Oak Harbor girl’s murder remains unsolved after 25 years

Police hope advances in forensic science can help break case of the 7-year-old’s killing.

Deborah Palmer

Deborah Palmer

OAK HARBOR — Deborah Palmer is not forgotten.

Mirria Gonzalez has taken it upon herself to tend the gravesite of the little girl who will remain 7 years old forever. Although she did not know the family, Gonzalez feels a connection to Palmer and brings baubles and toys to Oak Harbor’s Maple Leaf Cemetery during her visits.

Like Palmer, Gonzalez’s niece was killed and no one was held responsible. Both deaths haunt her.

“I don’t want Deborah to be forgotten,” she said. “I don’t want whoever killed her to think she’s forgotten.”

“I want justice for both of them,” she added.

It’s been 25 years since Palmer disappeared while walking to Oak Harbor Elementary School. Following an agonizing search effort by police and volunteers, a beach walker found her body five days later in the surf on a Whidbey Island beach in the Strawberry Point area. Neither her murderer nor a motive were ever identified.

Although investigators will never know for sure, her date of death was set as March 27, 1997.

Palmer’s case has gone cold and remains the Oak Harbor Police Department’s only unsolved murder, but it’s not without hope. Oak Harbor police are currently waiting for testing results on evidence recently submitted to the state crime lab.

Chief Kevin Dresker pointed out that advances in things like mitochondrial DNA and touch DNA analyses open up the possibility that evidence gathered at the time of the crime may have new importance.

“We don’t have any dramatic new leads,” he said, “but we’re always hopeful that something will come up.”

Oak Harbor police have organized several big pushes over the years in efforts to shake loose new leads — obtaining help from the FBI, the Attorney General’s Office and “Washington’s Most Wanted” TV show — but the case remains a genuine mystery.

The video from the show and an anonymous tip line are still on the city’s website at www.oakharbor.org/police/page/deborah-palmer-unsolved-homicide-case.

Capt. Mike Bailey said a reward fund established years ago still exists and has increased to about $4,500. Anyone with any tips can contact him at 360-279-4602.

Bailey explained former Detective Lisa Powers tackled the most recent effort to re-investigate the crime over a year ago. While reviewing the case, she digitized and reorganized the reports and documents that take up approximately 25 large binders.

Investigators with the state Attorney General’s Homicide Investigation Tracking Systems also offered their expertise on the case.

Bailey admitted that changes in the staff at the department have an impact on the investigation. He and fellow Capt. Bill Wilke are the only ones left who were working there when the murder occurred. Two detectives who immersed themselves in the case — Powers and Teri Gardner — are also gone.

Bailey said while no suspect has been identified in the murder, several “persons of interest” were contacted over the years.

Palmer was described as a happy and bright 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 allegedly raping Palmer’s cousin and playmate.

Years later, her mother, Madeline Palmer, told the Whidbey News-Times that she remained devastated by the loss and blamed herself, saying she had been too involved in a partying lifestyle at the time. She could not be reached this week.

Palmer was last seen alive at about 8:35 in the morning of Wednesday, March 26, 1997. Her mother sent her from their Kettle Street apartment to walk a few blocks to school.

Officials at the school realized Palmer was missing when her mother arranged to have a McDonald’s meal dropped off for her.

The search for Palmer started quickly. Police, emergency responders and volunteers joined a widespread effort concentrated in the Kettle Street area. TV news crews arrived. Bloodhounds were brought in. Investigators contacted a huge number of people, even stopping drivers on the road to ask if they might have seen anything.

Four days after Palmer 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.

Palmer’s cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation. Investigators won’t go into detail, but they’ve made it clear that she wasn’t strangled. The coroner said there was no sign of sexual abuse.

Mirria Gonzalez places ceramic angel wings on Deborah Palmer’s grave. She said she occasionally finds evidence that other people have also visited the site. (Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times)

Mirria Gonzalez places ceramic angel wings on Deborah Palmer’s grave. She said she occasionally finds evidence that other people have also visited the site. (Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times)

Gonzalez was undoubtedly one of many in Oak Harbor who were deeply affected by the tragedy in the small community. Her daughter went to the same school, which brought home the reality of what happened.

Gonzalez said she had vivid memories of how the senseless crime turned the community inside out. A special memorial service at the high school was packed with emotional community members and TV cameras.

She and her husband moved to San Diego after the Navy transferred him, but Palmer remained on her mind. The family returned to Whidbey after her husband retired and she decided to start visiting Palmer’s burial spot.

“It makes me feel a little connected to her and hopefully she knows someone is still fighting for her,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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