Missing: Deborah Sykes

How a small town deals with the loss of one of its own

Railroad tracks run parallel to Main Street in downtown Rathdrum, like a steel rod holding up a crooked spine. The North Idaho town takes up just eight square miles — most of it trees and open fields — and had a population of a little more than 6,800 in the most recent census. It’s a place where residents like to throw neighborhood block parties in the summer, a town where folks ride bicycles down the center of residential streets and wave at passing cars. People move to Rathdrum because it’s quiet and out of the way. You can know your neighbors here but still be left alone.

Here, when someone disappears, it’s felt in the community. Deborah Sykes, a 38-year-old mother, apparently took off her wedding ring and walked out of her house with no luggage, no purse and just the clothes on her back on Feb. 13, 2005.

From her missing-person posters, Sykes stares out from behind heavily lined eyes and a sly smirk. She has dark, straight hair and is wearing a black jacket and a black One Eye’s T-shirt — a defunct watering hole in the heart of Rathdrum where she liked to drink beer. The image has been cropped, but the full photo shows her standing next to her husband and country singer Toby Keith, who is smiling wide, holding up the One Eye’s shirt that the couple brought him.

The night before she vanished, Sykes was out drinking at One Eye’s and had been picked up from a friend’s house in the middle of the night by her husband. The next morning, when she was still in bed, her husband left to go to the grocery store, and when he returned, she was gone.

In a town so small, it seems even less likely that a person could slip away undetected. And Detective Bill Ray of the Rathdrum Police Department says it still drives him crazy that Sykes hasn’t been found.

“It’s so weird that she just walked away from her world. Literally just walked away from her entire world,” he says. “What in the world happened?”

Ray sits in a corner office in the flat, gray Rathdrum PD building at the far end of Main Street. A deer head hangs above his computer, and he shakes a blender cup as he’s talking. He’s used to dealing with crimes that are more like annoyances — car burglaries, misplaced firearms. On his desk, there are a stack of those sorts of cases to work through. And then there’s Sykes’ missing persons file.

He’s been with the department for 18 years and is the second officer to take on the case. He still remembers the panic that ripped through the station in the weeks following her disappearance.

Rathdrum was even smaller in 2005 — closer to 4,000 people — and everyone seemed to have a theory where Sykes might be. “It was a big deal,” he says. “There was lots of leads, lots of people have ideas. We had to look into all of those.”

Sykes didn’t have much of a criminal record, but she’d written some bad checks around the time she disappeared, and there was a warrant out for her arrest. And she hung around with people who had frequent run-ins with the law.

She was known to run with a group of motorcycle riders who liked to toss back beers and throw occasional punches at One Eye’s. They weren’t in a motorcycle gang — just local guys who liked to park their bikes in a long row on Main Street and play the part of the biker rebel.

“A lot of times the crowds that she ran in would talk more with each other than they would talk with us,” Ray says. “That’s the nature of the beast. I would think by now something would have come up if they knew. Somebody obviously knows.”

Ray says it’s possible that Sykes decided to just walk away from her children and her husband and start a new life somewhere else. But it’s a tough feat to pull off. Missing people show up in several federal databases, and if they’re arrested and fingerprinted, those fingerprints would show that they’re a missing person, no matter what alias they might be using. And given Sykes’ past, it would be tough to turn a life of living on the fringe around 180 degrees. It’s not impossible. It’s just not likely.

Ray says the trail has gone cold on Sykes and he’s run out of new leads and options.

“I mean, I think about [her case] all the time. But as far as doing active investigations on it, I just don’t have anything else to do,” he says.

The case betrays everything he believes about Rathdrum — a town he’s proud of, where he raised his own family. But even here, someone could go missing right under his nose.

Bill Gilcrist and his wife Debbie stopped in their tracks. From behind, the woman sitting on the barstool looked just like Bill’s daughter, Deborah Sykes.

They’d gotten a tip that someone had seen her at the Talking Bird Saloon in St. Regis, Mont., and without wasting a second, the pair jumped in their car and sped straight there. When they got there, they thought they might have found her.

“I wasn’t breathing ... when I walked over there,” his wife says. “She had on a black coat like Debbie wears. And she had the long hair like Debbie. She turned around, and I told her, ‘Oh, excuse me, I thought you were somebody else.’”

Gilcrist is not afraid to admit that his daughter was no saint. She liked to drink — was known for it, actually. If she wasn’t on a barstool at One Eye’s, she probably was at the Shady Rest, down the road. She wasn’t careless, just a free spirit who did what she wanted and who knew how to fend for herself.

Over the years, if she was in trouble, Debbie would always call her dad if she really needed help. But the Gilcrists haven’t heard from her in years.

Gilcrist isn’t a young man, but he says he will find his daughter before he dies, no matter what it takes. He’s a private investigator, and when his daughter was reported as missing eight years ago, he was often right on detectives’ heels — sometimes even a step ahead of them — as they searched.

He knows that the trail has gone cold for Rathdrum police and that other cases have taken precedence over his daughter’s, so he feels it is up to him to play detective and close the book on this mystery.

Today, the older man sits in an easy chair in the living room of his Hillyard neighborhood home and pops open the latches on a large, brown leather briefcase practically exploding with paperwork. Gilcrist has hung posters of his daughter in bars, grocery stores, restaurants and police stations from St. Regis to the Oregon coast. He’s walked in ditches beside roads, sent bones to detectives to run for DNA evidence. He heard Sykes wanted to go to the Daytona 500 one day, so he’s even called investigators in the police department down in Florida.

“You just look into everything,” Gilcrist says. “Time and money is no object when it’s your daughter.” 

A reward of $10,000 has been offered for info leading to Deborah Sykes. To report tips on Sykes’ disappearance, call (509) 993-6389.

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Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...