Greene County cold case closer to solving

New eyes look at 40-year old murder case

October 9, 2013
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This photo of Debra Lynne Makel, in her third-grade picture from the Dry Tavern Elementary School, was taken just weeks before she was murdered on Oct. 5, 1973.
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
Cold case detective John Marshall sorts through an evidence box in the 1973 murder case of 8-year old Debbie Makel of Rices Landing. Order a Print

RICES LANDING – Forty years ago today, Duane and Charlotte Makel laid to rest their 8-year-old daughter, Debra “Debbie” Lynne Makel, the victim of murder and sexual assault. Her killer has yet to be charged, but that may change, thanks to advances in science.

Sitting in their living room, the Makel’s talked about their brown-haired, blue-eyed little girl.

“She giggled all of the time. There was a big tree with an L-shaped branch that she used to love to climb. She’d hang upside down from it and swing back and forth with her long hair brushing the ground,” Charlotte said. “Debbie was very outgoing.” When a new child moved into the area it was Debbie who befriended her when others did not.

“She was the top of her class, straight A’s,” Duane said.

On Thursday, cold case Detective John Marshall, who was assigned the case Wednesday, looked over four thick binders, containing information, photographs and interviews, laid out in front of him at the state police barracks in Uniontown.

He said he believes advancements in science creates a strong opportunity to discovering who killed the young girl.

“There was no DNA (testing) in 1973,” Marshall said. In fact, it wasn’t until 1987 that the first DNA based conviction occurred in the United States.

In 2003, the cold case detectives investigating Debbie’s murder sent evidence from the crime scene to a police lab where the killer’s DNA was extracted.

“We have a DNA profile of somebody. It has been put into a database but as of this date there have been no matches,” Marshall said. “Over time, various individuals have confessed, who, through DNA, interviews and a polygraph test, have been eliminated. Whether they were braggarts, had a hero complex, or were thinking they were helping the community by confessing to this, the DNA profile showed to be negative.”

Marshall said there were only a few men who stood out during the original investigation as persons of interest. One of them, currently deceased, passed a polygraph. “Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they say, ‘Sure, let’s help,’” Marshall said. “I will be reopening all of the interviews in the investigation. My purpose with every male I talk to is to try to get consent from them for a DNA swab,” he said.

On Oct. 5, 1973, Debbie rode the school bus less than two miles from Dry Tavern Elementary School to Ferncliff Road in Rices Landing. From there it was a short walk to her home, situated at the end of Hoy Street, a dead end. Investigators placed the time at around 3:45 p.m.

There were only four houses visible from the Makel residence in 1973. It was a warm fall day. Her brothers did not ride the bus, choosing to walk home to sell magazine subscriptions for a school fundraiser.

Charlotte and Duane were both at work; he at Avella High School where he taught at the time, and she at a sewing factory. The boys arrived home before their parents to find their sister’s books, coat and house key on the table. She was nowhere in sight.

Times were different then. There was no cause for alarm. It was assumed she was off playing with one of the children on the street, said retired state trooper Elmer “Bud” Schifko, 77, an original investigator of the murder. Schifko’s family lived across from the Makels.

Schifko, who worked in the Uniontown barracks, was asked to join the investigation after Debbie’s body was found two days later near an old distillery foundation, less than 200 yards from her home. She was covered by branches and brush.

Prior to the body being discovered Schifko remembers Charlotte and Duane started to get worried when it was getting close to dinner time and they started making phone calls,Schifko said.

“We drove around the neighborhood, all over Rices Landing and kept thinking, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. We called the police and they had it announced at the football game in Jefferson,” Charlotte said. “You just couldn’t wrap your head around it, couldn’t sleep,” said Charlotte. “You wondered, ‘Is she in the river?’”

Charles and Betty Riecks, who lived in Clarksville at the time, were at the game.

“They announced that she was missing and asked for volunteers to search and people just started leaving. When we got there they told us to hold hands and walk. People were calling her name and it was lit up like daytime with these big search lights,” Betty said.

This type of shoulder-to-shoulder searching went on through Saturday night with hundreds of volunteers combing the woods and farmland near the residence. Many believed Debbie’s body had been moved there when searchers took a break from Saturday night to Sunday morning.

Former Greene County Coroner Frank Behm, Schifko and Marshall all said the forensic evidence proved it impossible that this was the case. Behm said, as hard as some find it to believe, they simply missed her when they searched that area.

Sunday morning, two family members, who had come to town to aid in the search, found Debbie.

The inconsistencies in stories published in the years since her death are many. Internet sites, where wannabe detectives discuss this and other cold cases, have suggested a cover-up.

Charlotte, who only recently learned of the mirth of speculation online about Debbie’s death, said she finds that thought disturbing.

“Of course you think about who may have done it but if you are wrong then what have you done to this person,” she said.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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