LIVE OAK, FL - All he had was a name and a possible year a young woman from Live Oak went missing. But that didn't stop Investigator Jake Brooks from the Suwannee County Sheriff's Office from looking into the 42-year-old disappearance.
"Look she didn't just vanish, something happened to her," tells Investigator Brooks.
The woman was Debra Howard, called Debbie by her family. It was Debbie's niece, Samantha Chapman, that took an interest in finding out what happened to the aunt she had heard about, but never met. Samantha joined Facebook cold case groups and spoke with a retired Polk County cold case detective who helped her get into contact with Investigator Brooks.
Let's start from the beginning. It was September of 1976, Debbie was living with her boyfriend in Live Oak when they left one night with two friends to go to Lake City. They were headed to The Rock Lounge, which is now a vacant lot. The next morning…Debbie was gone.
"The morning that she was gone, the boyfriend went up to the mother's workplace and advised her that Debbie packed all her stuff up in the middle of the night and left and he didn't know where," tells Investigator Brooks.
Debbie's sisters, Darlene and Marie, say the relationship was abusive and Debbie had left before, but returned. They were suspicious of the story - Debbie didn't have a car, so where would she have walked and how would she have taken her things with her?
Then she didn't show up for work at the local attorney's office.
"The attorney called us and wanted to know where she was at and we said "she's not there?" and he said "no, she hasn't been here for 2 days"," tells Marie Clifton.
Their suspicions grew. But because Debbie was 20-years-old at the time, legally an adult and the last information given was that she walked away… there wasn't an investigation. Not even a missing person's report.
The first record Investigator Brooks could even find about Debbie Howard was a letter from the sheriff in 1983 declaring Debbie legally dead. But he wanted to give Debbie's sisters some answers and the more he investigated the more he found red flags. Many surrounding Debbie's boyfriend at the time.
"He packed up with his nephew and left the state and moved out state and there was never an investigation so they were really never tracked down," tells Investigator Brooks.
He says her boyfriend was George Alan McCraney, a man currently serving two life sentences for robbery with a deadly weapon. That is just one of several crimes he's been incarcerated for, including just five years after Debbie disappeared, he was arrested on a 2nd degree attempted murder charge. But Investigator Brooks says the most telling moment came when he went to see McCraney in prison.
"After 40 years, all I did was introduce myself and I told him I was looking into an old case. The next words out of his mouth were 'I don't know where she's at'. That kind of struck me because we didn't tell him what we were looking into. I said 'who are you talking about' and he said 'who are you talking about' and I said 'Debbie Howard' and he said 'well we are on the same page then'. Then, of course, he wanted to speak with his attorney and didn't want to comment," says Investigator Brooks.
Brooks says sadly, all signs point to Debbie meeting a tragic end.
"Her mom and dad went to their graves not knowing where she was at or what happened to her. I think that would give the family a lot of healing and closure if we did do that," he says.
Her sisters and niece say at this point, that is all they want. They don't want criminal charges or a trial, they just want to know where their sister's remains are so she can be buried next to her mother and father.
"I just wish he would search his heart and search his mind and let us know what happened to her so we can put her at peace," tells Debbie's sister, Darlene Washburn.
Investigator Brooks agrees, after 42 years he just wants to be able to bring Debbie back to her family.
"The ultimate goal of this case is finding Debbie. If I could find out where she is and return her to her family, I think that would be a win-win for everybody," says Investigator Brooks.
If you know anything about the disappearance of Debbie Howard please contact the Suwannee County Sheriff's Office at 386-362-2222.
It is important to note that though he is considered a suspect, George Alan McCraney has not been charged with a crime in relation to Debbie's disappearance. We did reach out to him to see if he would be willing to give an interview about his relationship with Debbie and her disappearance, we are awaiting his response.