ON THE DAY THAT JACQUE MACDonald buried her daughter, the bereaved mother peered at the sky over Evergreen Memorial Park in Merced, Calif., 140 miles southeast of San Francisco, with one bitter question pounding in her head: What would she do with the rest of her life? Five days earlier, on March 25, 1988, her 32-year-old daughter, Deborah Whitlock, an assistant manager at Sears, had been savagely stabbed to death in nearby Modesto. Jacque felt her life was over.
After such a tragedy most grieving parents eventually find some measure of closure. Not Jacque (pronounced Jackie) MacDonald. With passionate resolve, patience and the canniness of a salesperson, she labored for nine years to keep Debi Whitlock’s murder on the authorities’—and the public’s—agenda. “She dropped everything in her life and dedicated herself to helping the police,” says Modesto Bee crime reporter Daryl Farnsworth. “She did what everyone wants to do—fight back.”
British-born MacDonald was at her home in Burnsville, Minn., when she got the news of Whitlock’s death. Her husband of 16 years, Dennis MacDonald, 44, a Northwest Airlines pilot and stepfather to Debi and her younger sister, Karen, answered the phone. Whitlock, he was told, had been murdered in her home in the early hours of the morning, her throat viciously slashed, while her daughter C.J., then 3, slept nearby. Whitlock’s husband of five years, Harold, 48, found her body after returning from a bachelor party. “When Debi died,” says Jacque Mac-Donald, “the life went out of me.” Recalls Dennis: “She was in total shock for the first year.”
But the petite, 50ish MacDonald (she won’t reveal her exact age) found a focus for her grief. She and Harold relocated to Merced to be near the investigation, and there MacDonald began her own relentless crusade to find the killer. “It was love that drove me,” she says. “I had to do it for Debi. She didn’t deserve this.” Police spent thousands of hours chasing down leads, to no avail. “It was very frustrating,” says Modesto policeman Sgt. Mike Harden. “Jacque called us about twice a month, and we couldn’t tell her anything.” The only suspect was Whitlock, also a Sears manager, though MacDonald never doubted his innocence. (He was eventually cleared, and now lives in Oregon with C.J., remaining in close touch with his in-laws.)
That was only the beginning. MacDonald next founded a support group for relatives of murder victims. In partnership with Citizens Against Homicide, a local organization, she rented billboards featuring her daughter’s picture and offering a $10,000 reward for information. MacDonald convinced local pizza shops to distribute flyers on her daughter’s case, and even got space on grocery carts. “It was easy because it was local,” she says. “Not like calling a national TV show.’ ”
She would know. It took four years of phoning, but she convinced TV’s. America’s Most Wanted to do a segment in 1992 and two years later hooked Unsolved Mysteries. “I called the researcher so many times, I felt like we were going steady,” says MacDonald. Unsolved Mysteries field producer Michael Palazzolo says of the persistent mom, “She really stood out in a positive way.” MacDonald also launched a twice-monthly, 30-minute local TV show on KBSV, Victim’s Voice, which airs the griefs and concerns of crime victims and their families. She ends each Sunday evening program by saying, “May you never walk in our footsteps.”
Despite her efforts, progress on her daughter’s case seemed stalled until last winter, when a former drug dealer told police that he knew who had killed Whitlock. He had seen MacDonald’s billboards, he said, and wanted to do the right thing. He even declined the reward. His information sent police on a monthlong search for Scott Avery Fizzell, 27, a drifting day laborer who had lived in Modesto at the time of the killing.
On January 21, they tracked him down in tiny Flippin, Ark., where he worked in a boat factory. After questioning him, Harden believed that “this was the guy.” Fizzell, who maintains his innocence, is now being held without bail in the Modesto County Jail, and a pretrial hearing is set for August 15. MacDonald says she plans to attend every day of Fizzell’s trial.
Five days after hearing the news of his arrest, MacDonald went to Debi’s grave at Evergreen Memorial Park. “We did it, kid,” she whispered, touching the headstone. “You can rest in peace.”
ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in Merced