Debi Whitlock was murdered in her home and her body was defiled by her killer. Who would want to kill this innocent woman? Her mother fought for nine long years to find out.
The crime scene was as baffling as it was brutal.
In March 1988, mum-of-one Debi Whitlock, 32, was found dead in the hallway of her home in Modesto, California.
Her husband Harold had returned from a stag do in the early hours to find his wife had been repeatedly stabbed, her throat slashed.
Later, investigators would discover she’d also been raped – after she’d died.
A blood-covered knife, taken from Debi’s kitchen, was found near her body. Yet there was no sign of a break-in.
The only thing missing was Debi’s purse and keys, found discarded nearby.
Neighbours didn’t report hearing any disturbance, either.
In fact, the couple’s 3-year-old daughter was still tucked up in bed, having slept through her mother’s terrible murder.
Who would want to kill Debi?
Harold was cleared by police early on. He had an airtight alibi.
Yet weeks turned to months… Soon a year had passed with no arrests, no leads.
Police couldn’t even establish a motive for the killing.
In the town of Modesto, rumours circulated.
Had Harold Whitlock got away with murdering his wife?
At least one person believed he was innocent.
Debi’s mother, Jacque MacDonald.
Certain that her daughter’s killer was out there somewhere, she made a tearful vow at Debi’s graveside.
She’d bring the murderer to justice.
Jacque upended her life, moving 1,500 miles from her home in Minnesota to Modesto.
There she advertised on billboards, reminding the public of the $6,000 reward (around £4,500) for information leading to Debi’s killer being captured.
She handed out leaflets on buses and in supermarkets, arranged for them to be included in takeaway pizza boxes.
In 1990, Jacque penned a powerful open letter to Debi’s killer, which was published in the local paper:
You. Her killer… Wherever you are, you’ll never know any peace until you turn yourself in…
Jacque made a nuisance of herself, calling local news producers, asking to appear on their shows to keep the case alive.
She sent them gifts to get their attention.
It worked. And soon national talk shows and magazines picked up the story.
At Jacque’s urging, in 1992, America’s Most Wanted featured a segment on Debi’s murder.
She even contacted a psychic, giving her Debi’s wedding ring in the hope the woman would be able to sense something that provided information on the killer.
Yet nine years passed and the murder was no closer to being solved.
Harold moved to Oregon with his daughter and remarried, ready to start a new life away from the accusing glances.
Still Jacque never wavered in her determination to get justice for Debi.
She believed someone out there knew something.
‘Every time we got publicity, it gave me hope,’ she said. ‘I thought, Maybe this is the one time somebody will actually come forward.’
And eventually, they did.
In January 1997, an anonymous informant gave Modesto police information that turned out to be the big break in the case.
Police said ‘a man with a troubled conscience’ came forward saying that a former acquaintance, Scott Avery Fizzell, had confessed to him about the murder.
The man had seen Jacque’s efforts and wanted to do the right thing, even turning down the reward.
Police swooped, arresting Fizzell at his Arkansas home.
At the time of Debi’s murder, he’d been 18 and living with his family in Modesto.
In May 1999, the man police – and Jacque – had been searching for since way back in 1988 appeared in court.
Fizzell, 28, accepted a deal where he admitted first-degree murder and burglary, but the rape charge lay on file.
He was sentenced to 31 years in jail, and Jacque was given the chance to confront the man she’d hunted for the best part of a decade.
‘For the rest of your life, you will be branded not only a snivelling little coward and murderer, but also a necrophiliac or one who defiles the dead,’ she told him.
Modesto police credited Jacque with helping to solve the near-impossible case, with one officer calling her ‘truly one in a million’.
But the most important thing for the grieving mother was being able to return to her daughter’s grave and tell her that she’d kept the promise she’d made all those years ago.
‘We did it, kid,’ she said. ‘You can rest in peace.’
And Jacque’s tireless campaigning didn’t end with Fizzell’s conviction.
She has worked with victim advocacy groups and has presented a TV and radio show called The Victim’s Voice, which works to get leads on unsolved cases.
Jacque’s also fought for tougher necrophilia laws, as Fizzell wasn’t punished for the rape he committed on Debi after he’d killed her.
She went beyond the call of duty to jail her daughter’s killer. But, in an interview in 2008, Jacque summed up how she felt about her superhuman efforts.
‘People thought I was a nut,’ she said. ‘I thought of myself as a dedicated mother.’