Details of Disappearance
Deborah was initially abducted by her non-custodial father, Odell Sheppard, from her residence in Chicago, Illinois on September 24, 1984. Deborah's mother, Norell Sanders, told authorities that Sheppard called her and said he was going to take Deborah and Norell would never see her again. He subsequently arrived Norell's home and proceeded to argue and struggle with Norell over Deborah. He then struck Norell several times, grabbed the child and left the home.
The couple had never married and they weren't living together in 1984. Norell stated she notified the police, but they were reluctant to take action because the law was unclear about her custodial rights as an unmarried mother. (She later went to court and obtained full custody of her daughter.)
Deborah was last seen two weeks after her abduction, when her father took her to a family member's funeral in Memphis, Tennessee. A photo of Odell is posted with this case summary.
Sheppard allowed Norell to speak to her daughter once over the phone a few days after Sheppard abducted the child. That was the last time anyone has heard from Deborah. On October 1, Sheppard called Norell again and threatened to kill both her and Deborah because police were questioning his family. He called her a third time in November and offered to return Deborah in exchange for $2,000 in cash, money Norell didn't have. According to her, at one point Sheppard told her the next time she saw Deborah, Deborah would be "in a pine box." Sheppard denies having ever made that statement.
Sheppard was arrested in Tennessee in late 1985, but he didn't have Deborah with him. He claimed he returned the child to her mother's care in December 1984, but Norell said this wasn't true and none of Norell's relatives have seen Deborah since her initial abduction.
Sheppard was convicted of child abduction in 1986 and sentenced to three years in prison. He was released in 1987 after serving less than half his sentence, and ordered to produce the child in court within three days. After he failed to do so, he served ten years and three months in jail for contempt of court for refusing to divulge where his daughter was located.
This may have been the longest recorded sentence for contempt of court in United States history. Sheppard repeatedly said he left Deborah with Norell and didn't know the child's whereabouts, but the courts did not believe him. Norell said she believed Sheppard refused to disclose Deborah's location because he wanted her to suffer.
Deborah's Social Security number hasn't been used since her September 1984 abduction. Norell died of kidney failure on January 24, 1998, at the age of 45. She left behind three other children besides Deborah. Sheppard was released from jail a few days after Norell's death, and maintains his innocence to his day. Deborah's whereabouts remain unknown, and her case was closed after Norell's death.