Debbie Makel rode the school bus to her Rices Landing, Pennsylvania home on the afternoon of Friday, October 5, 1973. It was a warm autumn day, and her two older brothers decided to walk home from Dry Tavern Elementary School instead of riding the bus; they were selling magazine subscriptions for a school fundraiser and hoped to make a few sales along the two-mile walk to their house.
Rices Landing is a tiny town in northwestern Pennsylvania; in 1973, there were less than 500 people living in the rural town. Duane and Charlotte Makel had moved there a few years earlier because they thought it would be a great place to raise their three children. Since they both worked full-time — Duane was a high school teacher and Charlotte was employed at a local sewing factory — their kids were used to coming home to an empty house. Charlotte usually arrived home about an hour after the children.
The following afternoon, Debbie’s brothers came home to find that she was already there. The coat she was wearing was in the kitchen, along with her schoolbooks and house key. However, Debbie wasn’t in the house. The 8-year-old’s brothers thought she had just gone to play with some friends. When they got home, all three of the kids could play outside as long as they came back in time for dinner.
Charlotte got home at 4:45 pm, and the house was empty. When dinnertime came around, her two sons came back, but Debbie wasn’t there. When they got home, the boys said that their sister had already left. They thought she was with friends, but they hadn’t seen her since they got off of school.
Duane and Charlotte thought Debbie must have gotten lost or hurt while she was playing. At the time, kidnappings of children were unheard of in Rices Landing, so they didn’t even think about the possibility of foul play. They first asked all of Debbie’s friends if they had seen her that afternoon, but none of them had. No one had seen her since 3:45 pm, when she got off the school bus.
The family got in their car and drove around the neighborhood because they were afraid Debbie had fallen and hurt herself. She was a very active girl who loved to climb trees. They yelled for Debbie as they slowly drove up and down the quiet streets. They were waiting for her to yell back, but they never heard anything back. After going around the neighborhood a few times, fear began to set in.
After looking for Debbie all day but not finding her by dusk, her parents knew something was very wrong. They told the police that the 8-year-old was missing. Police and people in the community thought that the child had probably just gotten lost or hurt; no one thought that she might have been taken away. A high school football game made an announcement about the missing child in order to get as many people as possible to help with the search. The bleachers quickly became empty as people rushed to help.
Everyone walked shoulder-to-shoulder through Rices Landing, making sure to stay close to each other so they could cover all the ground. Floodlights were used to make it easier to see, and the search went on all the way through until the next morning. The searchers were sad that they couldn’t find any hints about where Debbie was.
Saturday, the search for Debbie went on all day, and police went door-to-door in the neighborhood looking for anyone who might have seen the girl after she got off the school bus the day before. A number of people who saw Debbie can be found. She was wearing a green dress and carrying a small pink purse. A woman who was jogging told police that she saw Debbie walk from her bus stop to her house. Other neighbors saw the girl open her front door and go inside. After that, they didn’t see her leave the house, but they thought she might have gone out the back door.
Inside the Makel home, there were no signs of a fight. Someone moved a bowl of plums that was on the kitchen table, but Debbie probably did it while she put her books on the table. There were no signs that Debbie had been harmed inside the house, so it was likely that what happened to her happened outside.
More than one hundred people were looking for Debbie by Saturday afternoon. Her house was near some woods, and people who cared about the child carefully searched the area for any sign of the missing child. There was no sign that she had been there, they said. As the sun went down on Saturday night, the volunteers gave up and decided to wait to search again in the morning.
An important part of Debbie’s family had come from out of town to help look for her. Someone found Debbie’s body early Sunday morning, only 200 yards from her house. It was her cousins. She had been raped and strangled, and then she was dumped by the foundation of an old distillery. Her kil*ler tried to hide her body by putting bushes and broken tree branches over it. Her cousins were about to walk past her when they saw something green sticking out from under the branches. In that green dress, Debbie had been when she went missing.
At first, investigators thought that Debbie’s body might have been moved there after the search ended on Saturday night. But the coroner found that it had been there since shortly after she went missing. It was sad that search teams had missed her the night before; it was too dark for them to see her.
The coroner found that Debbie had been raped and strangled. Her kil*ler had put a piece of twine around her neck and then pulled it tight, which broke her larynx. People found her body with the green dress she was wearing, but her blue underwear was not. She was also missing her black shoes and the small pink purse she was carrying. These things were never found.
The people of Rices Landing were shocked and horrified by Debbie’s d*eath. No one had ever thought that Debbie might have been ki*lled. Before her body was found, everyone thought she had just gotten lost and was waiting for someone to find her. Now, they were afraid that someone was living nearby and kil*ling children.
Debbie’s de*ath broke her parents’ hearts. They had always thought Rice’s Landing was a safe place. Before Debbie went missing, their biggest worry was that one of the kids would get hit by a car while riding their bike. They had thought that m*urders only happened in big cities and not in their small town. Now, they were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their daughter had been k*illed.
A lot of people, including dozens of undercover police officers, came to Debbie’s funeral. Officers were keeping an eye on everything inside the church as people came to mourn. A careful physical description of each person there was carefully written down. They also wrote down the license plate number and type of car each person arrived in. They didn’t know if any of the information would help the investigation, but they thought Debbie had probably been ki*lled by someone in the area, and the ki*ller might have come to her funeral.
The police were determined to find the monster that k*illed Debbie, but it was clear right away that they were not going to arrest anyone right away. They weren’t sure if the kil*ler was already inside the house when Debbie got home from school or if he had found a way to get her to come outside. Because Debbie didn’t seem to have fought back, police thought she wasn’t scared of the person who ki*lled her. That meant it was most likely someone she knew and trusted.
Although detectives talked to everyone who knew Debbie, they were unable to find any solid leads. They did hundreds of polygraph tests and questioned a huge number of possible suspects, but they never had enough proof to name any suspects. It took a while for the investigation to pick up again, but Debbie was never forgotten.
In 2003, police looked into the case again and sent several pieces of evidence for more advanced forensic testing. With technology that wasn’t around thirty years ago, they were able to make a DNA profile of the k*iller. This profile was then sent to a national database, but there have been no matches yet.
The investigation into the cold case began again in 2013 with the goal of finally solving the 40-year-old case. A number of men who were once thought to be possible suspects gave DNA samples, but all of them were later found not to be guilty. People still think the case is open, but with each year that goes by, the chances of it being solved get smaller.
In 1973, Debbie Makel was k*illed when she was only 8 years old. She got all A’s in school, loved it, and had lots of friends. She was friendly and had a laugh that made people laugh. She had no trouble keeping up with her two older brothers. That girl had a great future planned for her, but a cruel ki*ller has never been caught taking it all away. Investigators are still hoping to find the person who k*illed Debbie, even though it’s possible that the kil*ler is already de*ad. Please call the Pennsylvania State Police at 724–627–6151 if you know anything about Debbie’s de*ath.