By Susan Schindehette
December 02, 1991 12:00 PM

IT WAS SOMETHING EVEN THE MOST LOVING AND CONSCIENTIOUS father might have done—turning his back for an instant on his young child in the midst of a crowded shopping mall. One moment she was there, said 29-year-old Craig Armstrong, a popular motorcycle officer with the San Bernardino, Calif., police department; the next moment his little girl was gone. Armstrong saw only the crowds, the teenagers, the parents leading toddlers gently by the hand. At approximately 1 P.M. on Sunday, July 28, his 3-year-old, Alicia, seemed to have simply vanished.

At first there appeared no cause for hysteria. But an hour later, when Armstrong, with his other daughter, 18-month-old Cameo, still had not found Alicia after combing the mall and parking lots, he alerted mall security personnel. Then he telephoned home to his wife, Tammy, 28, an intensive-care nurse at nearby Loma Linda hospital. By this point, she would say later, he was “sounding panicked.”

Within hours the search was joined by San Bernardino police, a complement of reserve officers and volunteer Explorer Scouts. That evening, Del. Keith Prostler, 35, a two-year veteran of the San Bernardino police department’s child-abuse unit, was called to direct the search just minutes after learning about the disappearance on the 11 o’clock news. “That’s when the investigation started to take on a very personal side,” he says. “Cops are cliquish by nature. We tend to help other people very quickly. But we look after our own.”

Not only did Armstrong’s police affiliation lend added irony to the case, hut so did another fact: After several years of vainly attempting to have children of their own, Craig and Tammy had taken Cameo and Alicia into their home as foster children just seven weeks before, in eager anticipation of adopting them. To the interracial couple, sweethearts since their teens, the two mixed-race little girls seemed like a dream come true.

In the course of the burgeoning search, Prostler interviewed the girls’ biological parents. “We started [out] thinking we had a ‘stranger’ abduction,” he says. “But it was natural to think that they might have taken the child themselves or had someone else take the child.” By the following day, July 29, all of Armstrong’s fellow officers had learned that his child was missing. Over the next two days, nearly 300 police officers, touched by the tragedy suffered by one of the best-liked men on the force, repeatedly searched “every square inch” of a 10-mile area around the Inland Center Mall, says Prostler. Others manned phone banks to monitor tips from the public. Eventually some 400 leads were investigated—all leading nowhere.

On Aug. 1 the FBI joined the search. The day before, with not one substantial lead uncovered by the initial investigation, San Bernardino Police Chief Dan Bobbins redoubled efforts by establishing a special 12-man task force specifically charged with locating Alicia—dead or alive. For reasons that later became apparent, Robbins ordered that the force’s work be kept entirely confidential, even from other members of the police department. The secrecy caused mounting resentment among some of Armstrong’s fellow officers.

Despite their anger, Prostler, who headed the task force, found he could not ignore a handful of small but troubling details: a discrepancy in the precise reported time of Alicia’s disappearance, questions about Armstrong’s whereabouts that day, and the absence of any witnesses in the crowded mall who actually saw Alicia with her father.

In the days following Alicia’s disappearance, police received a number of telephoned tips. One, from Erin Brown—a cardiac technician who worked the night shift with Tammy Armstrong at Loma Linda University Medical Center in nearby Riverside—reported that in the previous six weeks, Tammy had grown increasingly upset over Alicia’s behavior, saying that she had appeared “possessed” and “not normal.” A number of Armstrong’s police colleagues, closing ranks against what they considered to be undue harassment of the distraught couple, were outraged to learn that Prostler planned to subject Craig and Tammy Armstrong to lie-detector tests.

On Friday, Aug. 2, Armstrong sat for the first session of a three-part, FBI-administered polygraph test. By the following Tuesday, according to Prostler, “he continued to show very strong deception about whether he was involved in Alicia’s disappearance and whether or not lie knew where Alicia was.” Later that day Tammy Armstrong erupted before her scheduled polygraph session, charging that investigators were “trying to tear her family apart,” says Prostler, and he authorized Child Protective Services to remove Cameo from the Armstrong home. When that agency’s staff arrived to pick up the little girl, Armstrong became so enraged that he punched a hole through the wall.

Prostler also requested that Deputy District Attorney Frank Vanella, head of the D.A.’s child-abuse unit, prepare a warrant allowing police to search the Armstrong home. “It was incomprehensible that [Armstrong] could have done this,” Vanella recalls, remembering his own shock at the suggestion that a police officer might be involved in Alicia’s disappearance. “Basically there was a missing child, and every lead we had wasn’t working. So there wasn’t a whole lot pointing at him. But we did get a warrant. And we used the fact that he had tested deceptive on the polygraph.”

Just after midnight on Aug. 7, Prostler accompanied police to the adjoining community of Colton for their search of the Armstrong home. Entering a fellow officer’s home to investigate him for such a heinous crime, Prostler says, made him feel as if “I had been kicked in the stomach.”

Even more distasteful was what police found in the Armstrong garage: a mop and pail, a washcloth, a towel and a little girl’s jumper and short-sleeved top. The clothing was stained, says Prostler, with “a small stain, like an overspray of blood.” Blood was also found in Armstrong’s Toyota van. Two days later Armstrong’s superior, Capt. Lawrence Neigel, asked that Armstrong hand over his badge and gun. Tammy, who had accompanied her husband to the station was furious, recalls Neigel. “She said we were persecuting her husband.”

On Aug. 12 the FBI notified the San Bernardino task force that tests had been completed on the blood samples taken from the Armstrongs’ van. “They told us that the blood type occurred in less than 5 percent of the world’s population and was consistent with coming from a child of Alicia’s two natural parents,” says Prostler. The FBI also ruled out the possibility that the blood might be Cameo’s. Despite this, the D.A. believed there was not enough evidence to bring a successful case against Armstrong. “He had a perfect record, nothing less than ideal,” says Vanella. “You can’t think of better parents—[one of them] a police officer who is under constant scrutiny and carrying on public duties.”

On Aug. 16 the scrutiny apparently became too much to bear. The couple had argued almost the entire day, with Armstrong insisting to his wife that his life and reputation were ruined. He demanded that she provide him with sleeping pills from her hospital job, but she refused. A short while later at her mother’s house, Tammy found her husband’s lifeless body hanging from a dog leash in the garage.

The next morning, when San Bernardino criminal attorney Grover Porter picked up his morning newspaper and read of Craig Armstrong’s suicide, he realized that he was no longer bound by attorney-client privilege and telephoned police. “Send someone over to my office,” he told the desk officer. “I have Craig Armstrong’s videotaped confession.

When Prostler, Vanella and task force Sgt. Cliff Lindgren arrived at Porter’s office that afternoon, Porter explained that Armstrong had come to his office the day before, confessed to Alicia’s murder, requested counsel and vowed to turn himself in to police the following Monday.

Then, in a videotaped confession in Porter’s office, he had recited with almost mechanical precision the circumstances of his little girl’s death. Although they had been warned by adoption officials that children from disrupted homes might have behavioral problems, both Armstrong and Tammy had trouble dealing with Alicia’s restlessness and disobedience. On the night of July 28, he said, he had been drinking heavily while Tammy, who had tucked the children in before leaving, worked an overnight hospital shift.

At about 2 in the morning, Armstrong was awakened by the sound of Alicia wandering downstairs. “He was angry,” says Prostler. “He grabbed her by the arm, spanked her and took her back upstairs to the master bedroom. And this is where he gets a little fuzzy. He doesn’t say what causes it. Bui he punches her four or five times in the stomach with a closed fist. She falls over backward and hits her head. Later, he said he pushes her down to the ground and bangs her head on the floor twice.

“She passes out for about five minutes, but she starts to come around and stands up, so he thinks everything is okay. He puts her in his bed with him, cuddling her and telling her. “Daddy’s sorry, Daddy’s sorry.’ At one point he says her little arms are at her side and she stiffens up like a board, then releases. About 6 o’clock in the morning, he wakes up and reaches over, and she’s cold. Her eyes are fixed and dilated. He realizes she’s dead.”

Armstrong also explained on the videotape that his wife, who he insisted had no knowledge of the crime, came home tired from her night’s work and went to bed without looking in on the children. It was then, he said, that he put Alicia’s body into a suitcase and transferred it to the family van.

He recounted the grisly details of how he disposed of the body: severing the head, arms and legs with a serrated kitchen knife and encasing the parts in six concrete-filled cardboard boxes. Driving aimlessly down Interstate 10 into the San Gorgonio Mountains, Armstrong stopped at various remote locations, throwing the boxes into bushes and over an embankment.

At the conclusion of the tape, Prostler and Vanella left Porter’s office, walked to the parking lot, got into their cars and wept.

A week after Armstrong’s suicide, a special canine search team arrived from Sacramento to search the arid, scrub-covered terrain for Alicia’s remains. They found an arm and two of the concrete-filled boxes. In mid-September an anthropologist and a team of researchers retrieved a skull and the remains of what was believed to be Alicia’s torso.

In the wake of Alicia Armstrong’s murder, there is deep and lasting emotional damage. Tammy Armstrong, who was never accused of any complicity in Alicia’s murder, remained silent about the crime after viewing her husband’s videotaped confession and is now attempting to sell her home and leave the area. The San Bernardino Police Department, meanwhile, whose members have been offered counseling to help them deal with the shock, is still reeling from a sense of betrayal. Armstrong, says Prostler, “was very personable and very well liked. When [coworkers] learned [of his guilt], they felt betrayed, angry, disbelieving. Some of them were in tears. And a lot of the officers felt that a basic trust was broken. Their reaction was, ‘We were friends. Who do I believe? Who do I trust?’ ”

His fellow officers still wonder how such an exemplary policeman and trusted friend could have committed so savage an act. “The only thing I can figure out is that he was a perfectionist,” says Prostler. “He wanted the perfect little girl. He didn’t know that children, like all of us, aren’t perfect. And when he couldn’t deal with her, he fell apart.”

For Prostler, a happily married father of two, the single most painful moment of his investigation came as he watched Craig Armstrong’s videotaped confession and suddenly remembered a long-postponed promise to take his own 7-year-old daughter, Mandy, out for a birthday dinner. Immediately he stopped the tape and phoned her at home.

“She says, ‘Hi, Daddy. You coming home?’ ” he recalls. “I had to tell her, ‘No, Punkin.’ She says, ‘Did you find that little girl? Is she okay?’ I say, ‘No. She’s gone to be with Jesus.’ And she says, ‘That’s okay, Daddy,’ ” quotes Prostler, his voice breaking, ” ‘because now she doesn’t hurt anymore.’ ”


DORIS BACON in San Bernardino