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Table of Contents
ONE - Phone Calls
TWO - The Last Night
THREE - The Morning After
FOUR - The First Week
FIVE - Mother and Daughter
SIX - Father and Daughter
SEVEN - The Making of a Murder Suspect
EIGHT - A Daughter’s Retreat
NINE - Mother’s Crusade
TEN - Trial by Reenactment
ELEVEN - Fresh Blood
TWELVE - The Sting
THIRTEEN - New Suspects
FOURTEEN - Weddings
FIFTEEN - A Mother’s Voice
SIXTEEN - Mr. X
SEVENTEEN - The Arrest
EIGHTEEN - Losing Ground
NINETEEN - Murder and the Media
TWENTY - War of Words
TWENTY-ONE - Death Penalty
TWENTY-TWO - Debi’s Law
A MESSAGE FROM JACQUE MACDONALD
“No Room for Doubt is a compelling account of a ‘real-life’ homicide and its aftermath. Angela Dove writes about her stepmother’s brutal murder in March 1988, meticulously recreating the course of the investigation and its chilling effect on those whose lives were tainted by this crime.”
—Sue Grafton, bestselling author of ‘T’ Is for Trespass
“This book will bring light to its readers, showing them the reality of what one person can do when they take away the joy and life of another . . . This book clarifies that the ramifications of murder run deeply.”
—Susan Levy, mother of murder victim Chandra Levy and founder of Wings of Protection
“No Room for Doubt is an accurate and fascinating account of the painstaking search to catch a sexual killer who terrorized a community. Meticulously researched and highly readable, Angela Dove writes from inside the investigation with skill and compassion. She captures the intricacies and details of the forensic and behavioral evidence in a way that makes you feel like you were there . . . one of the most gripping true crime books I’ve read in years . . . the resolution will stun you.”
—Mark E. Safarik M.S., V.S.M. (FBI Ret.) Executive Director, Forensic Behavioral Services International
“A compelling true story of a loving mother’s determination to seek her daughter Debi’s murderer. While law enforcement struggles to solve the mystery, Jacque MacDonald is inspirational as she courageously uncovers the horrifying truth. Jacque MacDonald is a true inspiration to victims of crime. Her perseverance to seek justice when law enforcement had nearly given up is a true testimony of a mother’s love and devotion.”
—Debra Puglisi Sharp, author of Shattered: Reclaiming a Life Torn Apart by Violence
“With Angela Dove’s steady hand, every page is a gripping read and every word is factual. No Room for Doubt is a remarkable, almost cinematic, achievement.”
—Dawna Kaufmann, true crime investigative journalist and co-author of A Question of Murder
“This is a must-read for every victim of crime who feels helpless or hopeless. Jacque MacDonald is a role model and hero; she proves that one determined victim, who never gives up, can overcome enormous obstacles and bring a murderer to justice. Angela Dove has crafted an exciting, real-life book that should be read by every victim of violent crime and shared with their family, friends, and associates. Bravo, Jacque! Bravo, Angela!”
—Genelle Reilly, mother of murder victim Robin Reilly and board member of Security on Campus and Justice for Homicide Victims
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Copyright © 2009 by Angela Dove
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Berkley trade paperback edition / March 2009
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
No room for doubt : a true story of the reverberations of murder / Angela Dove.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01458-5
1. MacDonald, Jacque. 2. Mothers of murder victims—California—Biography. 3. Parents of murder victims—California—Biography. I. Title.
and those who loved her.
When Jacque MacDonald asked me to write her story, I was honored. Jacque’s daughter, Debi, was murdered in her home in Modesto, California, in 1988, while her own little girl slept nearby. Debi’s murder had baffled investigators. They told Jacque there was nothing more they could do. Everyone encouraged her to get on with her life. Instead, Jacque tracked down the killer herself, saw him brought to justice, and started helping other families who faced the same obstacles. I have never known anyone who became so single-mindedly determined to win a losing battle, and then won it. From the moment she approached me, I wanted to tell Jacque’s powerful and uplifting story.
However, I knew that taking on this project would be difficult for me. Jacque’s monumental journey lay in stark contrast to my father’s. Debi had been married to my father, Harold Whitlock, for five years at the time of her murder. She was my stepmother and the mother of my baby sister, Jessica. Debi’s murder had devastated our family, and in order to tell Jacque’s story, I would have to revisit those terrible events. I agreed, ready to face the nightmare of the past.
Instead, I stumbled onto a new aspect of the story—one I found just as devastating.
While researching the facts surrounding Debi’s case, I discovered the huge body of evidence linking my father to her murder. I learned things about my dad that literally brought me to my knees. Only now, years after his death, could I understand all the things I sensed in him: his guilt, his inability to forgive himself, and the self-destruction that eventually ended his life. Today Jacque MacDonald is hugged tearfully by strangers, applauded by politicians, and speed-dialed by police departments across California’s Central Valley. Today my father is dead. No telling of these events can get around this fact.
“No room for doubt” is a phrase I picked up during an interview with Modesto Homicide Sergeant Jon Buehler. “It took nine years to solve Debi’s case,” Jon told me, “but Jacque always believed it would be solved. And she made us believe. There was never any room for doubt.”
This conversation took place at a time when I hoped to tell Jacque’s story but avoid revealing how Debi’s death affected anyone else. However, there is no way to compartmentalize murder. Its reverberations ripple across lives, across miles, across time. So Sergeant Buehler’s phrase became something of a mantra for me as well. I could not allow any misgivings to deter me from telling this story—the full story—with unflinching honesty.
Because I have tried to be sensitive to those involved in these tumultuous events, certain names and circumstances have been altered. Where people’s recollections have differed, I have had to choose between versions or try to merge the two. Other times I had to condense several occasions into one. I have endeavored to portray the truth of events, relationships, and characters as I understand them.
During the last year it has become clear to me that we can never really know another person. We have only our perceptions, colored by our beliefs and biases and experiences. We live with one foot in fiction, taking what we know about a person and creating the rest. Each of us necessarily decides our own truth.
This book is my truth.
I would like to thank all the people who have assisted with this project, particularly the Modesto Police Department and those officers who shared with me their personal and professional experiences of Debi’s case; the Stanislaus County criminal court and clerk’s offices, including Michael Tozzi; Merced District Attorney Larry Morse and Sheriff Mark Pazin; Margaret Speed and the victim/witness offices of Merced and Modesto; Daryl Farnsworth and the editorial staff of the Modesto Bee; Comcast Cable executive Barbara Rodiek; Oxygen channel producer Deborah Dawkins; California Congressman Dennis Cardoza and his staff; California Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani and her intrepid aide, Robin Adam; the staff of the Modesto city museum; Modesto historian Colleen Bare; Jacque’s many friends and fellow survivors, as well as her family, whom she credits for all her successes; the friends and family of Debi and my father, who shared both their joy and pain; my agent, David Fugate; former Penguin editor Katie Day; editor Andie Avila; and my readers Ginny Barrett Patten and Bob Clark. I am enormously grateful to my husband, Ira Dove, and our children, my mother, and my sister, without whose blessing and patience I would not have written this book.
I will always be thankful to Jacque for inviting me on this journey, and to those who supported me along the way. Jacque MacDonald inspires people to be braver versions of themselves. That gift has carried me through this project.
It was absurd that the sun was shining.
Jacque MacDonald stood by the mausoleum, surrounded by her loved ones. Her husband, Dennis, was there, along with her surviving daughter, Karen, and son-in-law, Cliff. Jessica was there also, Jacque’s beautiful three-year-old granddaughter. How much did Jessie, tapping her shiny new shoes, understand? How much did any of them understand? Of course Jessie thought her mother would be back soon. Didn’t they all cling to that fantasy? Call it denial. Call it desperation. But the thought that Debi would be among them again was more real than being without her.
Jacque’s body reverberated with a kind of palpable nothingness. How could emptiness be so filling? It overflowed, rippling out of her. It swallowed the mourners, the press, the cemetery. It ate up the whole world.
Five days ago Debi had been alive: a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter. There were so many future possibilities for her. In one violent moment, they had evaporated.
Jacque couldn’t bring herself to think of the end of Debi’s life. She pushed it back down into the dull void. But even now she could feel the restlessness. The anger. Rage. It was coming. Her internal radar guaranteed a catastrophic storm headed her way. Would she be caught up in it? Would it leave her in ruins? Could she ever rebuild?
She held the small, ornate box in her hands. It was so light, yet it was the heaviest burden she had ever carried. This was all that remained of her firstborn. Debi’s life, her aspirations, her future—they were all ashes now. Drowned in blood, consumed by fire, and returned to the hands of the woman who had carried this child inside of her, who had walked the floors during the nights of colic and had slipped coins from the tooth fairy under her pillow.
Jacque’s thoughts drifted. She hated her dress. She’d bought it at the last minute because Debi’s sister had been adamant that everyone wear blue. It was, after all, Debi’s favorite color.
Jacque was aware of whispers, sobs, prayers. But none of it made any sense. She didn’t hear the ceremony. There must have been one. She vaguely remembered a priest taking the box from her, touching her gently as if he were taking the real Debi away from her. Someone else had done that days ago. The priest’s words were directed at her, but they were too far away for her to understand. They joined the pulsing nothingness, swirling away in the winds of the approaching storm.
Somewhere, another mother was burying her child. Everything around Jacque was a pantomime, but that other mother was real. If Jacque could, she would reach out and touch her.
The funeral service was over. People said their words to Jacque, hugged her and cried on her, not realizing she wasn’t there. Eventually she was alone. A ghost mother. Her eyes traced the lettering on the new bronze plaque: Deborah Anne Whitlock. Somewhere inside of her, thunder rolled.
“Well,” she said to the memory of her daughter. “What the hell am I supposed to do without you for the rest of my life?”
People now recognize Jacque MacDonald. They’ve seen her on TV, hosting her show or accepting the National Crime Victims’ Service Award from the United States attorney general. They’ve heard her on the radio. (“She’s British, right? Wasn’t her daughter murdered?”) They remember seeing her on 20/20, or America’s Most Wanted, or Jerry Springer back when his show had some class. Perhaps they read about her daughter’s case in Newsweek, or People, or some tabloid. Maybe they saw her last year on an Oxygen channel special.
If these same people live near California’s busy Highway 99, they might recall the billboard of her daughter’s face smiling down on their morning commute, promising a reward for any information about her murder.
Cameras seek Jacque out at victims’ rights rallies. Short, fiery, her London accent lending her an air of refinement, Jacque can always be relied upon for an engaging quote or a thoughtful reflection.
What the cameras don’t see, of course, is underneath. Within that petite frame is a storm of unrelenting anger. The electrical charge it generates fills up her delicate frame and leaks out of her, fueling those around her.
“I’m not a hero,” she repeats for the umpteenth time. “I’m just a mother whose daughter was murdered. And now, I’m fighting back.”
Jacque MacDonald surveyed her kitchen with satisfaction as she carried the cleaning rag to the laundry room. This was going to be an exciting visit. It was the first time Dennis’s mother, Brona, had been to their new house, and they were eager to show it off. Though they had been married for over six years, Dennis and Jacque felt like young newlyweds in their first home. And the house looked perfect, if Jacque did say so herself.
It was March 25, 1988.
Dennis had waited a long time to find the right woman, and Jacque had stormed into his life in a way that only an Englishwoman with fiery red hair can pull off.
This was the second marriage for Jacque. After the disastrous end of her first marriage, she had vowed never to trust another man. But air force officer Dennis MacDonald had a kind and giving spirit, and his soft voice and easy smile won her over quickly. “Besides,” Jacque laughs whenever she tells the story, “I always have been a sucker for a man in uniform.” She had wandered the base near Merced looking for her girlfriend who worked there. The day was growing hot, and Jacque felt herself drooping like the plants left too long unattended on the officers’ patios she passed. The front door of a nearby house opened with a creak, and a man’s voice called out, “Are you lost?” Jacque turned to see an officer she had met the night before at a local bar and jazz club. He recognized her, too, and invited her in for a cold glass of orange juice. They had been together ever since.
Jacque and Dennis felt they had spent too much time waiting and dreaming about one day, but never acting on those dreams. They were married only a year after they met. And now, six years later, they had built a beautiful three-bedroom home in Burnsville, Minnesota, which was close to Northwest’s Minneapolis-St. Paul hub but removed from the traffic of the city. Jacque felt at home immediately in the place. As a pilot’s wife, she was alone for days at a time. It was important to her to have a home where she felt comfortable and secure while Dennis crisscrossed the skies in various 727s.
Although she loved the house and town, Jacque wished Burnsville were closer to California. She and Dennis had moved away when Dennis had become a commercial pilot two years ago, but Jacque’s daughters still lived in the Central Valley. The oldest, Debi, lived in Modesto with her husband, whom everyone called Howie, and their three-year-old daughter, Jessica. Karen, only eighteen months younger than Debi, was married to Cliff and lived in nearby Merced with their three-year-old daughter, Megan.
Jacque missed her daughters and granddaughters terribly, but her claustrophobia kept her feet firmly on the ground. Debi and Karen understood their mother’s anxiety, rolling their eyes with a smile whenever Jacque referred to an airplane as “a small tin box hurling through the skies.” The sisters planned to bring their little girls to visit their gran in two months. Jacque could hardly wait to see them.
Jacque glanced at the leaden clouds framed by lace curtains in the kitchen window. The Minnesota winters were harsh for Jacque who, although she grew up in the chill damp of London, had acclimated to the California sunshine during the intervening years. Now, she mused, she had traded the rain clouds of her childhood for the snow clouds of her grandmother years.
Mackie ran into the room, her small black nails clicking on the white tile. She looked up at Jacque expectantly, her mustached snout quivering excitedly. Jacque laughed. “You don’t care that it’s cold out there, do you?” Mackie yipped and pranced around her, and Jacque stooped to pet her. She loved this miniature schnauzer that had slept contentedly in her lap during the long ride across country in the moving van.
Jacque walked to the hall closet to get her coat, hat, and gloves. She clipped Mackie’s leash onto her collar, and the little dog half tugged her out the door and into the chilly Minnesota morning.
As she made her way through the neighborhood, Jacque could feel the excitement of approaching spring. The crocuses were sending out tender shoots that promised color enough to banish even the foulest winter gloom. Neighbors smiled easily, chirping hellos across slushy front lawns and silently agreeing that they would soon be shoveling the last of the winter snow.
Dennis and Brona arrived home that evening at about six o’clock. Dennis walked to his wife and leaned down to plant a kiss on her cheek. While he carried his mother’s bags into the guest room, Jacque lit the gas burner below the teakettle and made Brona comfortable on a plush white chair accented with tiny roses. “I want to hear all about your trip,” said Jacque, “but let me give Dennis his phone messages while I’m thinking about it.” She headed toward the back of the house, barely glancing at the family portraits lining the hall.
Dennis was in the master bedroom already loosening his regulation tie. Northwest had begun painting the tails of their aircraft red during the Second World War to make the planes more visible during harsh northern weather conditions. Now the color was used for ties on the pilots, scarves on the flight attendants, and as accents on the 1920s circular logo, a halo around a pair of golden wings.
Jacque smoothed Dennis’s navy blue uniform jacket, which lay neatly across the bed’s rose-covered comforter. Friends always teased Jacque that even without her accent, the rose-patterned fabrics throughout the house would give away her British upbringing.
Jacque came up beside her husband and tucked her small frame under his arm. He hugged her warmly. “Hi there, sweetheart. How was your week?”
“I’m just glad you’re back,” Jacque smiled. “You had a call today.”
“The chief pilot. He said you should call him once you got in.”
Dennis’s posture straightened. It was unusual for the supervisor to call a second officer at home. “That’s odd. I better call back before dinner.”
A low whistle sounded from the front of the house. “That’ll be the tea. Would you like a cup?” asked Jacque.
“No, I’ll get some later.”
Back in the kitchen, Jacque poured tea for Brona and herself, placed the cups and some biscuits (she never could bring herself to call them cookies) on a tray, and headed into the living room. She turned to her mother-in-law.
“I’m so glad you could come. Would you like to see the house?”
Jacque gave Brona a quick tour. Then, their tea ready, the two women sat on the couch and quickly lapsed into small talk.
Jacque lost track of the time; otherwise she might have wondered why a simple call to the chief pilot was taking so long.
Dennis entered the room sometime later, his face ashen. Something was very wrong. Jacque stood up, walking toward her husband. “What is it?”
Dennis looked at his wife, bafflement in his blue eyes. “It was Cliff,” he said, referring to the husband of Jacque’s younger daughter, Karen.
This didn’t make any sense at all. What did her son-in-law have to do with Dennis’s chief pilot? “What?” Jacque asked in confusion. “I thought you were calling the chief pilot.” Then comprehension dawned. Cliff had called the chief pilot, trying to get in touch with Dennis. He had wanted his news delivered to Jacque by her husband, in person. The chief pilot had served as a go-between.
“Oh my God.” Jacque’s breath caught in her throat. “Something’s happened to Karen.”
“Sit down,” said Dennis.
Her legs wouldn’t have obeyed the order to sit, even if Jacque had given it. “Just tell me.”
Tears welled in his eyes as he placed his hand on hers. “It’s Debi.”
Confusion crested anew in Jacque’s mind. Why would Cliff call about Jacque’s older daughter? True, her daughters were best friends and lived only thirty miles apart, but why wouldn’t Debi’s husband, Howie, call if something were wrong?
“What happened?” Jacque whispered.
“Debi’s been killed.” His voice cracked. “Somebody cut her throat.”
Jacque’s memories of that night are sporadic and incomplete. She remembers being outside, walking aimlessly. She remembers standing outside a neighbor’s door. She must have knocked. The door opened, and the man’s quick smile faltered. “My daughter is dead,” she said, and the sound was like somebody else’s voice from far away. She remembers Dennis’s warm hand gently coming to rest on her shoulders then, his soft voice both apologetic and placating as he turned her from the neighbor’s door and back toward home.
Jacque’s friend and coworker, Cathy Wood, had planned to come by Jacque’s house that night. Born and raised in Ireland, Cathy had made some traditional sweets and promised some to Jacque. She helped her kids with their homework, finished eating dinner with her husband, and then called Jacque. She picked up on the first ring, and Cathy asked if it was a good time to come over.
“Oh!” Jacque seemed a bit surprised. Perhaps she had forgotten.
“Ah,” said Cathy. “Are you going out to eat with Dennis’s mum, then? I can always come over later.”
“No, no. That’s all right. It’s just that I’ve only just now found out that my daughter was murdered.”
The kids were putting dishes in the dishwasher. Surely Cathy misheard through the clatter. “What did you just say?”
“My daughter, Debi. She’s been murdered.”
Cathy thought her friend had to be joking. She didn’t sound upset at all. On the other hand, it wasn’t like Jacque to joke about something so horrible.
“Jacque, are you serious?”
“Yes, Dennis just found out. I just . . . I . . .” Her voice trailed off into helpless silence.
“Oh, Jacque. I’ll be right over.”
Cathy knew both of Jacque’s daughters from her long conversations with Jacque over coffee after work and from the pictures throughout Jacque’s house. She had looked forward to meeting them and their little girls when they came to visit in a few weeks.
Cathy arrived at the house within minutes, her curly hair frizzed with the evening’s humidity. Dennis opened the door and stood aside to let her pass. “Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“Of course.” Cathy gave him a quick hug. “How is she?”
Dennis didn’t answer but nodded in the direction of the living room. Inside Cathy found her friend sitting on the couch, staring at the carpet. Only her hands moved, clasping and unclasping of their own accord.
Jacque turned toward her and smiled faintly. “Oh, Cathy. Hello.” She was clearly in shock.
Cathy rushed toward her friend and hugged her, crying. “I am so sorry. So, so sorry.”
Within minutes, the doorbell rang again. Jacque hardly stirred as the house filled with friends. At some point, Jacque’s minister arrived and tried to counsel her, but his words fell on deaf ears. Finally, he clamped a strong hand on Jacque’s shoulder and announced, “You should rejoice! Your daughter is in heaven now!”
Jacque blinked and looked at this man as if she had never seen him before. For the first time since the phone call, her face registered shock and anger. “My daughter is dead,” she hissed, “and I am not going to be happy about that.” The room fell silent. Jacque’s eyes were bright with rage, and the minister quickly left. Jacque, her armor of shock finally compromised, slipped away from the room of family and friends and the knowledge that they shared.
Jacque remembers none of this. One moment Dennis was leading her away from her startled neighbor’s front door, and the next thing she recalls is her body in motion, rocking. Knees pulled to her chest, she cowered behind her bedside table. Rocking, with no eyes on her, stifled noises tore at her throat.
Later, Dennis came to her. In the eerie silence of the house, he lowered himself beside the nightstand. The house was eerily silent. “Come on, sweetheart. You need to rest.” He gently lifted her onto the bed.
There are no more memories from that night.
Like Jacque, I received the news of my stepmother’s death from a telephone call. I had flown from the San Francisco airport to Savannah, Georgia, the day before, where I planned to spend spring break with my mother and her sisters. We were to celebrate my eighteenth birthday the following day.
I was in my aunts’ guest room, honoring the first morning of vacation by refusing to get out of bed. The room’s dark paneling and thick carpet deadened the noise from the rest of the house, and the heavy drapes fought valiantly against the invading southern sunshine. The digital clock radio showed eleven a.m., but I was still on Pacific time. I stretched luxuriously and rolled over, determined to stay put until my stomach started grumbling.
I became aware of my mom and her sisters, Cyndy and Alecia, whispering in the hallway. They were probably planning some prank. Any minute now they would burst into the room and launch into an impromptu song and dance routine featuring lyrics about my laziness. I come from a goofy family that loves laughter, and it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s late slumber had been sent up in song.
Mom opened the bedroom door and stood uncertainly in the doorway. My expectant grin faded. “Angela, your dad’s on the phone. You better get up and talk to him.” Her voice was shaking slightly, and she had a look in her eyes that I had seen only when I was in danger.
“What’s the matter?” My feet were already on the carpet.
“You better let your dad tell you.” Mom started to say something else, then thought better of it. She settled for “I want you to know that everything is going to be all right.” She was trying to soften a blow, and the knowledge of her intent made my chest seize up so that I could hardly breathe.
I headed into the hall and cut left toward the kitchen. Alecia, a younger version of my mother, stood in the hallway. Her brow was furrowed in concern, and she pointed silently toward the back of the house. I understood. Wheeling around, I walked to the back bedroom, the one Mom was using. I grabbed the phone from the bedside table.
“Dad? Something’s wrong, isn’t it? What happened?”
My dad cleared his throat. “Yes, honey. Something is wrong.” It was the first time he had spoken to me in weeks, and he had even called me honey. This had to be really bad news.
“Is it Jessie?” Her name caught in my throat. I loved my three-year-old sister as if she were my own child, and I didn’t know what I would do if something had happened to her.
“No, Jessie is OK.”
I started crying then. I’m not sure why. I was so relieved. My sister was fine. Whatever else had happened, I could take it. And yet, even as the pressure in my chest started to subside, I felt my mother’s hand rest on my knee and realized she was seated beside me on the bed. My aunt Alecia was in the doorway, looking on with pity and uncertainty.
“Honey, Debi is dead.”
I still see this moment in every detail. And like Jacque, I don’t remember much at all for the next several hours. There are a few moments when I fought my way up for air, but mostly I was caught in the undertow.
I remember thinking that Debi had been killed in a car accident during her long commute to work, and Dad saying, in a kind of hesitant way, that “someone” had killed her.
“You mean someone killed her on purpose?” I asked. Why on earth would anyone want Debi dead?
“It appears so.” He went on to tell me he had found her at home, that someone had killed her in the house when he was out. He also said the investigators would be calling me later that day. “They’re trying to figure out who might want to do this,” he explained, “so just answer them as best you can.”
Suddenly his voice became very edgy. “Do you know if Debi had any enemies? Did she have any . . . I don’t know . . . fights with anyone? Any arguments?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I need you to really think about it, OK?” My father seemed desperate. Then again, wouldn’t any man be desperate to find out who had just murdered his wife?
I didn’t understand the significance of his panic. How could I? There was so much he wasn’t telling me. I didn’t know Debi had been killed two nights ago. I didn’t know where my father was when she was killed. I didn’t know he had spent most of the previous day in police custody. And I didn’t know he was the prime suspect to his wife’s murder.
The Last Night
Jacque MacDonald’s older daughter was built very much like her. At thirty-two, Debi Whitlock was petite with reddish brown hair and bright eyes that always held a hint of her next smile. She met her challengers head-on, but she was so bubbly that her opposition wouldn’t realize for quite a while that they had been soundly beaten. If they caught on at all.
As the investigators pieced together the last day of Debi’s life, the picture it made was fairly nondescript. She had spent a scheduled day off from her relatively new job as assistant manager of the Sears store in the Merced Mall. She dropped her daughter, Jessica, off at day care and spent much of the day cleaning house and running errands. She took movies back to the video store. She returned library books and checked out new ones. She carried clothes to the dry cleaner. Around noon she met her husband for lunch at a nearby restaurant. She picked up her daughter from day care in the late afternoon and apparently headed directly back to her house.
In one of Modesto’s newer middle-class neighborhoods, 1504 Dalton Way was a ranch-style house that sat in the middle of a nicely mown and trimmed lawn, replete with an automatic timer that cut sprinklers on and off during the early morning hours. This was the kind of neighborhood where people were doing well and expected to do even better. The area was sandwiched between cheaply built duplexes and apartments toward town with nicer developments farther north and west.
Debi pulled her Ford Taurus directly into the garage using her electronic remote to open the exterior door. She didn’t bother to close the door again. The Whitlocks habitually left it open during daylight hours whenever anyone was home.
By the time Harold Whitlock arrived home at 5:15 p.m., Debi had already changed into a comfortable, well-worn sweat suit. Debi always dressed nicely during the day, even on her days off, and it was pure joy to come home and get comfortable. She chose turquoise pants and a shirt with alternating stripes of turquoise and white. The coroner would later call them green.
Harold walked from the garage into the house via the door connecting the garage to the kitchen. Inside the door was a message board with thumbtacks on it. Debi’s key ring was already there, decorated with an acrylic butterfly, its body a golden plate engraved with her name. Harold hung his keys next to hers.
“Daddy!” Jessie cried out, running to him.
“Jessie!” he called back, stepping over the scattered remains of his daughter’s forgotten tea party. “Did you have fun at Evelyn’s today?”
“Uh-huh.” Jessie ran back to the living room as quickly as she had come. Her father heard the voice of Snow White coming from the television.
Debi walked into the room carrying a laundry basket piled high with clothes. She propped it on the bar as she eyed the plastic dishes on the kitchen floor. “JJ, you need to come pick up these toys!”
“I busy!” Jessie called back.
“Well,” Debi laughed. “I guess I know where I rank!”
Harold glanced up from the stack of new library books he was perusing. “Maybe if you had an entourage of dwarfs?”
Debi wrinkled her brow. “No, I don’t think it would be worth it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said, his eyes scanning a book jacket. “All that singing.”
Their conversation thus far was civil and child-centered. Maybe that’s as good as it could get right now. Debi wondered how it had reached this point. She and her husband were cordial strangers living in the same house, crowded together with resentments they harbored and words they would never say. Never mind. At least they were working on it now. Lunch had been a step in the right direction, Debi felt certain. How could they make decisions about the future if they couldn’t even have a conversation?
Shaking herself from her thoughts, Debi picked up the laundry basket again and walked into the garage, turning right to load clothes into the washer. When she returned to the kitchen, Harold reminded her about the bachelor party he was hosting. She seemed to believe him. For her part, Debi reminded him that she had to open the Merced store the following morning, which meant she had to leave by 5:30 a.m.
“Oh, I’ll be home before that,” Harold said, his expression souring. “I don’t particularly want to go.”
“You’re in charge,” Debi reminded him. “I think you’d be missed.”