"People thought I was a nut, I thought of myself as a dedicated mother."
It was the 24th of March 1988. Thirty two year old Debi Whitlock planned to spend the night with just her three year old daughter at their home in Modesto, California, United States. Her husband, Harold, was going to a bachelor party. Harold's seventeen year old daughter Angela, from a previous relationship, called over to the house that night. She borrowed a suitcase as she was going on vacation. Debi told her that she would collect her from the airport when she got back.
Harold and Debi
Debi and Harold met through work as they both worked as managers at Sears and when they married, Debi made an extra effort to include Angela. She wanted her to feel very welcome and it worked. So much so that Angela moved in with them. After a few years of marriage though, Debi and Harold began having problems. Harold was drinking heavily. Debi left the family home and began seeing someone else. It was the wake up call Harold needed and he stopped drinking. Debi moved back in and by March 1988, it appeared their marriage was strong and they were back on track.
When Harold left for the night, Debi tucked her daughter into bed. Her bedroom was right next to hers. Harold was due home early the next morning.
When Harold returned home the next morning, the 25th of March, he was tired. It was around 5.30 am. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to find. In the hallway of his home, Debi was on the floor. She had been repeatedly stabbed and he told police he thought she was dead.
When police arrived at the house, they could easily verify that Debi was dead. She had been murdered. The attack was savage and brutal. There were multiple stab wounds to her neck. The slashes to her neck had been so severe that she was almost decapitated. Debi had also been raped but the rape occurred after she was killed.
Debi's three year old daughter was found in her bedroom. She was unharmed.
Police were perplexed. There was no indication of a struggle and no sign of any forced entry in the home. Nobody on the street heard any noises during the night. The knife used to kill Debi was a knife from her own kitchen and was found beside her body. So it was understandable that Harold was looked at first. Harold told police that he was at the bachelor party all night and had been there since 10pm the previous night. As he was questioned further and asked for more details, Harold admitted he had not told the truth. He did go to a bachelor party but left before 1 am. He then drove to a colleague's house. The colleague, Karen, was his girlfriend. He was having an affair. He told police he stayed there until after 4.30 am and then went home and found Debi in the hallway.
Debi's mother, Jacque MacDonald, did not believe the police should be spending time looking into whether Harold was involved. She was of the firm belief that he was not involved. DNA taken from the scene confirmed her instinct was correct and that police were looking for a different man, not Harold. As police looked further into the case, they discovered that Debi had also had an affair and they questioned the man, Don, that she was in a relationship with. He too was ruled out as a suspect.
The case went cold in terms of no new leads but it very much remained in the minds of people in the area. That was due to Jacque. She made sure nobody forgot about her daughter's murder and managed to get companies to include leaflets with their deliveries, she got multiple newspapers to cover the story and magazines and the murder was featured on TV shows. She never gave up. She even moved from her home in Minnesota to Modesto so she could devote all her time to finding out what happened to her daughter. Her persistence paid off.
In 1996, police received information from a man called Michael that a man called Scott Fizzle was the man responsible for the murder. Michael had served time in prison and when he was released he wanted to turn his life around. He saw all the footage about Debi and he believed he knew who was to blame. At the time, he lived half a mile from Debi's house and Scott lived directly across from him. He told police what happened that night.
As Michael was in his garage, Scott came in. Scott was on methamphetamine and told Michael he thought he killed a woman that night. Michael thought nothing of it until he saw on the news that a woman had been murdered in her home that night. Scott was known to break into houses and steal but the level of savagery in Debi's case was truly shocking. Michael did not tell anyone as he was also involved in a life of crime. When he was released from prison almost nine years after the murder, he wanted to tell police everything he knew.
At the time of the murder, Scott was eighteen years old and lived in Modesto with his mother and stepfather. Police discovered that after the murder took place, Scott left Modesto and moved to Arkansas. When police tracked him down, he was still living and working in Arkansas.
Scott's DNA, both his blood and semen, was a match to the DNA found in Debi's home. He was charged with first degree murder and burglary.
Jacque at the Trial
As part of a plea deal, Scott pleaded guilty to the murder in 1999 and he did not have to face the rape charge. He was sentenced to thirty one years to life in prison. Jacque was extremely disappointed that he was offered a plea deal given the level of brutality he inflicted on her daughter.
Debi's murder was particularly brutal not just because of the horrific injuries and necrophilia but due to the complete randomness of the attack. Scott did not know Debi or Harold. He told Michael at the time that he entered Debi's house to steal things but Debi surprised him so he grabbed a knife from her kitchen and stabbed her. The crime scene did not confirm that version. It looked like the attack started in Debi's bedroom. There was blood on her bed and blood marks on the ground indicating she had been dragged out of the bedroom into the hallway after she was attacked. Debi went to bed that night believing she was safe and her little three year old was in the room next to her. She didn't surround herself or her daughter with danger and she certainly did not have her daughter around men on methamphetamine. Unfortunately , that meant absolutely nothing to Scott. He didn't care which house he broke into that night or whether a little child would be present in a house while her mother was murdered and raped. He only cared about getting another high. Thankfully, due to Jacque's perseverance, he was eventually caught.
Harold's life was never the same after Debi's murder. He started drinking again and eventually drove off a mountain side when he was drunk in Oregon. Jacque continued helping others even after Scott was convicted. She works with victim advocacy groups and helps to get leads for unsolved cases. She also fought for tougher necrophilia laws.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello