By Shannan Dower
Disclaimer: this article discusses a missing person case that involves a death. Reader discretion is advised for those sensitive to these topics.
Every year, thousands of people go missing and many meet miserable fates. But not everyone is a Madelaine McCann or Nicole Brown Simpson and have their name emblazoned in our collective memory. Not every person receives justice. But these people mattered, and their stories matter too.
One such woman is Deborah Ann Wolfe, who has faced a fate of being forgotten – for the police didn’t even consider her death a crime.
Often referred to as Debbie, she was born on June 19th, 1957 and in 1985 was a 28-year-old living on the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina. The young woman resided in a reclusive cabin with two dogs named Morgan and Mason. She was a nurse working at the Fayetteville Veterans Administration Hospital and after completing a shift on a Wednesday afternoon Wolfe returned home.
Though, it’s unclear if she ever made it there.
The next day Debbie never arrived for her shift starting at 8am, immediately causing worry amongst her colleagues and family due to her typical punctuality. After she didn’t answer a call, her mother, Jenny, visited the cabin with a family friend. Her home was in disarray, her dogs unfed, beer cans around the yard. A uniform lay on the floor, but it would later be discovered this was not the same one she had been wearing the day earlier, as it had been dirtied by coffee by a coworker. An eerie answering machine message from an unknown man implied she’d “been out a lot of days” when it had been at best a few hours since her shift began. This man seems like he might know something more of Debbie’s disappearance – had he thought people would investigate her death in a few more days? Jenny Edwards knew that something was wrong.
After a lacklustre response from the sheriff’s department, Jenny Edwards hired her own dive team of family friends to search the lake. Gordon Childress entered the water on New Year’s Day 1986, discovering footprints and drag marks, before finding a barrel, with Debbie’s body inside. Authorities claimed the bottom of the pond was covered in moss, thus making Gordon’s observation impossible. It is unknown if the police spoke the truth, or if Gordon did.
The autopsy resulted in an undetermined explanation for her death, listing drowning as the most likely cause. The other circumstances of the crime pointed towards foul play, including the possible defense injuries on her hands. None of the clothes Debbie was found in was her own – almost none of the garments fit her or were recognized by anyone who knew her. And the uniform she’d last been seen in – one with long sleeves and a coffee stain has never been located. Yet, the police settled with the drowning theory, even when the lack of water in her lungs and silt on her body implied she had not been sitting in the silt-rich pond for six days and nights (as reported by Robert Frasco, an independent investigator).
Other strange evidence such as her hard to adjust driver’s seat was pushed all the way back when Debbie never touched it and left it all the way forward, alongside it being parked in a location unusual for Debbie continued to deepen the mystery and point towards foul play.
The oil drum was not in the pond when the water level was lowered, as it had been dragged out. However, it disappeared overnight. It’s possible the perpetrator removed it because it had evidence of their crime. This raises questions as to why it wasn’t being examined or kept in police custody, and what other pieces of evidence did they let slip through their fingers? The diver supplied by the police claimed there never was a barrel, stating it “could have been Debbie’s jacket which may have ballooned out”.
Ultimately, Deborah’s case was largely mishandled by police, which was extremely common in past decades. The question lies in the reason why the authorities failed to definitively solve the case – was it a cover up? Or merely incompetency? The department declared her death an accident, corroborated by the medical examiner claiming she drowned despite citing there was no water in her lungs. Some detectives posed, “Possibly, Mrs. Wolfe was playing with her two dogs and she fell in the pond… and became frightened and disoriented in the water.”
The police did follow the voicemail, but cleared the man who left it of involvement, and another man who after questioning left the state just days later. Both men had taken a peculiar liking to Debbie, the second man being more forward and pushy in his advances. Jenny suggested she had been stalked and eventually kidnapped, raped and killed.
The excessive amount of differing recounts of the truth and lack of evidence make it virtually impossible to deduce Debbie’s fate. Jenny Edwards continued to search for what happened to her daughter until her dying day as she’d “never give up”.
It is cases like this and people that risk being lost that are the most important to remember and discuss. Debbie is one of these people – a person who was failed by police, but who shouldn’t be failed by us.