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Under a rock, near some water

While the search for 7-year-old Tausha Lanham was going on, her 3-year-old half-sister told adults and relatives where she was

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

By Cindi Lash and Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

In the arms of her upstairs neighbor and almost-aunt, a sobbing Ashley Tharp emerged from her home Sunday afternoon, a miserably rainy day on which all the important elements of her 3-year-old life had changed.

Michelle Tharp and her boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger, are led to a hearing on charges in the death of Taugha Lanham. (John Beale Post-Gazette)

The 3-year-old was now her mother's middle child, not the third of four. She had seen something the day before that would make her tell adults and relatives that her 7-year-old half-sister, Tausha Lanham, wasn't coming home, that she lay under a rock near a stream.

Her mother, Michelle Tharp, 29, was in the Washington County Jail, as was the man who lived with them, Douglas Bittinger, 25. And now, with her older sister and baby brother, she was going to live with strangers, for how long no one knew.

Her face a study in terror as news photographers captured her wailing while state troopers and a caseworker placed her and her siblings into a waiting car, Ashley's departure with her siblings was the epilogue to the drama that began nearly 48 hours earlier in the tired frame house on Burgettstown's northern edge.

Tausha Lanham

It was there, state police contend, that Douglas Bittinger Sr. struck tiny Tausha Lanham on Friday night after he grew tired of hearing her cry while her mother was at work.

It was there, police believe, that Tausha died and lay overnight, most likely on the sagging mattress in her bedroom off the fly-infested kitchen, her clothes spilling from a dresser lacking a drawer and a bare light bulb dangling on electrical cord from partially exposed ceiling lathing above.

On Saturday, Bittinger would later tell investigators, he made a trip to the store for garbage bags, then he and Tharp wrapped Tausha's body in a sheet and two of the plastic sacks.

With Ashley and Tharp's other children, Tonya McKee, 9, and Douglas Bittinger Jr., 6 months, along for the ride, the couple drove west into West Virginia. They dumped Tausha's body over a hill in the woods outside Follansbee, then headed to the Fort Steuben shopping mall in nearby Steubenville, Ohio.

At 8 p.m. Saturday night, Tharp and Bittinger would tell mall officials and police that Tausha had wandered away or been abducted while they shopped.

Their false report, which Douglas Bittinger would later tell state police was designed to shield him and Tharp from suspicion, would set off a massive hunt around the mall that stretched through the night and into the early hours of Sunday.

But their emotionless demeanor and their inconsistent stories quickly prompted police to question if the couple were telling the truth. As the long night dragged on, family members who had been summoned to Steubenville to support the couple said they, too, began to wonder.

"Pretty much as soon as I got to the mall, I could tell something wasn't right. Doug was more upset than Michelle, even though Tausha was her baby. Their stories just weren't right," said Audrey Hython, who is engaged to Douglas Bittinger's brother, Harold, with whom she lives in the apartment above Tharp and Bittinger.

Hython said she and Harold Bittinger had spent Saturday shopping and running errands and had just returned home at 10:30 p.m. when the telephone rang. It was Tharp and Bittinger, calling to tell them that Tausha had disappeared and asking them to come to Steubenville to pick up the other three children.

Hython, Harold Bittinger and Hython's three children immediately made the 20-minute drive, joining Tharp and Douglas Bittinger at the mall information office that served as command post for the search. They gathered up Tharp's three sleepy children and prepared to drive them home but were stopped by detectives from the Steubenville police, who wanted to question them before they left.

So Hython, who lived in Steubenville before moving to Burgettstown, telephoned Barbara and Ron Huggins, her friends in nearby Brilliant, Ohio, and asked them to pick up both Tharp's three children and her own three. The Hugginses did so, and police then took Hython and Harold Bittinger to their station to be interviewed about 12:30 a.m.

As detectives questioned them, Hython and Bittinger said they realized that either Tharp or Douglas Bittinger had falsely led police to believe the four adults and their children had been together earlier in the day.

Hython said she grew even more uneasy when she overheard a sleepy Ashley telling a search organizer that they wouldn't find Tausha near the mall because Tausha was somewhere else, under a rock near some water.

Police permitted Hython and Harold Bittinger to leave their station at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, but asked the couple to bring them any recent photographs of Tausha that they had at home. So the couple returned to the shopping mall to retrieve their car, stopped briefly in Brilliant to check on the children and then sped back to Burgettstown to fetch the pictures.

"We got back to the mall between 6 and 7 (a.m.) and there was nobody there. We about fell over," Hython said. "So we went back to the Steubenville Police Department and asked what had happened. They wouldn't tell us where Michelle or Doug were. They wouldn't tell us anything."

Frustrated and frightened, Hython and Bittinger drove once again to Brilliant, where Hython's and Tharp's children were still asleep. They waited until the children woke at about 9:30 a.m., then drove back to Burgettstown with the children.

"We pulled up outside the house and the whole place was full of state troopers and news reporters," Hython said. "We hurried up and took the kids up to our apartment so they wouldn't see anything and get all upset again. Then the police questioned us all over again."

By late morning, Hython said she, Harold Bittinger and Bittinger's mother, Billie Bittinger, had been interviewed by police, had fed Douglas Jr. a bottle of formula and had coaxed the other children to eat a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage. The children were playing in the living room when the telephone started ringing.

In call after call, reporters, Tharp's relatives and members of the Bittinger clan reported that they'd just heard a television report that Tausha had been found dead and that Douglas Bittinger had led police to the body. State police outside the house said they couldn't confirm those reports, so the family waited on, keeping the television switched off to shield the children.

Tharp's father, Larry Tharp, arrived in mid-afternoon to ask if Hython and Bittinger had formula and supplies to care for baby Douglas. They didn't, and police wouldn't allow them into the downstairs apartment, so Larry Tharp gave Hython money to buy diapers, juice and other items at a nearby Shop 'n Save market.

When she climbed back up the stairs with her bag of groceries at 4:30 p.m., Hython said she discovered a state trooper in her kitchen and a woman caseworker from Washington County Children and Youth Services using her telephone. Her call completed, the caseworker told her she had been instructed to take custody of Tharp's children and place them in foster care.

Hython, Harold Bittinger and Larry Tharp all protested. Hython said she begged to be allowed to keep the children, arguing that they already were like family and already were upset and tired. She said the troopers told her they had no choice but to obey the order to remove the children and would be forced to arrest her if she tried to interfere.

So Hython said she soothed Tonya and Ashley as best she could, but was unable to stop Ashley's tears while she helped Ashley put on her multicolored jacket and carried her down the stairs.

Her face smeared with tears and sniffles, Ashley was carried to the caseworker's car by Larry Tharp, who stood waiting while the caseworker settled the children, one by one, into the white station wagon.

After the car left, two state troopers remained on the front porch, awaiting arrival of the FBI, whose agents would wade through the pile of bicycles and kiddie cars beside the porch to wrap the house in yellow crime-scene tape.

Weeping, Hython said she and Bittinger climbed the steps for the last time that day to wait for official word of Tausha's death and the arrests of Tharp and Douglas Bittinger.

Later Sunday evening, both were charged with child endangerment, concealing a child's death and abusing a corpse; Douglas Bittinger also was charged with aggravated assault. Police have said they expect to file addition charges when West Virginia authorities issue a ruling on the cause and manner of Tausha's death. In the meantime, the couple remains in the Washington County Jail.

Ashley, Tonya and Douglas Jr. remain in foster care.

Although numerous relatives sought to obtain custody of Tausha's siblings after her death, a juvenile court hearing officer ruled yesterday that the children would remain in temporary custody for at least 10 more days.

A relative of Michelle Tharp's said afterward that she believed the children had been placed in separate foster homes.

Yesterday, as at least two anonymous strangers left tissue-wrapped bouquets of daisies and white carnations in the yard outside the Bittinger house, Larry Tharp was still wondering why the story was not clear yet, why people don't know -- or won't say -- what happened. And in spite of his claims that Tausha was "a lovely, healthy baby," he wondered why CYS had not taken action if it had, indeed, received complaints about Tausha's welfare.

"(The media) is killing me and my family. I've lost a daughter and now a granddaughter. I've lost enough. Just let us bury her."

Additional Post-Gazette coverage:

Siblings to stay in foster care while agencies probe case

7-year-old's tiny body shows gradual wasting

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