Cold Case: WLOX investigates the abduction, murder of Debra Gunter

Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 2:58 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 15, 2022 at 4:07 PM CST
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Twenty-year-old Debra Gunter was working the overnight shift at a Gautier convenience store when she was abducted and killed. We are keeping her story alive four decades later with a hope her family will get the much needed answers they deserve.

“Somebody had to know this place. You would have to know where this place is to drive that many miles just to dump a body,” cold case investigator Lt. Darren Versiga said.

“We were hoping to God they would find her alive,” Gunter’s cousin, Susan Mullis said.

“She left this world so soon,” her sister, Sarah Mullis said.

“We had somebody here that was running up and down the coast, doing some horrific things to people. And we had more than one, which was scary,” Lt. Versiga said.

The gruesome crime scene photos still haunt investigators 44 years later. Lt. Versiga is still trying to figure out what happened to Debra Gunter.

She grew from humble beginnings in Macon and Warner Robins, Georgia. Her cousin and sister say it was a hard life, but remember her as outgoing, and searching for peace and happiness where she could find it.

“She was a very fun loving person,” Susan Mullis said. “If you met her, you’d love her. We loved to go to the skating rink. We skated on Friday and Saturday nights. That was our thing.”

“My sister was a momma’s girl. A wonderful daughter, sister, and wife,” Sarah Mullis said.

Debra’s family says she met the love of her life at 16. She dropped out of high school and married 20-year-old Donald Gunter. The newlyweds moved to Gautier to be closer to his relatives. Along the way, both struggled to find work.

That is, until Debra got a job working the overnight shift at the Li’l General Store - a convenience store previously located at 109 Ladnier Road in Gautier.

Debra Gunter
Debra Gunter(WLOX)

“My mom was really nervous, because she knew there was nothing around the store, so she wanted my sister to come home and quit the job,” Sarah Mullis said.

Li’l General Stores were one of the first 24-hour convenience stores on the Gulf Coast. Gunter worked alone from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“I don’t know why she was taken from the store,” Lt. Versiga said. “There wasn’t but $20 missing from the register.”

Police reports show that on December 5, 1978, a customer walked into the store around 4:30 a.m. and discovered no clerk behind the counter. The customer later called police, who found Gunter’s car, purse and sweater still at the store.

Investigators learned a customer who knew Gunter was the one to last see her at the store around 3:15 a.m.

Four days later and nearly 100 miles away, her body was found in McIntosh, Alabama.

“She may have been held for a couple of days, which is a whole new ball game,” Lt. Versiga said. “So she had to have been somewhere prior to that, possibly alive.”

The crime scene was horrifying. A 20-year-old woman, exposed in the wilderness. Her hands tied behind her back with her own blouse, bra, and knee-length stocking according to the coroner’s report. Her other stocking stuffed in her mouth. She was stabbed 32 times in the throat with a small knife and had ligature marks on her neck. The posing of her body appeared to resemble a sexual gratification type crime, but the evidence points another direction.

“They are assuming she wasn’t raped because she had a tampon in,” Lt. Versiga said.

Decades later, as investigators work to solve the cases with advanced DNA technology, Lt. Versiga said they hit a roadblock.

“This was in Washington County, Alabama,” Lt. Versiga said. “Washington County doesn’t have anything left of this case because we were looking for the clothing.”

A major frustration now as cases are left sitting, molding, and mildewing over the years. Current investigators are left without the evidence to solve them.

“It is frustrating, it’s aggravating and it hurts,” Sarah Mullis said.

The search for clues and connections have led investigators to look at other cold cases where young girls were stabbed to death. A car – likely an El Camino with a camper shell or station wagon – is one common thread investigators are following.

In the 1973 disappearance and murder of 13-year-old Rose Marie Levandoski, witnesses told investigators they saw a yellow car in the area.

In 1975, when 16-year-old Janie Sanders body was found in Grand Bay, Alabama, a blue el Camino was spotted leaving the scene. Investigators believe it could have been the same car, perhaps painted.

Then, in 1978 a similar yellow car spotted in McIntosh, Alabama where Debra Gunter was found.

“Somebody saw a yellow station wagon,” Lt. Versiga said. “The station wagon also shows up in the Levandoki case, but there’s another case out there where a yellow station wagon pulled up and snatched a little girl off a bike in St. Martin.”

Just after Christmas in 1972, 12-year-old Milissa Boykin was riding her new bicycle when she said someone sinister behind the wheel of a yellow car approached her.

“He grabbed my arm,” Boykin said. “He was going the opposite way, and I wrapped my legs around the arm of the bicycle so in order for him to get me in the car, he had to take me and bicycle. Not only that, I was beating him in the head a little bit trying to get away from him.”

“Had she given up the bike, he would have gotten her,” Lt. Versiga said. “He didn’t get it so he abandoned it.”

“All I remember was a man with a lot of hair,” Boykin said. “He smelled like cigarettes. I went home and tried to tell my mom about it. She didn’t believe me. My bicycle ended up getting stolen that day. A few months later, Rose Marie came up missing.”

In the decades since, Milissa knows she’s lucky, but haunted like the families of the girls who never made it home.

Investigators believe the man could still be out there connected to unsolved crimes, like the murder of Debra Gunter. Her family has this message.

“Why? Why would you do that to her?” Susan Mullis asked.

“My momma always wanted to know why? And who? She passed away in 2019,” Sarah Mullis said. “That’s one of the things I wanted her to have before she passed away was some peace. I’m sure there’s really no why, just an evil person.”

Debra’s only sister, Sarah, says every birthday, every holiday is a reminder of the heartache.

“The way we coped with it was we did not talk about it. We were silent sufferers,” Sarah Mullis said. “If you are the person who killed her, you will do the right thing and come forth. If not, I believe you are the silent sufferer now.”

Jackson County Sheriff’s Office gave WLOX permission to speak with Pascagoula Police Lt. Darren Versiga, due to his knowledge and investigation on these cases.

If you have any information or tips that could help investigators, please call the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department at 228-769-3063.

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