The husband of Deborah Lee Atrops has been arrested for her murder, 35 years after her death.
Washington County District Attorney’s Cold Case Unit recently made headway in the 1988 cold case.
In May 2021, the unit partnered with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to restart the investigation into the murder. Over the next year and a half, detectives and investigators reinterviewed witnesses and had forensic evidence reexamined.
“There’s no way they could have contemplated the advances that were made in DNA technology between then and now,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. “Being able to use today’s technology and apply it towards evidence that was seized over 30 years ago is a huge advantage in terms of challenges.”
Barton said he was not able to give details of the case and could not say if Robert Atrops, Deborah’s husband, had been a suspect back when Deborah Lee Atrops was reported missing
On Feb. 28, details of the case were presented to a Washington County grand jury. The grand jury indicted Robert Atrops on one count of murder in the second degree. On Thursday morning, a search warrant was served at Atrops’ Newberg home, and he was taken into custody without incident to the Washington County Jail.
His arraignment was Thursday afternoon at the Washington County Law Enforcement Center in Hillsboro. He will appear in court again on March 9.
“We may think of these cases as old or we may use the word ‘cold,’ but if you talk to the family and the friends of the victims of these cases, they’re very current issues for them,” Barton said. " They’re still dealing with the trauma as a result of that crime.”
What happened in 1988?
In November 1988, 30-year-old Deborah Lee Atrops was reported missing by her husband, Robert Atrops. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office reports that the two had separated earlier that year, but were still married.
Robert Atrops was living in the couple’s home in Sherwood. Deborah Atrops was living in an apartment in Salem with the couple’s adopted infant daughter.
According to the sheriff’s office, on the evening of Nov. 29, 1988, Robert Atrops reported he picked up the child from a babysitter in Newberg while Deborah Atrops was at a hair appointment in Tigard. She was expected to get her daughter from her estranged husband’s home between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Robert Atrops later told investigators that she never arrived. He called her acquaintances and family asking about her whereabouts, before calling the Tigard Police Department.
The following morning, on Nov. 30, 1988, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office took an official missing person report. As part of the ensuing investigation, her car was entered into law enforcement databases as a vehicle involved in a missing person case.
On Dec. 1, 1988, around 9 a.m., Beaverton Police responded to a suspicious vehicle complaint at the dead end of Southwest Murray Road near Southwest Scholls Ferry Road. A city public works employee reported an abandoned car parked with the keys on the driver’s seat. Witnesses said the car had been parked there since early on Nov. 30, 1988. Beaverton officers determined the car, which had no plates and had been left with the driver’s window down, belonged to Deborah Atrops.
Investigators found the body of Deborah Atrops inside the car’s trunk. Based on the positioning of her body, investigators believed she had been placed in the trunk after her death.
An autopsy the next day determined she’d been physically assaulted and strangled to death. The investigation never led to an arrest. The murder remained unsolved, and the case turned cold.
“Sometimes the investigators have exhausted all available leads and in this particular case, the standard we have today is the same standard that would have existed in the 1988, which is we need to be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barton said.
The cold case unit
The arrest of Robert Atrops was the first major case the Washington County Cold Case Unit has worked on since it began in 2020.
The unit focuses on investigating and prosecuting violent crime cold cases involving identified DNA associated with a possible suspect.
“We have two dedicated investigators who are retired homicide investigators alongside a forensic scientist who works as a consultant to help us work through some of the D.N.A. evidence that we have,” Barton said. Barton added that the grant funds an assigned prosecutor and victims advocate who works with the family of victims. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance funds the grant.