Updated 02/07/2010 01:27 PM
Friends hope new information will lead to justice
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Debbie Key disappeared from a Carrboro bar in 1997.
Authorities believe she was murdered, but her body was never found. A man even confessed to killing her, but that admission was thrown out, leaving friends and family wondering if justice will ever be served.
“She's always going to be our friend, always going to be in our heart, definitely on our minds,” friend Joyce Preslar said. “She's just not here."
Friends say Key had a zest for life. She worked as a teacher, helping disabled children and won the fight against a disease that once confined her to a wheelchair.
She also loved music. It was that love that sent her to Sticks and Stones, a bar she frequented, the night she disappeared.
But it’s unclear what happened to her that Thanksgiving weekend of 1997. Days later, friends found her car in a nearby parking lot, unlocked, with her purse sitting on the front seat.
"We knew immediately that was so out of character of her,” friend Chris Hurlbert said. “Leaving her car unlocked – it just sent all kinds of red lights."
Authorities believe Andrew Dalzell was the last person to see Key that night. He was arrested seven years after Key disappeared and charged with second-degree murder. Police say Dalzell confessed, saying he put her body in a Dumpster in Wilmington.
However, an Orange County judge threw out the confession, saying Carrboro police coerced the Gaston County native into it. Without the confession, the state did not have a case.
"It's clear, and everyone who was involved in the case understands, that as the case stands the state cannot go forward," Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said.
Woodall said there’s still an aggressive effort to solve the case.
"A body being found would certainly be a step forward,” Woodall said. “However, just the fact that a body or remains were found wouldn't necessarily mean that charges were brought."
Dalzell is now in jail in Asheville on unrelated charges.
"We would hope that some people come forward, that there are people close to him, friends, family members that know the truth," Woodall said.
Even with Dalzell sitting in jail, it’s little comfort for those close to the case – especially because Key remains missing.