Deborah “Debbie” Steel, 37, was well-loved by her English community. She made a decent living as a pub landlady and had a partner. Her disappearance shocked residents and those who knew her. She was not someone who had reason to leave voluntarily. So, when she disappeared shortly after Christmas in 1997, people were left with many questions. The answers, policy say, lie in Ely (pronounced ee-lee), Cambridgeshire in eastern England.
Today, Ely has a population of around 20,000. The ancient city is rich in history, with origins dating back to about 670 a.d. William the Conqueror once fought here. The construction of Ely Cathedral took 300 years to complete. The church has been standing for over 1,000 years. If walls could talk, imagine what stories those walls would tell.
One of Ely’s pubs dates back to the 15th century and is a critical location in the missing person case I write about today.
The Royal Standard, located at 24 Fore Hill, started as a one-room public house in the 15th century. According to the pub’s website, it is the oldest building on Ely’s Fore Hill (some spell it as Forehill).
A pub owner is known as a landlord or landlady, partly because some pubs also offer accommodations to travelers, such as the Royal Standard.
Steel ran the Royal Standard with her partner, Brian McDermott. Although she made a good living, she left sometime in 1997 to set up a catering business.
Christmas was one of the pub’s busiest times, so Steel returned to help.
Steel has a sister, Virginia “Gini” Secker, who lives in another town. She had planned to visit Secker between Christmas and New Year’s Day but never made the trip.
On Dec. 28, 1997, Steel worked the evening shift at the pub and planned to spend the night there. However, she left around 1 a.m., reportedly after an argument. It is unclear who she argued with, but she vanished into thin air after leaving the Royal Standard. One news article states she was seen walking towards the city’s train station carrying a sports bag.
When McDermott awoke later that morning, Steel was not there, and it appeared she had not slept in her bed.
Steel had gone missing before but usually informed her sister, Secker, of her whereabouts. Steel never contacted Secker again.
Police searched Steel’s residence on Longfields, a cul-de-sac road on Ely’s southwest side, and found empty clothes hangers, suggesting she had packed some clothing. However, she did not take her passport.
According to the Eastern Daily Press, “Officers also found a map of the London Underground, with a circle drawn around Hounslow tube station.” CCTV cameras did not catch Steel in any footage.
Secker said her sister suffered from panic attacks and would not cope well with riding a bus or train alone.
Steel left behind her mother’s engagement ring that she always wore around her neck. Police found other jewelry as well. Her keys and mobile home remained in her home.
In a public appeal in December 2017, DCI Adam Gallop from the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit said: “Two wine glasses appeared to have been recently used and it would have been very out of character for her to not have washed up and tidy away.”
Police and Secker believe that Steel did return home after leaving the pub. Investigators also said it was improbable that she would have walked the 1.2 miles to her home at 1 a.m. alone.
Evidence suggests Steel walked to the Almonry Restaurant where she was picked up, likely by a local taxi driver known to her, Gallop said. The restaurant is on High Street and a two-minute walk from the Royal Standard.
Gallop said he would like to speak with the taxi driver and urged the man to contact him. It is unclear if the man came forward.
Authorities investigated a white Volvo seen in the area when Steel disappeared, which led nowhere, and they eliminated it from their inquiry.
The police have extensively searched for Steel, including the pub and surrounding areas. They dug up a patio on the pub’s property and the yard at Steel’s home but found nothing.
Investigators announced in 2014 they were treating Steel’s case as a homicide.
Around the same time, police arrested three men, ages 50, 70, and 72, on suspicion of murder relating to the Steel disappearance. All three were released when no evidence could link them to Steel’s case.
During the investigation, detectives questioned a prisoner at Whitemoor prison in March, Cambridgeshire, who had claimed he killed a woman in East Anglia, a region in East of England that includes the counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. The prisoner, who has never been publicly named, said he buried her body in a shallow grave.
The woman’s description partly matched Steel’s. The prisoner later withdrew his confession, but investigators questioned him anyway to find the area he had spoken of in his statement. The man described the site as an unsurfaced two-lane road with a solid white line down the middle. It was mainly in a rural area and lined with a 5-foot bush on one side and a barbed-wire fence on the other, the Cambridge News stated.
The lead must have been a dead-end because the news agency reported nothing further.
A few days after Steel vanished, a check for £9,000 to set up her catering business arrived at Longfields’ post office, but her bank accounts remained untouched.
A year after Steel went missing, McDermott explained that he had not reported her missing for five days because she had taken off on short trips before to “get a break.”
Investigators believe someone in the Ely area has information about the Steel disappearance. They have made several public appeals over the years, but no one has come forward, and the case remains unsolved.
Steel’s father, Bill, passed away without knowing what happened to his daughter. According to Secker, he last said to her, “Find out what happened to her.”
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
Do you know what is interesting? Several cases I researched that occurred around Christmas involved the significant other of the victim. I wonder why. Do the holidays make some people want to kill? 😂 I mean, I can totally relate, but I would never do it. 😜
Steel allegedly got into an argument with someone at the pub. I don’t know if it was McDermott or not, but the fact that he did not report her missing for five days is a little suspicious. However, even her sister said she had taken off without notice before. But would she have not informed her PARTNER? I
What was the argument about? Whatever it was, she became angry enough to leave the pub and go home. She was going to stay the night there. Police believe she made it home, but according to McDermott, she was not there when he woke up the next morning. However, I’m not sure he stayed at the pub or Steel’s home.
Police dug around the pub and Steel’s home, so I am guessing they think someone at the Royal Standard had something to do with it.
I’m confused about the news article that said she was seen carrying a sports bag, which is big enough to hold several pieces of clothing. That was the only article I found that stated this, so it might be incorrect. The report did not say when the sighting occurred, but it does not fit the theory that she went home. Ely train station is a 12-minute walk from the Royal Standard. So, if she would not walk home from the pub alone at night, then she sure as hell would not walk to the train station at night either. That’s half the distance of her walk from the pub to her home on Longfellows, but long enough to not want to walk it alone at night.
The map of the London Underground had Hounslow station circled. Hounslow is a suburb of West London. I think she had plans to take the train to Hounslow at some point soon. Maybe it was regarding her catering business, but someone killed her before she had a chance to go.
Police said they had evidence that she walked to Almonry restaurant. What evidence? Why would she walk there by herself, even that short of a distance, at night? Almonry closes at 5 p.m. nowadays. When did it close for the day in 1997?
Couldn’t Steel have gotten a cab closer to the pub or outside it? It kind of sounds like she was trying to get away from the person who angered her. Just sayin’.