Tragedy in a Small Town: After 46 Years, Can the Murder of 8-year-old Debbie Makel Finally Be Solved?

By Carolyn Berardino

Debbie Makel
Third-grader Debbie Makel from Rices Landing, Pa. was killed in 1973. Her murder remains unsolved. Photo found here.

It was Friday afternoon on October 5, 1973, when 8-year-old Debra Lynn Makel got off the bus down the street from her home in Rices Landing, Pennsylvania. Her two older brothers, ages 10 and 11, usually rode the bus with her, but on this day, they wanted to sell magazines door to door for a school fundraiser, so they were given permission to walk the less than two miles home. The Makel children were used to letting themselves in the house until their mom came home about an hour later from her job at a clothing factory in nearby Nemacolin.

Debbie got to her house and threw her books inside, along with her coat and key, leaving them on a table as usual. Her brothers arrived home, and when she wasn’t there, they figured she was outside with the neighborhood kids on the warm, sunny fall day. The house was silent, and nothing was out of place. When her mom Charlotte came home, she assumed Debbie was playing outside too. Dinner was ready around 5:30 p.m., and Charlotte called Debbie inside. But she was nowhere to be found.

Charlotte and Duane Makel, a teacher and wrestling coach at Avella High School, searched the neighborhood, called friends, and drove around town, but there was no sign of Debbie. With growing concern, they called police.

An announcement was made at the Jefferson-Morgan High School football game down the road and spectators immediately left the game to start searching for the missing girl.

Debbie Makel’s body was found in the field behind the house two days after she disappeared. Photo courtesy of state police. Photo found here.

Law enforcement and volunteers continued to search for Debbie Saturday but turned up nothing. Sunday morning, two of Duane’s cousins, who had come to town to help in the search, spotted a green sock sticking out of some brush in the woods behind the Makel home. Debbie had been placed in a shallow grave, covered with sticks and debris. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled with twine.

Petite, blue-eyed Debbie loved to laugh and was the kind of girl to befriend the new student in school. She earned straight A’s and excelled in dance. Charlotte Makel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “When we had her, I think we did a really good job with her. We were proud of her. But you go to graduations and weddings and family things and you wonder, where would life be if it had been different? You never get past it, and you need to know what happened. Somebody out there has an answer, a clue that could help. I want [the killer] prosecuted. I want to know.”

In 2003, the killer’s DNA was extracted from evidence investigators sent to the police lab. The profile has been put into CODIS, but so far, there have been no matches.

If you have any information about this case, please contact the Pennsylvania State Police at (724) 627-6151.

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