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"I always think, 'Is she missing, or is she buried?'" Fowler said in a recent interview.
It is the query driving Fowler to begin a new chapter in her life by seeking reform in the New York Police Department's Missing Persons Unit, the agency that she has blamed for burying her son - whom she had believed was missing - and failing to inform her. In 1999 the NYPD admitted that La Mont Dottin had been identified but buried in Potter's Field on Hart Island since 1995.
The kickoff of the La Mont Dottin Foundation Inc. Saturday at Thomasina's at 205-35B Linden Blvd. in St. Albans was the first major step Fowler has taken toward reforming the city's Missing Persons Unit since learning of her son's fate.
After discovering that her son was dead, Fowler has grieved for Dottin, whom she had exhumed from Potter's Field last year and buried in Calverton National Cemetery in Riverhead, L.I. In recent weeks, the Army veteran and current aide to state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) visited Calverton for the first time since her son's funeral and went to Potter's Field.
"If they had just looked, they would have been able to find him," she said of her experience with the NYPD.
In October 1995, Fowler's son, La Mont Dottin, 21, left his Hollis home to mail a package and never returned. Fowler said she struggled with the NYPD to file a missing person report for Dottin and kept in constant contact with the department, only to be told in September 1999 that La Mont Dottin's body had been found in the East River four days after he last left home.
"You just never think that this is the last time you're going to see your child's face," she said.
The FBI confirmed last year that Dottin's body had been identified through dental records in December 1995, although the NYPD has not said whether it received the information or what may have happened to it.
The painful situation has motivated Fowler and others in Dottin's family to launch the foundation in his name, which they hope will "serve as an information clearing house committed to assisting other families in their search for missing loved ones."
Several months ago Fowler also filed a more than $45 million lawsuit against the city for negligence in the case. If the suit is successful, Fowler said she would like to use the money to support the work of the La Mont Dottin Foundation.
As Fowler moved ahead with her foundation this week, the NYPD declined to comment on the case, citing the pending lawsuit.
In recent weeks Fowler has tried to come to terms with her son's death and her own battle by going to the cemeteries where he was buried. She visited Potter's Field, which sits on Hart Island about 16 miles away from City Island off the coast of the Bronx, for the first time to see the place that had eluded her for so long.
"I'm going out here today because it's my gut feeling that there could possibly be others that are identified and reported missing, that are in fact reported missing and are buried," she said as she took the short ferry ride to Hart Island Oct. 19.
The tree-lined Hart Island presents a quiet, solemn picture. Since 1862, it has been Potter's Field, a city cemetery for people who are unidentified or unclaimed at the time of their death. Because prisoners handle most of the burials and maintain the grounds, the cemetery is not open to the public and is under the direction of the city Department of Corrections, a spokesman for the agency said.
Capt. Gene Ruppert, a native of Woodhaven who has overseen burials at Potter's Field since 1983, said that anywhere between 800 and 1,200 people are buried in the cemetery each year. In a given year, Ruppert said, about 80 to 100 people are disinterred, and the agency works with families to provide them controlled access to the site.
As Ruppert learned of Fowler's story, he was able to lead her to the area of Hart Island where La Mont Dottin had been buried.
Blanketed in silence and buffeted by a strong wind, Ruppert and Fowler walked through a large brown field with single, numbered cement markers arranged in long lines. Ruppert said each line of markers represented a year's worth of burials.
"It's about as peaceful and serene as you can get," he said after Fowler placed roses at the marker for those buried in 1995. "It's very solemn."
As Fowler left Potter's Field, she expressed gratitude for the actions of Ruppert and others who work there.
"He is due a lot of credit," she said. But the visit, Fowler said, only served to reinforce her belief in the need for reform.
"It's a mistake that did not have to happen," she said. "These people work hard to create records that you can track."
While the trip to Potter's Field reaffirmed Fowler's anger about her case, it was a journey to Calverton National Cemetery that brought her grief to the fore.
Both Calverton and Potter's Field are resting places for the dead, but one of the only common factors between the two is an immense silence.
As a few people visited other gravestones on the other side of a large, neatly kept, green field, Fowler placed flowers at her son's headstone.
"I wish I had hugged him more, loved him more," Fowler said as she left Dottin's grave marker. "I feel like I'm leaving something.
"They don't know what this loss means," Fowler said as she began to cry. "I had to work to keep the family together. I never had a chance to grieve - it's like they gave me a dose of pain every day for four years."
As she began to weep, Fowler showed a letter Dottin had written prior to his disappearance. In it the newly accepted Queens College student proclaimed his desire to improve his life and stay with his daughter and grandmother, whom he was living with at the time.
"It's not about just me," Fowler said as she wiped away her tears. "I'm not putting my life in a fish bowl just to have the light shine on me. I want to help the next person."
For more information about the La Mont Dottin Foundation, call 718-465-5125, or go online to www.lamontdottinfoundation.com.
©2000 Community Newspaper Group
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