth to Stori Murph, now 8 months, the day before.

Leon Jr. was excited about seeing his first granddaughter and planned to be at the hospital, much like his father had done for his sisters when they were giving birth.

"To know that this man had a family and didn't do anything to hurt people, it's hurtful," said Tashyra Dash, who lives in St. Petersburg. "Help us get some peace. Help us get closure."

Leon Dash Sr. remarried, but he says he still will never stop looking for Margaret.

"I look for her every day," he said. "Just the other day I saw a lady who walked like Margaret, so I turned back around to see her face. It wasn't her.

"I don't think I'll accept the fact that she's dead."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or

>>Got a tip?

To help with either case

If you have information concerning the disappearance of Margaret Dash or the murder of Leon Dash Jr., call (727) 562-4422.

Death renews Clearwater family's three-decade-old pain 04/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 4:24pm]
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