MARK McGUIRE Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A3

Date: Sunday, May 24, 1998

Longtime Detective Robert Paul has worked hundreds of cases over the last nine years. Recently promoted to patrol captain, he brings to his new assignment 24 years of experience, a love for the job -- and a picture. The photo is in his top drawer: he sees it every time he opens it. ``It's a reminder,'' Paul says. The picture is of a young girl, still waiting on adult teeth, smiling into a mirror. That girl, Mei-Ling White, was murdered almost nine years ago. Her slaying remains a mystery.

``It's the kind of case you don't want to retire and leave unresolved,'' Paul said. ``The Mei-Ling White case has been on my mind since Day One and I saw her (body) in the woods.''

Cops will tell you automatically that all homicides are equally important, whether the victim be a drug dealer or a community pillar. But privately, or with prodding, most concede cases involving children are different.

``They are true victims,'' said State Police Senior Investigator James Horton, whose Major Crimes Unit is also working on the White case. ``Mei-Ling White did nothing to put herself in this position of danger.''

No one touched by the case of Mei-Ling has forgotten. ``Look: I've got chills on my arms,'' one longtime neighbor said at the mere mention of the girl's name. ``She was a sweet girl.''

The fourth-grader was last seen the Friday morning of July 20, 1989, riding her bicycle around her Phelan Court Apartments complex in a secluded nook in the city's South End. White was not yet adept at riding; she received the bike, a turquoise 24-inch, less than a month before from her parents for getting good grades in school.

``That was her reward,'' said her mom, Tuyet White. ``She was a very bright girl, an honors student.''

Throughout that weekend the search for the missing girl continued, until her body and bike were found the following Wednesday, July 25, in woods near the complex. Mei-Ling had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

The public housing project, today devoid of much of the drug traffic that plagued it during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, is up a hill and surrounded by woods. Police still believe the killer or killers came from the neighborhood.

Early suspects to emerge included the father, Stephen White. That angers Tuyet White to this day, even though police emphatically ruled him out as being involved. Less than three months after the murder, on Oct. 17, 1989, Stephen White died of cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. The Vietnam veteran was 45.

``I had no chance,'' said the woman, now 46. ``So short a time to lose two members of your family.''

The mother of four, who moved from Phelan Court but still lives in Troy, has grown more embittered with police as time passes. ``I don't think they'll do the job now,'' she said. But both Troy and State Police have kept after the case, interviewing and re-interviewing individuals, looking for uncovered territory and hoping for new information. Suspects remain in their minds, although they do not have enough information to pin the murder on anyone.

``People remember it here,'' Paul said. ``People talk about it here. Nobody has forgotten about it.''

With his promotion, Paul has officially passed the case on to Assistant Chief Nicholas Kaiser. ``In Mei-Ling's case, we have leads; we are still following up on them,'' Kaiser said. ``We are still actively working on them. Hopefully, someone will come forward and give us the key to break the case.''

Mei-Ling White should have been dreaming of her upcoming senior prom and her graduation from Troy High School next month. Recently, her mom saw some of her daughter's childhood friends, poised on the edge of adulthood. But Mei-Ling is forever 8 years old. The only thing that could change is if her killer is found.

``A phone could ring in here any day now,'' Paul said. ``Or there could be a note with information.

``I'm still waiting.''