On a January afternoon in 1972, a 9-year-old girl was sent across the street to a laundromat to wash clothes. She never made it back home.
Freckle-faced Debbie Lynn Randall was abducted, raped and killed before being left in the woods not far from her Marietta home. Her body was found 16 days later during a massive search, and the search for her killer continued for more than 50 years.
On Monday, the Cobb County District Attorney announced that the case was solved, though her killer can’t be held accountable. Evidence from 1972, combined with DNA technology, identified William B. Rose of Mableton as Debbie’s killer. Rose committed suicide in 1974, investigators said. He had never been on investigators’ radar.
For Melvin Randall, finding his little sister’s killer is the news his family has awaited for years. Both of Debbie’s parents died not knowing who was responsible for her death.
“It’s a relief to my family that it was no one that we knew and it’s just great that it’s over,” he said. “Maybe we can rest about it and not worry about it. We’ve always been worried about it, wondering who it was. It’s weighed heavy on us for a long time, so to find out this and know that it’s over is a great relief.”
Rose had relatives who lived in the same apartment complex as Debbie’s family. Investigators don’t believe he knew Debbie, who was a third-grader at Pine Forest Elementary School.
Melvin Randall, just a year older than Debbie, had been sick the day she disappeared and carried the guilt for years of not being able to protect her, he said Monday. When Debbie disappeared, he joined his family in knocking on doors and hanging up flyers, anything to help find the sister who loved to play baseball with him.
The little girl’s disappearance rocked the community and as many as 4,000 people joined in a search for Debbie. It was a Southern Tech college student who first noticed drag marks, then the body about 1,000 feet south of Windy Hill and Powers Ferry roads.
The Marietta Police Department worked relentlessly, following up on hundreds of tips, to find the person responsible. Work by the four original detectives on the case — Lt. Bill Hutson, Major Tim Buckley, Capt. Bill Elliott and Lt. Ray Owens — to gather and preserve evidence was key to solving the case, DA Flynn Broady said.
“We could not have closed this case without them,” Broady said.
A round piece of flowery cloth, found with Debbie’s body, contained enough DNA to link Rose to the crime. However, the technology did not exist until recent years.
Rose’s family cooperated with the investigation and with the help of Florida-based DNA Labs International, Debbie’s killer was identified. Rose’s body was also exhumed for further confirmation.
Melvin Randall, now a grandfather of two, said he isn’t mad at Rose or his survivors.
“I know they’re struggling, going through this, too. It’s got to be tough for them,” Randall said Monday. “It was tough for us and I’m sure it’s just as tough for them. I wish all of them well and God bless them and I don’t have any animosity toward them.”
Morris Nix, who retired after 28 years with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and then worked for the Kennesaw Police Department, later returned to the cold case unit for the DA’s office. Nix had a personal interest in the case: A lifelong Marietta resident, he remembers the day Debbie went missing.
He was emotional while discussing the case but said he always felt like the case could be solved. Through good police work and DNA testing advances, it was.
“If you made a mistake, if you left something behind, technology is going to find you,” Nix said. “Technology was seeking out William Rose and was looking for William Rose. Technology does not get old, it doesn’t retire, it doesn’t get sick and it doesn’t quit. Technology was seeking William Rose and it found him in the grave.”