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Unsolved murder of Auburn girl haunts family over 30 years later: ‘I wish I did more’

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AUBURN, Wash. -- It should have been such an insignificant moment.

“Her and I got into an argument because she wanted to go out and party and I didn’t want her to,” said Dorena Gonzales, Debbie’s mother.

It was a little disagreement between mother and daughter, a typical teenage moment most would forget or laugh about as adults. But Debbie Gonzales never got that chance. Debbie is frozen in time as a 13-year-old girl who wanted to celebrate her 14th birthday with friends, and wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I wish I would’ve stopped her. I wish I did more. I always think that.”

Joe Gonzales, Debbie’s older brother, is speaking out for the first time. Joe is haunted by the last time he saw Debbie walk out their front door in August 1987.

“Teenagers back then, we were different than teenagers now. A lot of us, we were rebellious and wanted to do what we wanted to do, but we got to go home and grow up and live a life. She didn’t," he said.

Debbie’s family knew deep down something awful had happened soon after she didn’t come home, but that glimmer of hope stuck with them, until detectives came to their door with a question.

“They asked specifically if she was wearing an ankle bracelet with a little charm on it, and she was. I remember her wearing that. We broke down instantly,” said Joe.

“My heart fell to the floor. Your child’s not supposed to go before you,” said Dorena Gonzales.

Processing they’d never see Debbie again was one thing. Trying to comprehend the way she was killed was another thing entirely.

“It was a month-and-a-half that she was out in those woods. When they found her, she was only wearing one pink sock and that ankle bracelet.”

Joe Gonzales wishes he could get the details of his sister's murder out of his head.

“It was very gruesome. There was no open casket. We couldn’t see her when we buried her," he said.

Debbie’s body was found off the long and windy Black Diamond-Auburn Road.

“It was a wooded area. It hasn’t really changed much since this time. It was a known party location for local teenagers and people who lived in the area. Debbie herself was known to frequent that area with groups of people,” said Detective John Free.

Detective Free is particularly passionate about cold cases. He has Debbie’s case file now - a file that’s painful to read even for a seasoned investigator.

“Her life hadn’t even begun yet, and she was murdered. Her final moments...I think of the terror she maybe felt, and it’s emotional,” said Free.

It's an emotional case Detective Free knows is solvable.

“It’s a whodunit to us in law enforcement but it’s not necessarily a whodunit to the people who associated with her or the suspect in this case.”

Detective Free needs witnesses to come forward, and he hopes a certain piece of evidence may jog someone’s memory: a machete found in the area of the crime scene. The machete is not necessarily the murder weapon, but still of interest.

Detective Free is specifically looking for someone who hung out in the area at the time and may have seen someone with the machete, possibly using it to chop wood for a bonfire.

Detective Free believes Debbie’s killer was familiar with the patch of woods that was so popular with Auburn teens at the time. He thinks he likely blended in.

“Science can only take it so far. Sometimes we need that one person that remembers something that can really break the case wide open,” said Free.

Debbie’s murder changed her entire family forever. Debbie’s mother struggled to trust people, she struggled to open up around strangers, especially men, she says. Life was never the same.

“I never got to see her get married, have kids, she missed all of that. She didn’t even get to go to prom,” said Dorena.

The dreams her family has of Debbie - some nightmares, some not - will likely never go away.

“Some dreams are her being here and losing her over and over again. And then there’s some dreams where she just shows up, out of the blue, like she’d gone on a vacation for 20-30 years, and she’s back,” said Joe.

But without answers, there is no chance at healing.

“If this person is found that part of the story will be done. We can grieve in a different way at that point. We’d be able to move forward with just the loss of her.”

If you have any information on Debbie’s murder, please do the right thing. You can submit your tip anonymously through Crime Stoppers using the P3 Tips app or by calling 1-800-222-TIPS. You will be anonymous and could be eligible for a $1,000 reward.

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