Sad end to a clumsy chapter

DA dismisses charge in ’97 slaying

The Herald-Sun
Jun 10, 2005 : 7:10 pm ET

HILLSBOROUGH — A murder charge against Andrew Douglas Dalzell, who police say admitted killing Deborah Leigh Key in 1997, was dismissed Friday by the district attorney.

Calling Dalzell a “confessed killer,” Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall said he had to dismiss the second-degree murder charge against him because of a judge’s ruling in January that the confession was inadmissible in court.

The judge determined Carrboro police officers violated Dalzell’s rights by, among other actions, not giving him a Miranda warning before interrogating him. Orange-Chatham Superior Court Judge Wade Barber also said the officers violated North Carolina law by using trickery and deceit to convince Dalzell he was being charged with murder when in fact he was being charged with stealing some items from a hobby store where he once worked.

Without the confession, there was not enough evidence against Dalzell to charge him with killing Key, Woodall acknowledged Friday.

Key, then 35, was last seen with Dalzell, now 28, in a bank parking lot near a bar called Sticks and Stones in downtown Carrboro on Dec. 1, 1997, after the bar closed at 2 a.m. Key’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Key’s family did not attend the press conference Friday at the Orange County Courthouse, and they could not be reached for comment.

“I’ve spoken with the family of Deborah Key. Obviously, they’re very disappointed in this,” Woodall said. “They do understand the decision. I think they accept it at a certain level, but they’re very disappointed because this doesn’t give them the type of closure they would have wanted to have in this situation.”

Dalzell’s stepfather, George Mullen, said Friday the family would have no comment about the charges being dropped. Mullen previously had said his stepson made a false confession under the threat of death.

Woodall, who was appointed the new district attorney when his boss Carl Fox became a Superior Court judge, said he conferred with Fox and the state attorney general’s office about the confession.

“I undertook over the last month and half to two months my own independent research into this area of the law, and I’ve been convinced that it’s highly unlikely that that confession could ever be used in a court of law,” Woodall said.

Dalzell’s attorney, Orange-Chatham Public Defender James Williams, said the announcement the murder charge had been dismissed came as no surprise.

“We had been told as long as two months ago this was going to happen,” Williams said. “Obviously, he’s relieved that this has occurred, and I am [relieved] for him.”

What the Carrboro officers did was a serious breach of constitutional and statutory law, and it wasn’t just their trickery that was the problem, Williams said. “He had been coerced and threatened,” Williams said of his client.
Dalzell was always the prime suspect in the disappearance of Key, since he was the one last seen with her. But for years, despite following every lead, Carrboro investigators were unable to find enough evidence to charge him.
Last fall, Dalzell called Carrboro police and asked if an officer could stand by while he moved out of his apartment because he was worried about some of his neighbors.

The officer who came noticed some fantasy figurines at the apartment, and upon further investigation found out Dalzell was suspected of stealing the items from the hobby store where he once worked.

Police obtained warrants to charge Dalzell with stealing the items, and they drove to Stanley, N.C., where he was living with his girlfriend and her parents, to arrest him on those charges.

Instead of telling him why he was being arrested, the officers showed him a fake murder warrant and fake letter, purported to be from then-District Attorney Carl Fox, saying he was being charged with first-degree murder and would receive the death penalty unless he immediately told police where Key’s body was.
The officers never told Dalzell the real reason he was being arrested, and the judge ruled they interrogated him before giving him his Miranda rights. Saying he did not want to die, Dalzell, according to police, blurted out that he had taken Key’s body to Wilmington and put it in a Dumpster there.

Barber wrote in his order that Dalzell made statements because he feared he would be put to death if he did not do so.

The Carrboro police officers made mistakes during their investigation of Dalzell, Woodall acknowledged, but the DA expressed his faith in them during the press conference Friday.

“I think they undertook this investigation and the specific course of action which led to Mr. Dalzell’s confession with good intentions and with good will and in good faith,” Woodall said.

“They had a case that essentially had become a cold case. There were very few, if any, leads left,” Woodall said. “They took a course of action that they thought could lead them to the person who did the crime. Of course, they did obtain a confession from Andrew Dalzell.”

Carrboro Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison spoke briefly at the press conference but didn’t say much about the actions of her officers.

The department has a learning environment and the officers had learned from what happened, Hutchison said.

While the murder charge has been dismissed, other charges against Dalzell, including six counts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, larceny by employee, possession of stolen property, financial identity fraud and obtaining property by false pretenses still stand. Woodall expects those cases could be on the court docket for late July or August.

Williams declined to say much about those charges except to note that one of his assistants is handling those cases, and he expects there could be some legal issues to be resolved since some of the information officers obtained for those charges came from the tainted murder investigation.

The investigation into the disappearance and death of Key is still open, Hutchison said. Key’s family is offering a reward for information that could help solve the case. The amount of the reward has not been determined, but would be given in addition to a reward offered by CrimeStoppers.

Hutchison asked that anyone with information on the case to call the Carrboro Police Department at 918-7397 or CrimeStoppers at 226-2746.

Several of Key’s friends attended the press conference Friday.

“For seven years, we wondered where she was,” said Joy Preslar. “We were in denial for years hoping she was on some amnesic trip down in the Bahamas,” she said.

Preslar now believes Dalzell killed her friend and just knowing what happened has brought her some closure, she said. Nevertheless, she added that she and her friends still tromp through the woods off N.C. 54 west of Carrboro looking for Key’s remains after a psychic said that’s where they were.

“Where is she?” Preslar said. “Just tell us where she is so we can give her a proper burial.”


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