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Oak Harbor police renew search for Deborah Palmer’s killer

Deborah Palmer - File photo
Deborah Palmer
— image credit: File photo

Island County Coroner Robert Bishop cradled the child’s lifeless, covered body in his lap as the tiny helicopter escaped from the remote beach where the mystery of the missing girl had taken the worst kind of turn.

In March of 1997, Bishop was well aware of a massive search effort on North Whidbey after 7-year-old Deborah Palmer disappeared while walking to Oak Harbor Elementary School. He knew he would probably become involved in the case at some point, but that didn’t make the call welcome when it came. The missing persons case officially became a homicide on March 31, 1997.

“I don’t think anyone involved has ever forgotten about this case,” Bishop said. “It haunts you.”

The Oak Harbor police certainly remember. Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner has restarted the investigation into the city’s only unsolved murder in the hopes that advances in forensic technology and a fresh set of eyes will finally solve the tragic puzzle. The department has set up a dedicated tip line at 360-679-TIPS.

There’s currently $3,630 in the Deborah Palmer Reward Fund at Wells Fargo bank, which would go to an individual who provides information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone involved in the murder. Gardner hopes a community group will raise money to make the reward more enticing.

For the first time since Deborah Palmer was killed, those involved in the case are openly speaking with restrained optimism about the possibility of finding whoever is responsible.

“It’s been 13 years and someone out there knows something,” Gardner said as she looked over the stack of 20 three-ring binders that holds much of the work that was done in the case, including notes from hundreds of interviews and lists of “people of interest.”

Bishop is only privy to the physical evidence found on the body, but he’s also hopeful.

“This is absolutely a solvable case,” he said. “I think there’s more than enough evidence there to solve it.”

On Wednesday, March 26, 1997, the first-grade student walked out the door of her family’s Oak Harbor apartment on Kettle Street and vanished. Gardner admits that even after 13 years of on-again, off-again investigations, the police know very little about what happened to Deborah after she walked out of her home for the last time.

“We don’t know if she left the apartment complex. We don’t know how far she got,” Gardner said. “Everything after she stepped out that door is a mystery.”

Deborah normally walked to school with her older cousin, but that morning she was upset and told the older girl that she wasn’t ready. Deborah and members of her extended family were distressed because her mother’s ex-boyfriend, who lived in the same apartment complex, had been arrested the day before for allegedly raping Deborah’s 15-year-old cousin. Kyle Davis had been the main caretaker for Deborah and her 5-year-old brother D’Artagnon, who still calls him “dad.” He was in jail when Deborah went missing and was extremely angry, even homicidal, when she was found dead.

Palmer’s biological father, Darryl Palmer, wasn’t a suspect in the crime either. In a sad irony, he was in prison at the time, serving a sentence for child rape. According to Gardner, he had little contact with his daughter.

Officials at Oak Harbor Elementary School first became aware that something was amiss when Deborah’s mother, Madeline Palmer, arranged to have a friend drop off a lunch for her daughter just before noon; Madeline Palmer didn’t have a car at the time. Deborah’s first-grade teacher, Susan Briddell, went to the office in alarm after getting a message about the lunch because Deborah hadn’t shown up that day.

“It was a very bad feeling right away,” she said.

The police immediately went to work. They organized search efforts that increased in size as each day went by. Bloodhounds were brought in the first day, but they didn’t find anything. Officers set up a road block on Kettle Street, the road Deborah walked each day, to ask drivers if they might have seen anything. Detectives interviewed family, friends and neighbors. The FBI offered assistance. The pool of people who needed to be contacted was immense, Gardner said, because of Madeline Palmer’s irresponsible lifestyle at the time and the transient nature of the apartment tenants.

Four days after Deborah disappeared, searchers found her distinctive red jacket with multicolored stripes and her orange “Esmerelda” backpack in a wooded spot near a gravel pit on Taylor Road.

The next day, five days after the little girl was last seen, an elderly beach walker found her body on a remote beach near Strawberry Point. Bishop was in the middle of an autopsy when he got the call. It took some time to get to the site, Bishop said, because the area was crawling with “the press.” Helicopters from TV stations hovered overhead.

The girl’s body was deposited on the beach by the tide. Bishop said her body had probably been in the water for at least 24 hours. Her time of death was impossible to pinpoint, but Bishop surmises that she likely died at least a day after she was kidnapped.

Because of the rising tides and TV helicopters, a small helicopter from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office was called in to transport Deborah’s body from the beach. Bishop climbed into the aircraft with the small body in his arms. He still remembers that it was a windy, overcast day.

“It really hits you when you are leaving a scene,” he said. “There’s a finality to it.”

The coroner’s assistant was supposed to meet the helicopter at Oak Harbor’s City Beach Park, but he was delayed by traffic jams caused by the media. Bishop ended up getting into the back of a police car and the officers created a procession on the way to Burley’s Funeral Home, where the autopsy was performed.

The cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation. Investigators won’t go into detail, but they’ve made it clear that she wasn’t strangled. Bishop said there was no sign of sexual abuse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the murder wasn’t a sex crime. In fact, police officials have consistently categorized the murder as a sexually motivated crime and Gardner hasn’t changed that.

Police Chief Rick Wallace was police captain in 1997 and oversaw the investigation. He said hundreds of people were interviewed and thousands of leads were run down over the years. The FBI provided the department with a software system that manages tips and looks for correlations. The Island County Sheriff’s Office, the Navy and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service assisted in the case.

But after several months, the number of new tips slowed and the police weren’t able to pinpoint a suspect. Former Oak Harbor Police Chief Tony Barge complained that the city had grown complacent about the possible danger just six months after the murder. The case gradually went cold, to everyone’s disappointment.

“I wouldn’t want to retire with that one still open,” Wallace said.

Now Gardner is on the case. She was a patrol officer in 1997 and had very little involvement in the investigation. Since then, she has worked her way up in the department. Before becoming the supervisor of the detectives, she worked for years as a detective, specializing in sex crimes and crimes against children. Looking back at the investigation, she said the police department may have been a little overwhelmed by the case.

“Nothing like that ever happened before in Oak Harbor,” she said.

Now, Gardner said she has a number of things going for her. It’s been 13 years, so maybe someone has said something incriminating in the intervening years. Relationships change with time, so someone might be willing to say something now. Perhaps most importantly, technology has improved astronomically in the last 13 years. She has sent items to the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab for testing. She won’t divulge exactly what she sent or what kind of testing she requested, though she said she’s especially interested in so-called “touch DNA.”

George Johnston, the public information officer for the crime lab, confirms that the DNA-testing technology at the lab has become significantly more sensitive in recent years. With touch DNA, the lab now can create a genetic profile of a suspect from a tiny, invisible-to-the-eye amount of skin cells that the perpetrator may have left behind by touching a victim, clothing or a murder weapon.

It’s not perfect, Johnston said, because some people — oddly enough — aren’t “sloughers,” which means they don’t tend to leave epithelials behind. Also, the crime lab scientists need to have time to do the test, they have to be convinced that it’s a priority case and they have to know exactly what to test.

Gardner would also say that “the results are pending.”

For obvious reasons, the detectives have looked at all the sex offenders in the area to see if there’s any connections with the Palmer case. Over the years, investigators have looked into a number of men who’ve committed similar crimes in other places across the country, but nothing ever panned out. In 2000, an Internet blogger found a possible link between serial killer Joseph Duncan and Deborah Palmer. The blogger had successfully linked Duncan to the unsolved murder of a 10-year-old boy in California. Later, police reported that Duncan confessed to the 1996 murders of two sisters, ages 9 and 11, in Seattle.

Gardner pursued the possible connection, but found that Duncan was undergoing a polygraph test in Seattle at the time Deborah Palmer disappeared. She found the polygrapher and had him check his archived records.

“The only person I’ve ruled out is Joseph Duncan,” she said.

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