Originally created 05/17/03

Body ends search for girl



SAVANNAH, Ga. - Before a nearly monthlong search ended this week for missing 12-year-old Ashleigh Moore, her mother opened a bittersweet letter.

In her hands, Michelle Moore held a certificate of merit for Ashleigh from Duke University. It arrived in the mail the day her body was found behind a riverside hotel.

The Savannah seventh-grader had scored well on the SAT test before disappearing April 18 - well enough to place in the top percentile on the math portion and be accepted for a summer program at Duke, said the Rev. C. Megill Brown, the Moores' pastor at Second African Baptist Church.

"Her mother found out only yesterday," the Rev. Brown said. "It goes to show she was a very good student."

That news punctuated the pain for her family as they learned Thursday that police had identified her body. A fisherman discovered the body in a thicket behind the Savannah Marriott hotel, about 200 feet from the Savannah River.

The man spotted the body while walking along the river looking for a fishing spot and called police, said Maj. Willie Lovett, the commander of the Savannah Police Criminal Investigation Bureau.

Police did not release the cause of Ashleigh's death, nor have they charged anyone with the crime. The last person to see her alive, her mother's live-in boyfriend, Bobby Buckner, is a convicted child molester who was arrested for violating his probation the day after she disappeared.

Maj. Lovett wouldn't call Mr. Buckner a suspect. He said investigators are still looking at several potential suspects.

"We're not going to confine it to one person until we have conclusive evidence," Maj. Lovett said.

Mr. Buckner's probation barred him from being alone with girls younger than 16.

Mr. Buckner, 26, pleaded guilty in 1996 to the molestation and statutory rape of another 12-year-old girl.

Ashleigh's mother was at work when Mr. Buckner reported the girl missing on the Friday before Easter, the first day of Ashleigh's spring break.

At Derenne Middle School - where Ashleigh was in the honors program, played on the basketball team and often sat in the front row - teachers told the 800 pupils of her death Thursday.

Extra counselors were on hand for those who knew Ashleigh well. Fliers with Ashleigh's picture were taken down. Many pupils and staff wore blue ribbons in her memory. A banner made earlier for Ashleigh and a U.S. flag will be flown at half-staff.

"I don't know how you explain this to kids when we can't explain it to each other, as adults," Principal Marsha Tolbert said. "When it is this close to you, you can't wrap your mind around it to believe it."