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Oak Harbor community comes together in a renewed effort to solve 17-year-old murder

Glorita Davies, president of Filipino-American Association of Oak Harbor, speaks with a cameraman from Washington’s Most Wanted. The association donated money for a banner related to the 1997 murder of Deborah Palmer. The TV station is doing a segment about the unsolved murder. - Jesse Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Glorita Davies, president of Filipino-American Association of Oak Harbor, speaks with a cameraman from Washington’s Most Wanted. The association donated money for a banner related to the 1997 murder of Deborah Palmer. The TV station is doing a segment about the unsolved murder.
— image credit: Jesse Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

It’s been 17 years since Oak Harbor lost its small-town innocence.

Seventeen years ago this month, a 7-year-old girl named Deborah Palmer disappeared while walking a few blocks to Oak Harbor Elementary School.

Following a massive search effort, her body was found five days later in the surf at a Strawberry Point beach.

The city collectively agonized in myriad ways, including a tear-streaked memorial service for the entire community.

But her murderer was never found.

This week, Oak Harbor Police Department is once again making a public push to raise awareness about the murder — and the reward fund — in hopes of convincing someone to give them key information about the crime, according to Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner and Police Chief Ed Green.

“We want this solved,” Green said, “and we owe it to her to do so.”

Banners with Palmer’s image and information about a reward fund were placed at the north and south ends of the city Tuesday. The Filipino-American Association of Oak Harbor donated funding for the banners and Jeff Humphrey of Whidbey Sign Company contributed through by offering a deep discount, Gardner said.

Digital reader boards and the reader board at the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce have a simple message: “In memory of Deborah Palmer: 1990-1997.”

Island Transit will be handing out leaflets about the murder to riders.

A crew from Seattle’s Q-13’s TV show “Washington’s Most Wanted” was in Oak Harbor Tuesday to tape an episode on Palmer.

All this, Gardner said, is to convince someone to share the one piece of the puzzle that will lead to the killer. As detectives have said so many times in the past, “somebody out there has to know something,” Gardner observed.

Green explained that the department never stopped investigating the murder, but he is hoping to regenerate interest in the case.

“We want any and all information,” he said. “It’s the smallest tidbit of information that solves these cases.”

The reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Palmer’s killer stands at about $3,500, but the police are hoping to increase the amount through donations. People can give money at Wells Fargo banks or at Oak Harbor City Hall.

Various detectives over the years have made public appeals for information about the murder during anniversaries of the crime. Just four years ago, Gardner herself reviewed the entire investigation, hoping that advances in forensic technology and a fresh sets of eyes could help solve the city’s most tragic puzzle.

But still, the mystery persists.

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 began quickly. The city was inundated with Seattle media as police, dog handlers with bloodhounds and volunteers scoured the community in ever-widening circles. On the Sunday, a citizen found a jacket and backpack matching what Palmer was wearing at a gravel pit off Taylor Road.

The next day, 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 murder of such an innocent harrowed the Oak Harbor community. In one of many wrenching scenes that year, students from Deborah’s first-grade class at Oak Harbor Elementary sang tearfully during a public memorial service: “Jesus loves the little children / All the children of the world.

Deborah Palmer was remembered as a happy, energetic child, but her murder brought the troubles in her life to light. When she disappeared, her father was in prison for child rape and her mother’s boyfriend was in the county jail for raping Deborah’s cousin and playmate.

Madeline Palmer and her son, D’Artagnon, spoke to the Whidbey News-Times about the tragedy four years ago to help Gardner with her effort to publicize the case. Madeline Palmer remained utterly haunted by the loss and blamed herself, saying she wasn’t a good mom and was too involved in a partying lifestyle at the time.

Gardner said both mother and son, neither of whom still lives on the island, are aware of the new effort in the case.

“They are very grateful that we are pushing this forward to the public again,” Gardner said. “At the same time, it’s very painful.”

 

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