After 5 years, police still seek Deborah's killer

Deborah Palmer was 7 years old when she was killed five years ago this week. - File photo
Deborah Palmer was 7 years old when she was killed five years ago this week.
— image credit: File photo

Five years ago this month, a 7-year-old girl named Deborah Palmer disappeared while she was walking to Oak Harbor Elementary School.

After an extensive search involving dozens and dozens of volunteers, her body was found five days later on a North Whidbey beach. Police ran down hundreds of tips and fed them into a special homicide investigation computer program supplied by the FBI, but made little headway in the case.

No suspects have ever been identified and no one was ever arrested for Deborah Palmer’s murder.

But the investigation hasn’t ended. The police continue to investigate any new tips that come in. They look into any similar cases from across the nation. Investigators, for example, are looking into the background of David Westerfield, the man recently arrested in San Diego for the highly-publicized disappearance and murder of 7-year-old Danielle Van Dam.

Then last month, a detective from the Oak Harbor Police Department teamed up with a detective from the Island County Sheriff’s Department to reinvestigate the case from the ground up.

“We’re pulling it apart. Revisiting everything,” Oak Harbor Detective Lisa Jenne said.

Jenne and Island County Detective J.D. Burns are reading through case material, looking through the reams of tips and re-interviewing people, which has surprised some folks involved with the case.

“It’s brought up some real emotional things,” Jenne said.

Burns said the hope is that a fresh look at the evidence will help them make connections that weren’t made before. Or, he said, maybe they’ll be able to find a person who saw something but didn’t think anything of it and didn’t report it at the time.

“We need all the help we can get,” he said.

Deborah Palmer was last seen alive at about 8:35 in the morning of Wednesday, March 26, 1997. Her mother, Madeline Palmer, sent her off from their Kettle Street apartment to walk a few blocks away to Oak Harbor Elementary School.

Madeline Palmer discovered her daughter was missing when she went to the school around lunchtime to drop off a McDonald’s meal.

The search for the little girl started immediately. The city was inundated with Seattle media as police, dog handlers with bloodhounds and volunteers scoured the community in ever-widening circles. But the first break didn’t come until Sunday when a citizen found a jacket and backpack matching what Palmer was wearing at a gravel pit off Taylor Road.

The following Monday morning, a beach walker found Palmer’s body at Davis Landing, which is on a Strawberry Point beach in northeast Whidbey Island. The coroner ruled that Palmer’s cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation.

The Oak Harbor community was frightened, saddened and even angered by the murder. Deborah Palmer was remembered as a happy, energetic child, but her murder brought the dark side of her life to light. When she disappeared, her father was in prison and her mother’s boyfriend was in the county jail for raping Deborah’s cousin and playmate.

After her murder, church classes, school children and service groups created memorials to Deborah Palmer. The community packed into Parker Hall for an emotional memorial service.

At the same time, the police were openly frustrated with the case. Police officials continually asked for witnesses or anyone who was in the Kettle Street area at the time of Deborah’s disappearance to come forward.

With nothing new to go on, Jenne and Burns feel that same sense of frustration.

“It’s hard for me to believe,” Burns said, “that a child can up and disappear out of a small community and nobody saw anything.”

Anyone with any information can call 911 or contact Detective Lisa Jenne at 679-5511.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

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