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30 years after a little girl's murder, memories still raw

Sunday, October 12, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

RICES LANDING, Pa. -- The memory sweeps over her often at this time of year, when the autumn afternoons are golden and the trees in her yard are dropping their russet and yellow leaves.

 
 


Debbie Makel


Seeking information

Anyone with information about Debbie Makel's death is asked to call state police at 412-787-2000.

   
 
 

Charlotte Makel looks out her front windows and remembers 30 years ago, watching at dusk while her giggling blond daughter, Debra Lynne, romped and leaped into what had been neatly raked piles of leaves.

Before the sun would set again, 8-year-old Debbie would be gone, and her frantic family would begin the search that ended two days later with the discovery of her tiny body, partially buried under another pile of leaves, brush and tree limbs in the woods behind her home in rural Greene County.

"It's things like that that always remind you," Charlotte Makel said of her daughter's still-unsolved slaying 30 years ago last week. "You go on, but you never get past it. The fact that you have no clues, no answers is what makes it so hard."

The discovery of Debbie Makel's body on Oct. 7, 1973, horrified much of Pennsylvania, generating widespread alarm and news coverage while a state police task force searched for the brazen killer who sexually assaulted and strangled her less than 500 yards from her back door.

"I don't think anything ever hit me that hard," said Frank Behm, 72, who was Greene County's coroner for 36 years and lives near the Makels' home in the village of Ferncliff, about 60 miles from Pittsburgh. "It was like a personal attack on our community."

Over the years, that fear has largely ebbed. The keen desire of investigators and the community to have an arrest made in Debbie's death has not.

State police have continued to pursue the case, filling seven 3-inch -thick binders with reports and interviews with hundreds of witnesses. As technology to analyze DNA and other evidence has evolved, they have repeated laboratory tests.

New troopers have replaced investigators who've retired or died, starting over in hopes that fresh eyes will pick up a missed clue. They've identified potential suspects, but later ruled them out or been unable to compile enough evidence for an arrest.

Now, state police are investigating a convicted killer who has been jailed for two other homicides and who, finally, may provide the answers they've been seeking.

"Someone is stepping up to the plate, trying to take [responsibility] for this," said Cpl. John Tobin of the cold case squad for Troop B, based in Washington, Pa. "At one point, we do think this person had ties to Western Pennsylvania."

The man contacted authorities in the state where he is jailed about a year ago and told them he had information about Debbie's slaying, Tobin said. State police declined to identify him or say where he is incarcerated, but they have interviewed him and now are working to verify his claims, Tobin said.

Troopers on the cold case squad are intrigued because of the man's ties to the area and because he claims to have committed several homicides. The man cannot have his jail sentence reduced, so he gains nothing by confessing to another crime, said Cpl. Beverly Ashton, who works on the cold case squad.

The man "was kind of strange" and did not provide a great deal of detail or volunteer a motive, Tobin said. Nor did he immediately convince investigators of his involvement because a great deal of information about the case was published in newspapers.

"We're not sure what his motivation is," Tobin said, noting that sometimes people who falsely claim involvement in notorious crimes will bolster their claims with details gleaned from news accounts.

In 1974, Volunteer Fire Chief Harold Klein visited the shallow grave where Debbie Makel was found behind her house. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

"Sometimes people are looking for attention. The last thing we want to do is arrest the wrong person just to make an arrest," he said.

Troopers have again submitted Debbie's clothing and items gathered during the investigation to their laboratory and are waiting for test results that could link the man to the slaying through DNA or other physical evidence. They aren't sure how long that will take or if the laboratory tests will be conclusive, so they plan to check all aspects of his statement and to interview him further.

"Every case is important to us. This case brought a lot of attention due to the age and the innocence of the victim," Tobin said. "It's never going to be closed until it's done."

Debbie Makel was an outgoing, popular third-grader who, with her two older brothers, attended elementary school in Dry Tavern, about a mile from her home. In 1973, her father, Duane Makel, was a teacher and wrestling coach at Avella High School in Washington County and her mother worked at a clothing factory in nearby Nemacolin.

The Makels lived in a snug white bungalow at the end of a dead-end street that ran into woods above Pumpkin Run Creek. It was their idea of heaven -- close to Charlotte's and Duane's families and surrounded by land where children could run, climb trees, ride bikes and help to raise Duane's hunting dogs.

"Back then I only worried about them getting hit by a car on their bikes," said Charlotte Makel, now 57. "They were responsible and they usually left a note if they went to a friend's house."

Blue-eyed and petite, Debbie had a distinctive giggle and a mane of blond hair that her mother loved to brush each morning. A straight-A pupil, she was the pupil most likely to walk over and befriend new classmates at school. She excelled at dance and loved to cheer for her brothers at their baseball games and wrestling matches.

On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 5, 1973, Debbie left school and rode the bus to the end of her street. Her brothers, then 11 and 10, were permitted to walk home to sell magazines door to door for a school fund-raiser, Charlotte Makel said.

Debbie's brothers saw her get off the bus around 3:45 p.m. and start walking up the road to their home. The children usually let themselves into the house and played until their mother arrived home within the hour.

A neighbor saw Debbie walk to the house, and her school books were found inside. When her brothers and mother arrived, the house was silent and nothing was out of place.

By the time dinner was ready at about 5:30 p.m., Debbie hadn't come home. The Makels called or drove to friends' homes, then had an announcement made at the Jefferson-Morgan High School football game down the road. Finally, they called police.

"You're hoping it's something simple, some simple explanation. But you're desperate," Charlotte Makel said. "You don't know where you should put your effort to look."

The next morning, police, local firefighters and scores of volunteers set up a command post at the fire hall in Rices Landing, then sent teams to trudge at arm's length through woods and fields. They found her at 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

Two of Duane's cousins spotted her green sock sticking out of the brush concealing her shallow grave, on the other side of the meadow and across the stream behind her house. She'd been strangled with a piece of heavy cord. Her black shoes, pink purse and blue underwear were never found.

Charlotte and Duane have never talked much about the days after that. Holding their grief close has been their way of coping, Duane said. They didn't know -- and still don't -- if the killer knew and had a grudge against them. That meant that their biggest priority was to protect and stay strong for their sons.

"Everybody knows everybody here, and it was something everybody went through," Charlotte said. "We didn't feel comfortable discussing it, and people were considerate about that."

But elsewhere around the county, outrage and fright were palpable.

A longtime funeral director and friend of the Makel family, Behm couldn't bring himself to leave her body from the time he arrived at the scene to the morning of her funeral. Hundreds attended that service under the watchful eye of undercover troopers who wrote down mourners' descriptions and license numbers.

Jittery neighbors pledged reward funds for information and sought help from a nationally known psychic. The psychic claimed to have given police a suspect's name and description, but the information didn't lead to an arrest.

Dozens of communities curtailed or canceled Halloween trick-or-treat nights, opting for supervised parties or daylight parades. Fueling the alarm was the knowledge that the killer was able to walk into the remote neighborhood, confront Debbie and cross the field behind her house without attracting attention or alarming the dogs.

Some searchers claimed they'd passed by the grave site on Saturday but hadn't seen her body. That spawned rumors that her body was moved there after the search ended the first night, but Behm said he didn't believe that.

Investigators have never said if they believe the killer was waiting in the house or followed Debbie home, then lured her back outside. They believe he was local or familiar with the area, but they don't suspect Debbie's death was linked to several other rape-murders of young women over the next few years in neighboring Washington County.

At one point, Behm said, the original police task force believed a then-local man had committed the crime, but he passed a polygraph test and they could not develop enough evidence to arrest him.

The Makels, too, received tips and wondered about potential suspects from time to time. But they worked hard at not getting their hopes up and at shaking off suspicions, not wanting to falsely accuse someone in their hearts.

"I'd tell myself, 'Don't think about it. If you're wrong, it's a terrible wrong you've done to somebody,"' Charlotte said. "We had to trust the police judgment and wait."

Instead, the couple poured themselves into their family. The loss of their daughter made them "guarded and cautious," Charlotte said, but not so much that they lost their faith or trust in people. They had two more sons, and devoted their time to coaching or volunteering at school and athletic events.

Charlotte later went back to school and now is a nurse. Duane, now 62, is retired and the four boys are grown and on their own.

The couple still lives in the same house, surrounded by trees and well-tended gardens and happy memories that held them there despite their tragedy. Atop a polished wood breakfront in the living room, Debbie's school portrait smiles out from among the collection of family photos.

"When we had her, I think we did a really good job with her," Charlotte said. "We were proud of her. But you go to graduations and weddings and family things and you wonder, where would life be if it had been different?

"You never get past it, and you need to know what happened," she said. "Somebody out there has an answer, a clue that could help. I want [the killer] prosecuted. I want to know."


Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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