Sunday marks 20-year anniversary of murdered girl’s disappearance

Deborah Palmer

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the day some say the city of Oak Harbor lost its innocence.

Deborah Palmer, a 7-year-old girl, went missing while walking from her apartment to Oak Harbor Elementary School. Following a frantic search throughout the city, the case became a homicide after the little girl’s body was found five days later in the surf near Strawberry Point on North Whidbey.

It remains the only unsolved homicide in the city’s history.

The case may be cold, but that doesn’t mean forgotten. There’s still a reward of more than $4,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone involved in the homicide.

Anyone with information can leave information at 360-679-TIPS. People with information who want to speak with a detective can contact Detective Lisa Rang-Powers at 360-279-4674.

Mike Bailey, acting captain at the Oak Harbor Police Department, said detectives are currently waiting for word from the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab on whether they are going to do specialized testing on physical evidence from the case. He said he couldn’t be more specific about the details at this point.

Bailey said detectives are also looking at having an outside agency review the case once again; it wouldn’t be the first time the police received outside help on the case.

The FBI provided the department with software to help manage the hundreds of tips. The Island County Sheriff’s Office, the Navy and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service assisted as well.

Teri Gardner, former detective with the city, took on the case years later and presented the evidence to FBI investigators. The state Attorney General’s Office also reviewed it.

Still, the case remains a mystery.

The Island County coroner ruled that the death was a homicide by asphyxiation. Investigators wouldn’t go into details but made it clear she wasn’t strangled.

On March 26, 1997, Palmer walked to school by herself from the Kettle Street apartment. She usually went with an older cousin, but the girl wasn’t ready on that particular day. 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.

The search began immediately and grew larger by the day. Four days after the disappearance, Deborah’s distinctive red jacket with multicolored stripes and her orange “Esmerelda” backpack were found in a wooded spot near a gravel pit on Taylor Road.

The next day, a beach walker found the girl’s body on a remote beach near Strawberry Point. The mystery made Oak Harbor the focus of a media storm that gradually subsided as leads dwindled and the case went cold.

Deborah Palmer

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