Juanita Dalzell’s defence of her son in yesterday’s N&O is self-deluding fiction

Mother defends murder suspect

Mullen describes son’s troubled past

Deborah Leigh Key vanished and is presumed dead.

By KAYCE T. ATAIYERO, Staff Writer

Like a dutiful son, Andrew Douglas Dalzell would call his mom a couple of times a week to catch up on life. They would chat about his family, his girlfriend, his plans for the future.

But lately those calls have been coming daily — collect from the Orange County jail — to Juanita Dalzell Mullen’s Pittsboro home. Her 28-year-old son has been sitting in a cell since September, charged in the killing of a missing Carrboro woman.

On Monday, a judge could decide at a pretrial hearing whether to throw out his confession in the death of Deborah Leigh Key.

“This whole thing is making him kind of nervous,” Mullen said. “He doesn’t have anything else to think about.”

Neither does she.

Since Key’s 1997 disappearance, Mullen said both she and her son have been convicted in the court of public opinion.

The verdict: He is a monster, and she created him.

Mullen said she has spent the past seven years weathering criticism that has been blistering at times.

“It’s very upsetting. These people are assuming something they don’t know about someone they know nothing about,” she said.

After two miscarriages, one stillbirth and seeing one child die at 2 1/2, Mullen adopted Dalzell when he was 7 weeks old on the Eve of Epiphany, Jan. 5, 1977.

She and her husband at the time, Michael, thought Dalzell was a prayer answered. The couple, who then lived in Durham, brought their new baby son, with his sandy brown hair and sea-blue eyes, to live in Chapel Hill when he was 10 months old.

Soon, their little bundle became a handful. As a child, Dalzell was someone his mother didn’t understand and couldn’t control despite her reading every book on child-rearing she could find.

Mullen recalls trying to wean her toddler off his bottle and his incessant crying for two weeks until she gave it back. Soon afterward, he gave up the bottle on his own.

“I can remember going and locking myself in the bathroom until I calmed down,” she said. “I would try to put demands on him, but I felt like he was always doing things in his own time.”

A difficult childhood

By Mullen’s own account, her son grew up to be a troubled young man. A bright, former special-education student with attention-deficit disorder, Dalzell bounced from school to school and class to class trying to find his niche.

Early in his childhood, she said, he suffered from depression. Numerous visits to psychologists and various medications failed to lift his mood.

Dalzell switched hobbies like socks, from choir to Rainbow Soccer to arts courses to drums. At 18, he lost his adoptive father and his faith. His dad, Michael, died in 1995 of pancreatic cancer, and Dalzell, who was active in The Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, gave up on a God that he felt gave up on him. He dropped out of Northwood High School in Chatham County and later got his GED.

Dalzell had few social skills, few friends and didn’t get along with his mom. He spent much of the following decade in his mother’s house visiting chatrooms on the Internet, with brief interruptions by short-lived attempts at finding work. He lived on his own for only five months, in an apartment where his mother footed the bill.

His family acknowledges that Dalzell has “flopped around” much of his life. But for them, it’s a pretty big leap to think that their son went from misfit to murderer.

“A person who can’t keep a room any cleaner than he does can’t hide a body, I don’t care what anybody tells you,” said George Mullen, Dalzell’s stepfather of two years.

Tricked into confessing

According to police, Dalzell confessed to killing Key after investigators used a fake murder warrant and a death-penalty warning on district attorney stationery to dupe him into thinking he was being arrested in her death. Key’s body has not been found.

Dalzell actually was being arrested for obtaining property by false pretense, financial identity fraud and possession of stolen property.

On Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Wade Barber could rule on public defender James Williams’ motion to suppress Dalzell’s statements. Williams argues that officers interrogated Dalzell before advising him of his rights and that the statements were obtained in violation of those rights. Dalzell declined to comment on his case at the advice of his attorney.

Juanita Mullen said officers had been out to get her son for years and forced him to make his confession.

“They told him if he can’t produce a body, he was going to die,” she said. “To Andrew, it was the equivalent of having a gun to his head.”

Carrboro Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison said the police didn’t have a vendetta against Dalzell. She said the procedures and techniques used to get his confession were proper and lawful.

An innocent person would not have confessed in a similar situation, she said. “I do not believe that the confession was coerced. I believe he was properly [read his rights] and chose to confess the crime,” she said.

The real victim

Susan Key Gagnon, Deborah Key’s sister, said her family thinks that police have accused the right man in her sister’s death. She said she is concerned that the controversy surrounding the confession has turned Dalzell into a sympathetic character.

Gagnon said even if Dalzell was deceived, it does not mean he did not commit murder.

“He has been portrayed as ‘Oh, poor Andrew, he has been misled,’ ” she said. “The victim here is my sister. I am hopeful that a confessed murderer will not be given the opportunity to murder again. What will we say to the next victim’s family? ‘Oops, we messed up?’ ”

Friends and family of both Key and Dalzell have been trying to make sense of what happened in the early morning hours of Dec. 1, 1997, when they allegedly met outside of a Carrboro bar. According to police, Dalzell was the last person to be seen with Key. Police have said Dalzell confessed to killing Key and dumping her body in Wilmington.

Joy Preslar, a friend of Key’s who knew of Dalzell, said it has taken a lot of “psychic and emotional energy” for her to understand why her friend was killed.

“It puts me in a difficult place because I want to be angry with him. But I feel sad for him. He is not a nameless, faceless fiend. He was a troubled child,” she said. “Part of me wants to just throttle him. But part of me wants to understand. I have to understand why he did this.”

Juanita Mullen wants to understand, too. She said she wants to understand how people could think her son is a murderer. When Dalzell came home in a panic saying that the police suspected him of murder, Mullen said she asked her son whether he killed Key. He said he didn’t. That was all the explanation she needed.

If she had an indication that Dalzell killed Key, Mullen said, she would demand that he tell the truth and pay the price.

Mullen said Dalzell’s most recent ordeal has tested her love for her son like never before. She said she still considers her son an answer to her prayers, though it is a blessing “I don’t understand everything about.”

Some family friends have stood by them throughout the case. Others questioned whether she did all she could to help her son.

“I could have thrown him out. The assumption is that he was going to straighten up and fly right. But he had no skills. What was I going to do,” she said. “Go let him live out on Franklin Street?”

Mullen has not given up hope that her son will find his way. She said landing in prison was a wake-up call for him. She said he now realizes she is not going to “be there to hold his hand” for the rest of his life and is making contingency plans in case he is released.

Dalzell applied for a job, she said, that might be waiting for him if he gets out. He has again taken up the Episcopal faith and has hopes of moving away from Carrboro to make a fresh start.

But for now, Dalzell and his mother sit and wait, wondering whether his epiphany came too late.

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