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.
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.