The death of a woman found in a barrel at the bottom of a pond is ruled an accident, but her family believes she was murdered.

Smiling Debbie Wolfe in nurse uniform

Debbie Wolfe

Debbies foot floating in a pond

They searched and found her in the pond

CASE DETAILS

On Wednesday, December 25, 1985, after completing her shift at the hospital, Debbie Wolfe of Fayetteville, North Carolina, left work, presumably heading home. According to Debbie’s mother, Jenny Edwards:

“The next morning, Debbie should have been at work. She had to be at work at eight. Debbie did not go to work. Debbie did not answer her telephone. It wasn’t like Debbie at all. She never missed work.”

Folliage and ripples in a pond

The barrel disappeared

Debbie’s parents and a family friend named Kevin Gorton hurried over to her house, an isolated cabin, four miles outside Fayetteville. Knowing that Debbie took good care of her home and her pets, Debbie’s mother was surprised by what they found:

“We looked around and we saw beer cans laying in the yard. Her dogs had not been fed. There was a uniform laying on the floor, in the kitchen, and other things thrown on the floor, like maybe she took them off.”

Debbie’s purse was not in its usual place. Kevin found it shoved under her bed. There was also an odd message on Debbie’s answering machine recorded earlier that day. A man from the hospital was calling to see how Debbie was doing. He mentioned that she had missed many days of work. This made no sense to Debbie’s mother:

“What concerned me about his message was that he said that she had missed a lot of days at work, and she hadn’t. In fact, she had only missed a few hours at work at the time that he put the message on the answering machine.”

A woman standing over and turning the dial on the machine

Was the man on the machine the killer?

The search continued outside the cabin and around a nearby pond. There were no signs of Debbie. Debbie’s mother called the Sheriff’s office and was told they would investigate only after Debbie had been missing for three days. But five days passed before authorities began a full-scale search:

“They searched the cabin. Later that afternoon they brought the bloodhounds out and they could find nothing at all. They then walked around the edge of the pond. I was there for that.”

Captain Jack Watts of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department:

“I think it was mentioned that they had already looked in the pond…there was no use for us to look in the pond, so I don’t think we did a dive of the pond or a complete search of the pond on that day. No, we did not.”

Jenny Edwards decided to hire her own divers. On January 1, 1986, Kevin Gorton and another friend, Gordon Childress, returned to the pond. Both men were familiar with rescue work. Childress dragged the pond looking for evidence. According to Kevin Gorton:

“He was in the water approximately two minutes when he called out to me and told me that he had found what looked like a set of footprints and a drag mark.”

In fact, according to Gordon Childress, he found two sets of footprints pressed into the thick mud, along with the drag marks. Once he went under the murky water, it wasn’t long before Childress came across a body:

“It was inside of what looked like a burn barrel. That’s a rusty, 55-gallon oil drum type thing with holes in it.”

The police were called to the scene. The dead woman was identified as Debbie Wolfe.
The coroner concluded that she had drowned. An autopsy revealed no trace of drugs, no alcohol in her system, and no signs of foul play. Kevin Gorton does not believe Debbie’s death was as a result of drowning:

“A typical coroner drowning would be eyes open, mouth open, hands and arms in a very clawed state, you know, just a fight for life. Which was quite on the contrary to what Debbie was. The eyes were closed, the mouth was closed, arms were in a relaxed state, just her whole body was relaxed. She looked like she was asleep.”

Capt. Jack Watts proposed a theory:

“Her dogs were running loose when the family members and the Sheriff’s Department first met over there. Possibly, she was playing with the dogs and fell in.”

As the investigation continued, Debbie’s mother said, police began to deny that Debbie’s body had been found inside of a barrel:

“I asked one of our friends who was there, I said, ‘What happened? Do they have the barrel?” And they said, ‘No, they decided to leave it there. They’ll get it in the morning.’ The next day, they went back to get the barrel, and they said that the barrel was gone. All of a sudden it didn’t exist. The same barrel that had been there the night before.”

Capt. Jack Watts denies there ever was a barrel:

“In my opinion, and the opinions of some of the investigators, what appeared to be a barrel to some of the divers could have been Debbie’s jacket which may have ballooned out as she was laying at that angle in the bottom of the pond.”

Gordon Childress is certain of what he saw:

“There was no doubt in my mind, I’m a hundred percent positive that it was an old burn barrel or something of that nature. You know, metal, rusted, 55-gallon type drum, that the body was in.”

Jenny Edwards then recalled a barrel she had seen near Debbie’s cabin:

“I went over to the spot where the barrel was and the barrel was gone. The indentation of the barrel was still there, on the ground, but the barrel was no longer there.”

A few months later, Jenny discovered another inconsistency:

“When I got a chance to examine the clothes that were on Debbie’s body, I looked at them very carefully and realized that those were not Debbie’s clothes. The pants were very, very much too long for Debbie. The bra cup-size was three sizes too large for her and around-size, it would be two sizes too large for her. The shoes, Debbie wore a ladies size seven, and these were a men’s size six, which winds up being about three sizes larger.”

Debbie’s family became convinced that she had been murdered. One of Debbie’s responsibilities at work was coordinating the hospital’s volunteers. According to Jenny Edwards:

“There was a volunteer at the hospital that wanted to become romantically involved with Debbie. Debbie discussed this with everyone, including him, and told him that she would be his friend but nothing else.”

Jenny is convinced that this was the man who called Debbie the day after she disappeared, expressing concern that she’d been missing from work. Capt. Watts says the man was investigated:

“Anyone that the family requested that we talk to or interview, we tried to interview. Of course, through the information we received through these interviews, there was nothing there that we could use in any criminal prosecution, or there was nothing there that would indicate to us that this was a homicide.”

Jenny Edwards said the volunteer had since left the area:

“He was investigated by the Sheriff’s department the night that the body was brought to the surface. However, he provided an alibi and refused to take a polygraph. So he wasn’t questioned any longer. He left several days after that to go out of state.”

What really happened to Debbie Wolfe? Her mother believes she was taken hostage and then murdered. She believes that, later, someone returned to the pond to remove the barrel, so that the death would seem accidental:

“There are people out there who know what happened to Debbie. And I’m hoping that they will come forward and finally say something. She was loved by very, very many people. And I think that she has a right to be put to rest, finally. And I’d like to do that.”


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season three with Robert Stack and in season five with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

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43 Comments

  1. Avatar

    DragonWolfe

    there are several things that stand out to me about this.
    1. the one diver saw 2 sets of footprints in the mud and drag marks which indicates that at least 2 individuals moved that barrel into the pond. The barrel itself when empty would be 60lbs add a 120lb body and you have a barrel weighing aprox 180lbs.
    2. empty beer cans that were never tested for DNA.
    3. her car seat being too far back for her to have driven it last.
    4. the barrel disappearing never to be seen again.
    5. a suspect refusing to take a polygraph and then not being further investigated.
    6. Clothes that were obviously not hers but she was found wearing them.
    7. a man leaves a incorrect message and that was never looked into.
    8. another article i just read stated that a recent look into her autopsy revealed sperm was present in her body. Begs the question was she a rape victim?

    seems that the police were either lazy, inept or covering up a homicide.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Bill Blaski

      Good point. I would love to know who the two men were. The one who left the message, and the one who was pursuing her at work. This should have been solved by now!

      Reply

  2. Avatar

    Jason

    If we had the science then, that we have now, it could’ve been solved pretty quickly. The fact there’s absolutely no update after all these yrs is crazy. The police questioned two suspects and didn’t have the evidence to convict anyone. They couldn’t prove her death was a murder.
    Despite other comments on most UM forums, the police can’t just arrest people they suspect of crimes. They must enough proof in order to detain anyone.

    Reply

  3. Avatar

    Paladin13

    I just saw the story of Debbie on YouTube. The sheriff department and other law enforcement were either lazy and uncaring or knew who did it. She was murdered. The sheriff knows he covered up a murder so when he faces the Judge of all of us, he will have to make an accounting.

    Reply

  4. Avatar

    Emily

    @Melissa, in the second turquoise quotation, it talks about the beer cans and her dogs not being fed. Also, while you’re correct that the detail about her car seat was not in this particular story, it was specifically mentioned in the episode itself. These aren’t exact transcripts of the segments, but paraphrases.

    Reply

  5. Avatar

    Where's the Justice?

    I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that whoever left the message is who killed her. The message was left as an “alibi” saying she missed days of work yet the person leaving the message slipped up and forgot that the message was time recorded, letting everyone know when the message was left, so it shows the message was left after her only missing a couple hours of work yet the person says she hasn’t been there in days. If you want to find the killer, match the voice on the machine to this person who supposedly went out of state right after being questioned. What is alarming to me is the number of police departments that dont seem to give a damn anymore. They want to do as little work as possible so they can just make a ruling and go home. Why get in that line of work if you aren’t going to be sincere about it? People depend on you for their safety and justice yet you treat people like they dont matter.

    Reply

  6. Avatar

    Charles

    This case baffles me. It is apparent that there is more to this than just “accidental drowning”. She had no alcohol or drugs in her system, so how else can they explain how she ended up dead in the middle of a pond? It was the day after Christmas, so I highly doubt she decided to go for a swim. Plus the guy her mother mentioned refused the lie detector and then fled the state. I think this investigation could have been handled better. Foul play was likely involved.

    Reply

  7. Avatar

    N

    All my Prayers gose out too the Family’s around the World who Loved Ones where killed Kidnapped too. It will end very soon.

    Reply

  8. Avatar

    N

    This was a Butaful Young Nurse who cares for Baby’s Young Children & People the Man who killed Her will pay at Armageddon comes . Bad People will shurly die.

    Reply

  9. Avatar

    N

    All these People who kidd apes Baby’s Children & in ascent People will get the death pentry from God himself .

    Reply

  10. Avatar

    Anonymous

    Personally, I would never take a lie detector test. As in individual with a great deal of experience in the field criminal justice, I see it much differently. The test is very subjective-meaning if the person reading the test believes you did it-it becomes extremely likely that you fail. It is extremely inaccurate and that’s why its not allowed in court. The easiest way to explain it, a person reads certain reactions involving pulse, perspiration etc. When a person reads it, they will often see readings that are borderline. If the reader thinks they did it, they can err on the side of deception while if they personally believe the person is honest, they can err on the other side. Police will use a failed test to coerce a confession. I think if someone does not want to take it, its often because they know how inaccurate it can be. The biggest question is what happened during the autopsy? I assume one was done.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Anonymous2

      It is suspicious that the person who denied the lie detector test also left the area after being contacted.

      Reply

    • Avatar

      Laura V

      Absolutely I agree. Lie detector tests record your reaction to lying. If it doesn’t bother you to lie then you can pass one. On the other hand if you are extremely stressed out you may show deception.

      Reply

  11. Avatar

    Anonymous

    Rest in peace Debbie,so sad that the main suspect that worked with Debbie skipped town and the cops never hunted him down to question him more.The police sound like they are covering up.They never saved the empty beer cans guess found at the scene.or took finger prints on the car since the seat was pushed back

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Melissa

      What beer cans? And who said anything about her car? Neither of those items were mentioned in this story.

      Reply

      • Avatar

        DragonWolfe

        her parents found beer cans on the ground and when her car was checked the seat was too far back for her to have been driving it. this article mentioned the beer cans but other articles mention her car.

        Reply

  12. Avatar

    Anonymous

    The police do what they can, but they cannot make anyone take a lie detector test or arrest someone for not taking one. Another problem, if a relative goes to a victims home and touches anything, it makes it nearly impossible to get prints. But most cases are solved by a witness coming forward with information. Hopefully that will still happen.

    Reply

  13. Avatar

    Elizabeth Ellerbe

    If this woman was found at the bottom of a pond inside a barrel and dead, there is no way it was an accident.

    Reply

  14. Avatar

    Johnny

    I would think somebody could solve this case with the DNA capabilities in 2017. Maybe, the perpetrator left prints on the beer cans or on her uniform. Could be something near the pond as well. The isolated cabin became a tomb for Debbie as probably nobody could hear her screams and nobody to help her. If she lived in a city apartment or was attacked in a parking garage, maybe someone could have saved her. I believe the diver Gordon when he stated that the barrel was in the pond. Why would he lie?
    I think a new look at the case would start interviewing the hospital volunteers from 1985-1986. Some probably moved or died but it is a good start. Debbie was young and attractive. There was the one obsessive hospital volunteer. Start with that guy. Move to the hospital staff next.
    The re-dressing of Debbie, the movement of the burn barrel, the purse’s position under the bed, the beer cansetc… This suggests homicide rather than Debbie falling into the pond. Some similarities to the Ethel Kidd case where the killer returned to the scene after the crime. She was posed in a tree from what I remember and Debbie placed in the barrel but the barrel disappeared. That was in VA and Debbie was in NC not far apart. Hope a Cold Case team can solve this one.

    Reply

  15. Avatar

    Mary grice

    My sixteen year old grandson has been wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and is being held without any proof or evidence that he committed this crime in the state of nc.

    Reply

  16. Avatar

    anon

    The nurses uniform found at the home could indicate that debbie was on her way to work when she was abducted/murdered.
    Whoever it was could then have taken her and waited for the right time to take her back.
    Also the drag marks that gordon found also indicate that whoever took her back there literally hours before they arrived.

    Thats just my theory of what has been said.
    I have no doubt in my mind that the guy that refused the polygraph is guilty.
    PD were really crap on this one.

    Reply

  17. Avatar

    Anonymous

    Does anyone know what the autopsy said?

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Kat

      The autopsy results stated an undetermined cause of death. There were abrasions on her fingers that could be signs of defense. There was also about half a teaspoon of water in her upper bronchial area. Her body was also very relaxed, eyes and mouth closed which is usually quite the opposite in cases of drowning. I found this information on Reddit.

      Reply

  18. Avatar

    Dana Loyd

    I was a neighbor and co-work of Debbie’s in Arkansas. Such a sad situation and surely no justice for her murder….. Loved her and her sweet dogs.

    Reply

  19. Avatar

    Anna

    I just watched the UM segment and I have no words for the way the police behaved in this case, the disrespect shown made me so mad. And they´re either the dumbest police squad in the history of the world or they had something to gain themselves by bungling the investigation so terribly. Such a sad case.

    Reply

  20. Avatar

    Adrian

    I visited this location twice recently and immediately noticed how shallow the bank of that pond is. Anyone over the age of five would be hard pressed to drown themselves. It is ludicrous to believe that anyone involved in this case ever sold and bought that theory. I must say though, it’s a really sad place overall, and I wish this case could be solved.

    Reply

  21. Avatar

    Eric W Bohannon

    The death of a woman found in a barrel at the bottom of a pond is ruled an accident. because it is ruled a accident it is a cover up.

    Reply

  22. Avatar

    Owen Gerard O'Kane

    During the screening of program about Debbie wolf I had a vision of a man in
    Law enforcement uniform(American police) pulling a 45 gallon drum into a body of water then carrying a body into the water

    This is a true statement

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Owen Gerard O'Kane Jr

      Oh thank God that was a true statement Owen, I was oh so worried that you were just making up some ridiculous story about having a vision. Somebody get this guy a police uniform, he’s the modern day Sherlock Holmes!

      Reply

  23. Avatar

    Randy Bailey

    seems like the police will do anything to make them look good.They will pend a murder on anyone to make them look good or they will say a murder was a accident.But even if they would have arrested the guy at the hospital he would have went to a clean hospital still no justice for Debbie r.i.p angel!

    Reply

  24. Avatar

    texasrain

    I’m so sorry for the family’s loss. I went to school with a girl named Debbie Wolfe in the early 80’s. I pray this isn’t my friend. We lost touch after I moved to Texas. God bless her and her family.

    Reply

  25. Avatar

    Jen

    My deepest condolences for your family, Bonnie. How awful that Jenny died with no justice for her child.

    Reply

  26. Avatar

    Bonnie K. Davis-Robertson

    The lady murdered was my cousin. It’s hard to imagine someone refusing a lie-detector test and the police not taking action. I never knew my cousin Debbie, and Her Mother Jenny mentioned in this article has since passed away. She remained convinced it was the hospital volunteer that murdered her daughter Debbie. I thought this case was settled, but after reading about it on this site, it sounds as though Debbie’s killer was never brought to justice. The police department in her town sure let her down. Rest In Peace Debbie with your Mother Jenny now.

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Chris Booth

      I was shocked to find out about this sad occurrence, I am the same age as Debbie and lived next door to her family when their father was based in England (High Wycombe) up to 1966 when they relocated back to the States. My sister and I used to play with Jerry Jnr, John, Debbie and Joe. I believe Joe, Debbie’s youngest brother is the only surviving family member and I would love to hear from him. I have some old pictures from those happy days.

      Reply

    • Avatar

      Nick

      I would refuse a polygraph even though I’m innocent. They are junk science.

      Reply

  27. Avatar

    Dodie Rippentrop

    How could they just let him leave and not keep track of him?? He refused a polygraph. Most innocent people JUMP at the chance to clear themselves. Then he left the state? Wow. Way to drop the ball on that, PD.

    Reply

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