Cynthia Crawford-Collins never had the chance to wish her sister a happy 41st birthday.
The two women talked the day before Deborah Lee Crawford’s big day, and Cynthia told her baby sister to expect a gift and birthday serenade.
But on Aug. 20, 2013, her actual birthday, Deborah was nowhere to be found. Cynthia rang her phone all day, and each time, there was only voicemail.
“I knew something was wrong,” Cynthia said. “I told family something was wrong.”
Before the end of the day, the police in her hometown of Toledo, Ohio were at Cynthia’s door. Deborah had been reported missing by her adult son, Floyd, who was staying with her in metro Atlanta.
Four years later, what exactly happened to Deborah remains a mystery to the family and an unsolved murder for police.
On Oct. 18, 2013, almost two months after Deborah was reported missing, a hunter in northern Paulding County found a decomposing body in a shallow grave at the back of an unfinished subdivision. The near skeletal remains were identified months later as those of Deborah Lee Crawford, or “Peanut,” as the 2-pound preemie was nicknamed at birth by her mother.
Sgt. Ashley Henson, spokesman for the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office, said investigators know Deborah was the victim of foul play.
“We have the medical examiner’s report, which indicates that she had blunt force trauma to the head,” Henson said. “But that does not rule out whether or not she was shot because the organs and tissue were either nonexistent or badly decomposed.”
The Paulding County Sheriff’s Office and GBI both have investigators on the case. Last year Crime Stoppers of Greater Atlanta offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
“At this point, we have a few faint leads, but nothing substantial,” Henson said. He hopes new attention to the case can change that.
Evidence shows Deborah Crawford lived a “high-risk lifestyle” and was likely involved in drugs, the spokesman said, something sister Cynthia says the family finds hard to believe.
“Peanut was never into drugs,” Crawford-Collins said.
She said Deborah battled depression and moved to metro Atlanta’s Cobb County about a year and a half before her disappearance, hoping for “a fresh start.”
Deborah had grown up with two sisters in Toledo and had lost both parents by 2007. She wanted to relocate to metro Atlanta after coming here for a visit and being impressed with its friendly people, Crawford-Collins said.
Deborah had a passion for cooking and held jobs at a nursing home, restaurant and bar in Toledo. She had not been employed after the move to Atlanta with her son and lived on Social Security disability payments, her sister said.
Crawford-Collins said authorities believe that her sister and a woman she befriended after moving to Atlanta had been going from one doctor’s office to another, obtaining prescription painkillers and selling them.
That same woman, the sister said, told police she’d dropped Crawford off at a store on the day of her disappearance. Later, the woman said she’d lied and had actually driven Deborah to a motel for prostitution, Crawford-Collins said.
Investigators say, to the best of their knowledge, Deborah Crawford was last seen at a motel off I-75 in Cartersville, Henson said.
Crawford-Collins said her sister might have been led astray by unsavory characters, but gave no indication of that in their regular phone calls.
Instead, she said, her sister was “very well loved.” A memorial service in May 2014 in Toledo was attended by 450 people.
In the phone call on the day before her death, Deborah talked of moving back home to Toledo, Crawford-Collins said.
Now, Cynthia says she’d like to see those responsible for her sister’s death brought to justice.
“I’m praying,” Crawford-Collins said. “I feel like they are going to find this person in 2018.”
In the meantime, family and friends wear some of Deborah Crawford’s ashes in pendants around their necks.
“It was devastating” to lose Deborah, her sister Cynthia said. “I cried for a year straight.”
Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at (404) 577-TIPS or the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office at (770) 443-3015.