Sunday, October 27, 2013

Debbie Makel Murder Part 3

I'm going to apologize for part three taking so long.Its not exactly packed with new information. The old articles I have been using to guide me through this all seem have one thing in common; regardless if the article was written one day, one week, or one year after the incident,they all seem to jump from the events of Friday night's search straight to Sunday morning when Debbie's body was discovered. Little is mentioned about Saturday's search in any article. Although nothing was found,Saturday's search,provides one of the most controversial and oft discussed facts of the case,which we will discuss in Part 4. 

 As it was once told to me by folks who were there, every able bodied man in the area was searching for Debbie. Boy Scouts, firefighters, the State Police, local officials, neighbors, and concerned citizens all joined in the search. One article places the number of searchers at around seven hundred people searching a 3.2 mile radius.Most areas were searched multiple times by different groups.Bloodhounds were brought in to track sent.Road blocks had been set up and vehicles traveling in the area were checked late into the night.

  A command post was set up at the Rices Landing fire hall. The Lady's Auxiliary, as well as other women from the area, provided food for the family and search parties. Almost everyone in the area was somehow involved in the search for Debbie. As far as I know, this was the largest search in the town's history. Seven hundred people, more than the town's population, searched the area for one little girl. People who had lived their entire lives in the town and knew every facet of of its landscape found nothing. We will come back to this.

Since I have posted the first two parts of this blog, several local newspapers have printed articles on the case. While it is good the case is getting new attention, it also sad that other than this blog, a thread on, and occasional random conversations,the case seems to only be mentioned on a ten year anniversary cycle. One headline touted the case as being "closer to being solved",which is not necessarily true.

A new Trooper has been assigned the case; he is planning, per the article, to follow up on a few 'persons of interest' with DNA testing. For years now, people have wondered why DNA evidence was not introduced into the investigation. DNA testing was not available until the late 1980's and the techniques of evidence preservation have vastly changed in the forty years since the murder. These factors complicate what seems to most folks as a quick solution to the case.

DNA testing, from the way it was explained to me, is similar to fingerprints in that if there is not a sample in the database from a specific person, there will be no match. In other words, if you have never been swabbed for DNA and commit a crime, DNA evidence would be useless unless a sample is collected from you. Some believe that by simply testing a DNA sample, it will give you the identity of the culprit, which is not the case. Another problem with DNA testing in this case is the likelihood that the killer is dead. Forty years is a long time and anyone who was above their mid-thirties back then may be deceased. I seriously doubt a body would be exhumed for DNA testing. However, I suppose it can eliminate more persons of interest and narrow the field of suspects.

As I stated before, I plan on interviewing some folks who were there. People who actually had 'boots on the ground' as the media likes to say nowadays. I will post their thoughts and memories as I get them. I have also been contacted by some folks who were there but wish to remain anonymous. They have plenty to add to this story. We will continue with our fun-loving exploration posts soon but this series of posts is far from over. It will take time to write these posts as I want them to be written, so please be patient.

Before I sign off on part three..a few things. People are welcome to comment on the blog posts and we've received many so far. These comments and opinions are not ours but those of our readers. We will not edit or delete comments unless they are outright inflammatory or name a specific individual as a suspect.

As always, I welcome insight from folks who were there and wish to share memories either publicly or anonymously. You can email us at Also, if any members of the Makel family wish to contact me in regards to the posts, please do. I have thought about stopping by but wish to respect your privacy. I can be reached at the email address above.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Debbie Makel Timeline: Part Two

In my research, I've noticed that most of the articles seem to jump from Friday's announcement at the J-M football game to Saturday's massive search. From the stories I've heard and read, she was considered to simply  be lost at this time. Until her body was found Sunday morning, no one was aware they were dealing with the worst crime the people of Rices Landing would ever know. In the days before Amber Alerts, cell phones, and social media, lost children were simply searched for by friends and concerned neighbors. I am going to talk with some folks and will add to the Friday night details as I get more information. For now, I will use Part Two to look at some facts that were established from the time Debbie arrived at the house at or near 3:40. As I mentioned, at this point (Friday evening), no one was aware a crime had been committed. I can't help but wonder how many clues were lost due to people coming in and out of the house and joining the search. I guess hindsight is 20/20...

The Makels, like many other Greene County folks, raised coon dogs and an occasional bird dog. An October 1974 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article mentions a witness who had claimed to have stopped at the Makel house earlier in the afternoon to inquire about buying one of the dogs. This person says when they knocked on the door a curtain moved but no one ever answered the door. In the research I've done, this witness is never mentioned again and reports claim no one remembers having seen this person. One thing that is repeated from one article to the next is that no one remembers hearing the dogs bark at any time. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with coon dogs knows that they howl incessantly at anything that captures their attention. Cats, dogs, other animals, or people not familiar to the dogs can trigger quite a racket. No one reports having heard the dogs bark at any time Friday.

The story of the plums varies from article to article. A bowl of plums was left either on the porch and carried inside or left inside and moved to another location. They were allegedly moved by Debbie around the time of her entering the house from school, as her school books were nearby. Most stories mention that the plums were left by Debbie's grandfather, one mentions they were left by a neighbor. It is difficult to piece together a timeline from forty year old newspaper articles, but the plums being moved must have been a major factor as they were always mentioned. I would figure this establishes that someone knew the original location of the fruit in order to know they were moved.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding facts was that a basement door to the rear of the home, which was usually locked, was found to be open. No signs of a struggle or forced entry to the home were found. It seems strange to me how these facts are casually mentioned in the reports but seem like glaring red flags. But, I wasn't there. Writing this blog post, for me, is like watching a movie you have seen before and picking out details. It is easy to recognize things when you know the outcome. I am trying my best to stay in the mindset of the timeline, which is tough.  What exactly was known at any given time is almost impossible to say.

In retrospect, finding signs of a struggle would have clued everyone in to the fact that something bad did happen prior to finding the body. Maybe Debbie went out the basement door and left it unlocked? Not uncommon for a child. Maybe the dogs didn't bark because nothing out of the ordinary alarmed them? Maybe signs of a struggle didn't exist because she simply went outside to play? I can imagine as the night went on and local searches turned up nothing that a sense of panic sat in. The search continued but Debbie was not found.   

Continue to part 3

Continued from Part One of the Debbie Makel story.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

40th Anniversary of the Debbie Makel Murder

Blog posts on SWPARE are normally lighthearted adventures,documenting an old building or perhaps a video of a long forgotten industrial site. We like to keep the mood light and solicit memories of those who worked or lived there. This story,unfortunately,will lack our lighthearted approach. In fact, we debated on doing it at all. We have mentioned this case in passing on the blog before. We didn't, however, provide much story line to go with it, just a short video and a link to a ten year old newspaper article. We do, however, continue to receive emails and messages prompting us to continue to cover the unsolved case which is now four decades old. We decided to take another hard look the case and ask some questions.

This post is written from the assumption that the reader is at least vaguely familiar with the case. If you are not, it is pretty self explanatory. This is part one of several posts that will look at the forty year old unsolved murder. As you can imagine, putting this together accurately is quite a task. I am doing my best to eliminate hearsay. Some of the facts vary depending on which source is used, so I will try to provide as much of a complete picture as possible.

I would like to clearly state that we at SWPARE are not, in any way, trained investigators nor do we claim to have inside knowledge of the case. Our information comes from archival news articles and stories from our friends and neighbors who remember that weekend in 1973. Talking to people about this case often brings about speculation and elements of rumor, which I will not include here for obvious reasons. We welcome everyone's comments and opinions, however, we must insist that if anyone has information they believe to be relevant to this case to contact the Pennsylvania State Police and not to post names on the blog or Facebook as they will be deleted.

Part 1

Many tales of murder start out with a description of the town in which they occurred All too often the town is described as an idealistic place where "nothing like that could ever happen". Rices Landing, Pennsylvania is no different. Having spent the first thirty years of my life in the quiet river town, I can assure you that most 1970s residents of the town would have thought the same way. However,in October 1973 an eight year girl named Debbie Makel was sexually assaulted and murdered, her tiny body left in a pile of brush near a stream only a short distance from her home. An arrest was never made in the case and forty years later, it appears we are no closer to knowing the identity of someone who could commit such a heinous act.

The questions we mentioned above are not new. Sadly, almost nothing about the case is. Our questions revolve less on the identity of the culprit and more on why the incident is so seldom discussed. One would think that an unsolved murder, leave alone that of a child, would be fodder for discussion for years and years but in Rices Landing, that is not the case. A friend and fellow blogger commented on how tight lipped the townsfolk can be regarding the case. Even I can say, with a degree of certainty that when Debbie's murder is discussed, it is behind closed doors or in a whisper. I'm not sure why that is. Are there fears of retribution? The case is forty years old. The chances of the culprit being alive or a threat are limited, wouldn't you think? I can tell you that the case is taken very seriously by those who were around at the time. Those folks seem to have a personal connection to the case, being so it is such a small, seemingly close-knit town.

A 1974 newspaper article describes the case file is "as thick as the Pittsburgh phone book". Hundreds of interviews with the people of Rices Landing fill that file. The details of the story, as released to the public, however are far less plentiful. Of all the articles sent to me, it is more or less a repeat of the timeline of events and pleas for information. The case remains open to this day so any sort of access to that file is impossible. I can't help but wonder if releasing some of the then unknown (to the public) aspects of the case wouldn't be helpful after a certain amount of time? After forty years, either not enough is known... or someone isn't talking. It is hard to tell. For now, let's stick with what we know.

The Makel children, like my sisters and later, myself, attended the recently demolished Dry Tavern School. For those not familiar with the area Dry Tavern is a town along PA Route 88 in Jefferson Township. Although they share a post office, Dry Tavern and Rices Landing are actually two separate towns. The Rices Landing Borough settles along the Monongahela river with Dry Tavern located just slightly to the west. Two roads connect them: Ferncliff Road and Rices Landing/Dry Tavern road, depending on which end you are on. In 1973, the school housed first through sixth grades for the kids in the Rices Landing/Dry Tavern area. Mr. William Phillips was the principal at the time and Mrs.Litten was Debbie's third grade teacher. Debbie's brothers were Duane Jr. and Vaughn, both were older.

On Friday, October 5th,1973 the buses loaded up from the circular drive way in front of the school. Duane, 11, and Vaughn, 10, were permitted to walk home so they could sell magazines (or candy) as a school fundraiser. It was common for the kids within walking distance from the school to head home on foot but the Makel boys would have ordinarily rode the bus. Debbie, being a third grader, was not allowed to walk home with her brothers. A few friends of Debbie's I've spoken with who were on the bus that evening, remember her being unhappy about it. What is known for sure is that Debbie did take the short bus ride home and got off at their stop.

Until recently, a wooden bus stop stood at the end of the then unnamed road which lead to the Makel home. Reports state a jogger saw Debbie sitting in the bus stop with her head in her hands as if she was upset. Her brothers report they were able to see her exit the bus from further up Ferncliff Road. Neighbors saw her enter the house at approximately 3:40 where her books were found inside and a bowl of plums left by her grandfather had been moved. Shortly afterward, at or near 4:00, the boys arrived home ,followed soon after by their mother, Charlotte, who worked in a garment factory in Nemacolin, Pa. When they arrived home and Debbie wasn't there, they figured she was out playing. When she didn't come home for supper, her mother began calling around to find her.

My mother told me she remembered being at my aunt's house visiting when the phone rang. It was Debbie's mother looking for her. My aunt had the last name as one of Debbie's close friends and she figured they got the call by mistake. Mom said she remembered thinking, "Shouldn't that little girl be home by now?" Several minutes later, the fire whistle blew. An announcement was made at the Jefferson-Morgan football game a few miles up the road. Crews made up of the areas volunteer firemen began searching for Debbie.

Continue to part two.