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.


  1. What a horrible tragedy that has been told for years in my family. You spelled the name of her teacher wrong, that was my grandmother, Mrs. Martha Litten, not Litton. May little Debbie Makel forever rest in peace.

  2. Thanks,Jaime. I fixed it. I had Mrs Litten in third grade. She was the best!

  3. Thanks! I agree, my grandmother was the best. :).

  4. Thanx Chip fpr putting this according to the timeline, as you could,,, Those comments I read on facebook today, some sickened me and should be removed , as i know there were some there that are so wrong. But won't go there. I love the way you did this and can't wait to read Part Three. glad to see some caring person, that is trying to get the truth out as well as it can be, yet caring about the family and their feelings. I worked with her Mother at Greenway Manufacturing in Nemacolin that day. A sad day for sure. I am sure unless the person responsible for doing this comes forward and says he did it or evidence comes out in the form of DNA and can prove who did this, there will be those people who won't or just don't think anything of the family, that will be cruel and say and pst what they want. Again thanx for the article,, Will be waiting for Part 3.... Will there be more?

  5. Thanks,Laura. I'm doing my best to tell the story and add insight while maintaining respect toward the Makel family. I've been working on this story for several years and it is very difficult to find new information.I thought the least I could do is ask for the memories of people that were there. The fact is,you can't discuss a murder case without people speculating on the culprit.So,its tricky.I grew up in Rices Landing.I love that town and the people and would never do anything to shed a negative light.I am just trying to tell a story.I spoke with several three friends who happen to be attorneys before starting this and all three stated I have all the right in the world to write about it as long as I don't name specific suspects.As you can imagine,I am receiving many emails and comments in the lines of "I've heard..." many of which,I dismiss.I have.however,heard from people who were directly involved and will share what they have to say when the time is right....but what do I know? I'm just a wanna-be detective.

    1. Yes but you are doing it in the proper way. I know you read the facebook comments that I must have refered too. It was all there to see. The Makel Family still after all this time, have the right to be respected since this case is not closed. I hope one day for their sake, it will come out who did it, and those who have wrongly been stated as involved or whatever will also be free... It is just a story I have kept up on as much as I can....and will. Keep up the good work.... I will wait for Part 3 and how many more you will post. You and Evan do a wonderful job on all the blogs I have seen...