Oak Harbor, WA -- March 28, 1997 -- Uncertainty and a measurable amount of fear gripped this north Whidbey Island town Thursday evening as a citywide search for a missing 7-year-old girl turned up few clues.
Deborah Palmer was last seen by her mother at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday when she set off walking to Oak Harbor Elementary School, two blocks from her apartment.
Her mother, Madeline Palmer, learned that she didn't make it to school during the noon hour.
The first-grader's disappearance set off a massive door-to-door search by police and hundreds of volunteers. But it turned up few clues as to the missing girl's whereabouts, said Oak Harbor police Capt. Rick Wallace.
Wallace said police believe Deborah was the victim of foul play.
FBI agents from Everett were called in Thursday to give advice, and the Island County Sheriff's Office also was assisting.
Bloodhounds were used Wednesday night in an attempt to track Deborah. One dog seemed to follow her scent from her front door straight to the school, but the handler told police that may not mean much because it's the girl's usual route.
Volunteers branched out from the Palmer residence on Kettle Street throughout most of the town of 19,000 on Thursday, meaning that they knocked on hundreds of doors and scoured nearly every vacant lot, Wallace said.
Handbills were posted around town and handed out door-to-door. By Thursday afternoon, InterWest Bank was offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for Deborah's abduction, police said.
"We've done pretty much all of the town," Wallace said.
Meanwhile, Madeline Palmer issued a brief, tearful plea to anyone responsible for taking her child.
"I want my baby," she said.
Wallace said she is a divorced single mother. Deborah's father lives in Western Washington, but he has not had a lot of contact with the family in recent years, the police captain said.
Although nothing has been ruled out, the father is not a suspect.
"We believe that it's more probable that it's an unknown suspect at this time rather than a family member," Wallace said.
On Thursday, as worried parents came to terms with what many fear could be a horrible reality, there was an unusually long line of cars waiting to give children rides home Thursday afternoon from Oak Harbor Elementary.
"People tend to get lazy, take things for granted," said mother Karen Hamming, who volunteers as a crossing guard near the school. Although the disappearance of one child is horrible, it serves as a wake-up call to everyone else, she said.
Sharon Lawless, whose son goes to nearby Oak Harbor Christian School, was walking him home.
"I think parents are a little more on the cautious side now. I think they're feeling like it could never happen in our community."
On Midway Boulevard outside the school, Tim Teeters was dressed in his bike helmet and red-and-white riding clothes. In his hand was a fistful of posters with a picture of Deborah and her description.
Whenever somebody slowed down or stopped at the busy intersection, Teeters darted out to deliver the handbills to the occupants of cars. Many signaled back that they already had one.
Teeters, who has a son at Oak Harbor Elementary, was just one of hundreds of volunteers who were trying to do something.
"We're a small community and when something like this happens everyone bands together," he said. "I was in shock when I heard about (Deborah's disappearance). You hear about this kind of thing happening in the city but never in a community like this."
Oak Harbor School District superintendent Rick Schulte said he has been in the district 10 years and nothing like this has happened before.
"In general, people who live here feel pretty safe, ... and now we don't know what to think," he said. "It certainly doesn't fit our self-image" of being a community apart from random violence.
For the time being, the district will telephone parents of young children if they don't show up for school. The district has always asked parents whose children will miss school to call, but most don't, Schulte said.
"What's frightening about this is we don't know what's happened," he said. To a lot of parents, he said this is going through their minds: "If it happened to Deborah, it could happen to anyone. That means me."
April 2, 1997 -- Is the killer still among us?
That was the dominating question echoing through a packed Oak Harbor High School auditorium Tuesday evening as Whidbey Island residents got a chance to vent frustration and ask questions about a homicide in their midst.
They reacted sometimes loudly at the community meeting called by Oak Harbor police following the discovery Monday of the body of 7-year-old Deborah Palmer.
The first-grader disappeared a week ago today on the two-block walk from her mother's apartment to Oak Harbor Elementary School.
Residents from all around north and central Whidbey crammed into the auditorium to hear what police had to say about the investigation.
What a lot of them wanted to know was whether they had anything more to fear for themselves or their children. Police Chief Tony Barge gave no assurances.
"We don't know if it's someone living in the community," Barge said.
He said there are no suspects and the investigation could be long and tedious.
Instead of assurances, he advised parents to be vigilant of their children, and he asked for help from anybody who has seen anyone or any car loitering in areas where children gather.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't know, so we need your help," Barge said.
Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley, whose department is participating in the investigation, said the death "shakes you in the gut. There's a lot of fear. I can feel it."
Kathy Longan of Oak Harbor said she came to the meeting hoping to hear more, get more reassurances. The information didn't come, but she thinks that's because police don't want to spoil their investigation.
She agrees with that.
"What matters is finding out who did it," Longan said.
Meanwhile, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said an autopsy performed Monday evening revealed that Deborah died of asphyxia. He would not be more specific.
There was no external evidence of sexual assault, Bishop said, although laboratory tests are being conducted. Unspecified articles of Deborah's clothing have not been accounted for, Barge added, but her body was not nude when found. Still, the department is investigating the case as a "sexually motivated" crime, according to a department news release.
Bishop said the child apparently died the day she disappeared or soon thereafter.
The death has gripped the community unlike any other in recent years.
"Everyone is just tragically struck," Angelie Graham of Coupeville said. "We were praying she would be found" alive. When the news of her death came Monday, "it touched every person on this island."
It's a community where a lot of people didn't even bother to lock their homes or cars when they left. That has changed.
"It's going to put people on edge until the person responsible is found," Graham said. "Even then there has to be an overtone of uncertainty."
At the apartment house where Deborah lived, a makeshift memorial of ribbons, flowers and stuffed bears has grown up around the playground equipment where the child used to swing and play.
On Tuesday, the dead girl's cousin, Ivonne Tolledo, 14, and two others from North Whidbey Middle School dropped by with lots of handmade posters of support and love for Deborah's mother, Madeline Palmer.
The students at North Whidbey who drew the hearts and sent their good wishes gave Ivonne hugs and cards, she said.
"It's hard," Ivonne said.
Several miles to the east near Strawberry Point where the girl's body washed up on the beach, Marion Hunskor said he had trouble sleeping Monday night.
The retired commercial fisherman said he often walks the beaches, and it was he who stumbled upon the body just before noon Monday. The girl was found on an isolated section of beach about a mile north of the Mariners Cove beach community.
At first he thought he had come across a doll, before he realized it was the missing girl. He woke up during the night with visions of her face.
He said it appeared to him that she wore a pair of walking shorts, but no top.
"Oak Harbor is a pretty quiet place, but crime is all over now," he said. "We're getting our share of it."
April 28, 1997 -- It's been a month since 7-year-old Deborah Palmer disappeared on the two-block walk to school. Five days later, her body was found washed up on a beach northeast of town.
Since then, police have received more than 1,000 tips, but still have no real leads or suspects.
Police Chief Tony Barge says he doesn't know if the killer was just passing through town or lives in this Whidbey Island community of 19,000.
''I don't want to burst anybody's bubble of security and optimism,'' Barge said. ''But it's too easy for people to just think, 'The killer's gone to Oregon or California or Seattle, and he won't hurt us again.'''
He also wishes more people would report exactly what they saw near the school the morning of March 26, the day Deborah disappeared.
''You know, there are dozens of cars passing by at that time of the morning,'' he said. ''Now that people have had time to think and ponder, maybe they can remember anything that was slightly unusual -- give us the pieces of the puzzle so we can put it together.''
Two witnesses saw Deborah on her way to school about 8:30 a.m. But no one has reported seeing a car stop near the child, which would be a critical sighting, Barge said.
Lab tests haven't given police much either. Deborah died of asphyxia, and neither drowning nor suffocation have been ruled out. There is no evidence she was sexually assaulted, but police are treating it as a sex crime because they say it would be unusual for anyone other than a sex offender to abduct and kill a child.
Immediately after Deborah's disappearance, Oak Harbor Elementary School had dozens of parents wanting to volunteer to help supervise crosswalks and playgrounds.
The only problem was that other parents worried about seeing adults standing around at crosswalks, so special vests were ordered to identify volunteers, Principal Glenda Merwine said.
Life in Oak Harbor ''will never be the way it was,'' said Patti Walls, a receptionist at the school district. ''In a way, it was a dose of reality, that these things do happen.''
During spring break -- the week of April 14 -- Merwine asked custodians to remove the notes, flowers, balloons and other mementos that had been attached to the school fence as an impromptu memorial to Deborah.
They will be saved for Deborah's mother, who is currently out of town.