Local News : Wednesday, May 14, 1997

Public apathy follows Oak Harbor girl's abduction, slaying

by Linda Keene
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the seven weeks since young Deborah Palmer was abducted and killed in Oak Harbor, the city's police chief has seen something he didn't expect from the community.

Apathy.

"It's very discouraging," said Chief Tony Barge. "Shortly after Deborah's disappearance, parents were back to their routines of letting kids walk alone to bus stops or schools, in remote county areas.

"They presume that a monster came through the community, killed Deborah and then left."

Police have not arrested anyone in the March 26 abduction and slaying, and don't have any suspects. The 7-year-old girl was walking two blocks from her home to Oak Harbor Elementary School when she was kidnapped. Her body was found five days later, washed up on a beach seven miles from town.

With no witnesses or suspects, her death is quickly becoming a statistic. And in at least some ways, her case is typical of child-abduction cases around the country, according to a study by the state Attorney General's Office.

The three-year study has found that in 58 percent of the cases, the child was abducted within a quarter-mile of home; a third of the time, the abduction took place less than 200 feet from the victim's home.

The study also says such abductions are easier to solve if police identify the initial contact site and canvass it immediately for clues.

Time is essential: In 74 percent of the cases studied, the child was killed within three hours of being kidnapped. Deborah Palmer, too, died soon after her abduction, police think, perhaps before she was reported missing.

"That's one of the things that alarms most of us," said Sgt. Don Cameron of the Seattle Police Department. "A high majority are dead before police are even notified they're missing. That's scary."

The study examined the abduction and murder of 600 children in more than 44 states. Although there are only one or two such cases a year in Washington, the numbers have climbed in the past decade.

"It's horrifying, isn't it?" Barge said of the abductions. "I was somewhat naive about it until we lost Deborah Palmer."

She was 7, just a few years younger than the average age of victims, which is 11. Most of the victims came from middle-class families. In slayings in which a killer was known, 57 percent were committed by a stranger to the victim.

The study also says:

-- The typical abductors were white men, about 27 years old, unmarried, with records of violence and crimes involving children.

-- In 60 percent of the cases, there were delays of more than two hours between the time the child was known to be missing and when the police were notified.

"If a police department has fallen into the myth of a 24-hour reporting period for missing children, they've got some problems," added Robert Keppel, the project director and chief criminal investigator with the state Attorney General's Office.

Keppel said parents should immediately report missing children and police should respond accordingly, especially for younger kids.

"The neighborhood canvass should not only ask the question, `What did you see that was unusual?' but should also ask, `What did you see that was usual?' " the study notes. "In the cases examined, the killer was in the area of initial contact two-thirds of the times because he belonged there."

Keppel said most killers work, live or regularly pass through the area where they abduct victims.

To protect children, the study urges parents to be aware "that children are not immune from abduction because they are close to home." Seattle Times staff reporter Richard Seven contributed to this report.

Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company