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Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
Couple finds a 'black hole' in search for missing daughter

By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
Seattle Times staff reporters

In April 1984, Tom and Carol Estes made a vow. They would do what police apparently were not doing: try to find their daughter, Debra Lorraine Estes, a teen-ager trapped in a life of drugs, crime and sex for pay.

But Debra Estes, who disappeared in 1982 at age 15, has not been found. She is one of nine missing women thought to be victims of the Green River killer.

What the couple did find, however, was a black hole in the workings of King County Police in the early 1980s. The department had no unit to handle the many missing-persons or juvenile-runaway cases that came to their attention each week.


Sept. 13 - 18, 1987This is a six-part examination of how police and other institutions dealt with the worst known serial-murder case in the nation. The series is based on a year of work by two reporters with long experience covering the case.

Part 1: What went wrong?
Part 2: A setting made for murderer
Part 3: Case kept eluding police
            · Couple finds 'black hole'

Part 4: Police net catches wrong man
Part 5: A task force is born
Part 6: Could killer strike again?
            · What kind of man is this?

Yet in tracking these very cases, police later would discover keys to understanding how prolific a murderer the Green River killer had been.

"Police really don't care," Carol Estes says of efforts to find her daughter. "They feel the kids are out there because their family doesn't care. . . . They are not doing their job."

At the time Debra Estes disappeared, county police were getting an average of four missing-persons and about 100 juvenile-runaway reports a week. Runaways came and went with such regularity that it was pointless to try to keep track of them, police said at the time. Besides, in 1977 the state Legislature had decriminalized the act of running away.

During the years the Green River killer was most active, police routed most missing-persons reports to the homicide unit. Runaway reports were filed, but no work was done on them.

Police now acknowledge that had they paid attention to reports on runaways and missing persons at the time, the findings would have prompted them to increase manpower in the serial murder investigation sooner.

Not having a unit to deal with such things was one of the major problems Sheriff Vern Thomas encountered when he reviewed the Green River case shortly after taking office in April 1983.

So the task force began tracking missing persons and runaways, Thomas says, because he was concerned that he "might have some additional people who could be dead and I wouldn't know it, simply because we didn't keep track of the missing."

In fact, it was the Esteses' efforts to find their missing daughter that led to the discovery that Debra Estes, under an alias, already was a possible victim of the killer.

The Esteses, who live in Auburn, describe their daughter as an independent individual, older than her apparent years.

"When Debbie was 10 she was getting (birth-control) pills from a planned-parenthood office," her mother recalls. "Debbie was a 12-year-old girl who was in a 20-year-old body. Boys like that. At 12, Debbie would take off for a few days when we wouldn't let her do something."

If the girl failed to return home after a few days, the couple would file a juvenile-runaway report with county police.

On July 3, 1982, Debra took about $250 from her mother's purse, then slipped away from home. The couple never saw their headstrong daughter again.

Carol Estes told police Debra had stolen some money. "I knew they wouldn't pick her up as a runaway," says the mother. "They could care less about runaways."

But police failed to pick up Debra even for the theft, so the Estes filed still more runaway reports. Nothing happened.

Two years later their son, Luther, died in an accident in Montana, leaving them with only one child at home and no knowledge of Debra's whereabouts. Luther's death prompted the couple to renew efforts to find their daughter.

Their first call was to the Green River Task Force.

A detective told the parents they could not connect their daughter with prostitution and, until they could, "the task force wasn't in the business of looking for runaways," Carol Estes recalls.

"So we decided we would go out and look for ourselves," adds her husband.

Although police had no record of a Debra Estes and prostitution, the parents had heard she had been seen working Seattle's First Avenue. They went to the city police vice unit, where they saw a photograph of their blond daughter pinned to a wall. It was a photo the family had given to both county and Seattle police once when Debra had run away.

"They (Seattle vice officers) said that as far as they knew Deb hadn't been picked up for prostitution," says Carol Estes. "But the officers let us go through some of their files anyway."

They were in for a surprise. The couple found photographs of their daughter — with her hair dyed black — and an arrest record under the alias Betty Lorraine Jones. The file indicated Debra was 19 and had been arrested May 7, 1982; June 8, 1982, and again Aug. 15, 1982.

Carol Estes called the Green River Task Force to tell them Debra had worked as a prostitute under the newly discovered alias.

"Oh," Carol Estes recalls a task-force detective telling her. "We've been looking for her (Jones) for two years, because she hasn't been seen."

County files further showed that Debra — who also used the aliases Vicky Johnson, Cindy Eaton and "Star" — had been arrested for prostitution on Sept. 7, 1982, and again Sept. 13. County police also had a record from September 1982 showing that Debra and several other women had been assaulted in separate incidents by a serial rapist.

Debra, known to officers as Betty L. Jones, had agreed to testify against the rapist.

On Sept. 20, 1982, county Police Detective Spencer Nelson, then working on the sex-crimes detail, picked up "Betty L. Jones" at the Stevenson Motel in Federal Way so she could review a line-up for the rape case. Nelson also had Estes ones show him the crime scene before he brought her back to the motel on Pacific Highway South.

Police now believe that was the last time Debra was seen alive.

Nelson didn't know at the time that "Jones" was really Estes.

"I suspected her name was not Betty Jones," said Nelson in a recent interview. "But what can you do?"

Nelson later went to the motel to check on his witness, but "Jones" was gone.

Estes disappeared in September 1982, a month after the first three Green River victims' bodies were found. Nelson told detectives investigating the case that a prostitute named Jones had disappeared. Yet in late September, when investigators released missing-persons fliers on two possible Green River victims, Jones was not included.

It would be two years before Nelson would learn his potential witness actually was Debra Estes, whose remains still have not been found.

Sheriff Thomas discovered the gap in the missing-person efforts in the summer of 1983. But it wasn't until the next summer that the department assigned Sgt. Keith May to do something about it.

May acknowledged that police response to the issue had been "less than adequate."

The group now handling missing persons is called the Adult Special Assault Unit, and it still doesn't work on runaway reports. For the past two years, however, the unit has forwarded all reports on female runaways between the ages of 12 and 35 to the Green River Task Force.

"I would have to say the task force now is trying to find the girls," says Carol Estes. "But it's too late. The first task force had an I-don't-care attitude. The one now cares, but it's too late."

She and her husband drove up and down the Sea-Tac Airport strip earlier this month in hopes of seeing their daughter.

"Personally," Carol Estes says, "I don't think they'll ever find the guy or Debbie. For the rest of our life we'll be wondering where she is. It's a living hell."

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