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Mother of Deborah Palmer holds out hope that closure nears

Madeline Palmer and her son, D’Artagnon, hope that opening old wounds and talking with police and the media about the 1997 murder of Deborah Palmer in Oak Harbor will help solve the cold case. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Madeline Palmer and her son, D’Artagnon, hope that opening old wounds and talking with police and the media about the 1997 murder of Deborah Palmer in Oak Harbor will help solve the cold case.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

It’s been 13 years, but Madeline Palmer still has to force herself to look away when she walks by little girls’ clothes hanging on store racks. She still imagines that she catches glimpses of her daughter here and there. Even now, she talks about her dead daughter in the present tense.

“Right now, she’s 20 years old. I want to know what she looks like,” Madeline said between bouts of grief and anger. “I just want to see her.”

Madeline and her son, D’Artagnon, have decided to reopen the most painful of wounds in the hopes of refocusing the media spotlight, and the community’s attention, on the unsolved murder of the 7-year-old girl.

“I want to know who did it. I want to know why,” Madeline said. “I should be the one in the grave, not her.”

People may not talk about Deborah Palmer very much in Oak Harbor anymore, but the precocious little girl and the senseless murder left an indelible mark on a small city where people once felt insulated from big-city dangers. The first-grader disappeared on her way to school Wednesday, March 26, 1997 and her body was found five days later. No suspects have ever been named.

Deborah Palmer had a difficult home life, but everyone remembers her as a happy, outgoing child who was kind above all else.

“Debbie was just a doll. She was my first granddaughter,” her grandmother and namesake, Deborah Palmer, said in an interview from her home in Ohio. “She was beautiful, but as beautiful as she was, she was so sweet.”

The little girl was born in the Philippines, but her parents brought her to Oak Harbor when she was just a baby. Deborah’s father was absent for most of her life and ended up in prison at the time of her death. Madeline admits that she made a lot of mistakes and wasn’t a very good mom. She said her daughter didn’t like the people she brought home.

Still, Deborah was close to her brother and had a lot of friends. Like a typical grade-school kid at the time, she loved the “Pocahontas” and “Aladdin” movies. She talked about being an actress or a model someday. She spoke to her grandmother, who she called “Gamma,” often by phone, sometimes complaining that her brother was naughty. She even went to church all by herself.

Deborah’s first-grade teacher, Susan Briddell, remembers her as a sweet, smart and self-reliant student.

“She didn’t have the best home life, but it seemed like there was a good chance she was going to make it,” she said. “She would do her homework by herself, the best she could.”

Glenda Merwine, who was the principal of Oak Harbor Elementary 13 years ago, also remembers Deborah as a outgoing little girl who loved school and loved her teacher.

“She was a pretty precocious little girl for that age,” she said. “She was wise beyond her years and just a sweetie pie.”

Deborah’s murder had a big impact on the city in 1997. Many citizens volunteered to search for the girl and people filled a school gym to learn about the tragedy from the police. Later, the community filled another gym during an emotional memorial service for Deborah. Her classmates tearfully sang “Jesus loves the little children / All the children of the world.”

Briddell remembers that the rest of the school year was subdued. Counselors were brought in for students and staff. She spent a lot of time talking with her students about what happened to Deborah.

Merwine said everyone at the school felt a lot of grief. One thing that helped her get by was a short poem about spring flowers that Deborah wrote just before she was killed. The principal found a message of hope in the girl’s words.

“Deborah was really excited about the flowers growing,” she said. “She was full of hope.”

But as the city healed and moved on, Madeline Palmer descended into the depths of depression. She started drinking everyday to make the pain go away. She stayed in Oak Harbor because her son didn’t want to leave the only home he’s ever known. She was very aware that many people blamed her for what happened to her daughter, which only made the pain more unbearable.

“I can’t blame them for thinking like that. Because I was young and I made mistakes. I can understand that,” she said. “But they don’t know it’s eating me inside. I wish I was dead. They don’t know what I’m going through every day. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Eventually, Madeline turned to work as a way to stay occupied and keep her mind off the horror. Even today, she works two jobs at an assembly plant in Everett and at a nursing home. She can’t bear to visit her daughter’s grave in Maple Leaf Cemetery, though other visitors regularly leave flowers on the stone.

“I would work 24/7 if I could,” she said.

Deborah’s grandmother said the murder also “took something” from her and made her hold back emotionally from others in the family.

“I kind of stand off because I felt like I was going to die when Debbie was killed,” she said. “I would pray, please God, I feel like I’m going to die.”

Even now, the 61-year-old grandmother weeps out loud when she talks about the granddaughter who was taken away.

D’Artagnon was only 5 years old when his sister died and he doesn’t remember much about the events that surrounded the tragedy. With his mother’s emotional absence, he was left to deal with the aftermath largely by himself. They didn’t talk about his sister much.

“I don’t blame my mom for blocking me out of her life. I don’t blame her at all,” he said. “It helped make me as mature as I am today.”

And by all accounts, he is a very mature, independent teenager. He’s a senior at Oak Harbor High School and budding artist. He plans to go to college next year and is considering becoming an architect. He is the kind of kid who is always texting a network of friends and is quick to offer help to others, which sometimes means a couch to sleep on.

He and his mother have renewed their relationship recently, largely because Detective Teri Gardner’s reinvigorated effort in the murder investigation has forced Madeline to confront the tragedy. It hasn’t been easy. Grandmother Deborah said Madeline has been calling her and breaking down. She’s worried that her daughter-in-law may harm herself. But Madeline said the pain is worth it.

“It took me until this year to realize why I am still here — because I have a son,” she said.

She’s not sure it will bring closure — she’s not even sure what that would feel like — but she’s desperate to have the murder solved.

“It’s like a tape recorder playing in my head. I want to know why,” she said. “What could a person get out of it, hurting an innocent girl? I want to know what my daughter said with her last breath.”

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