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Oregon man arrested in cold case murder of estranged wife more than 30 years after she was strangled to death

Robert Elmer Atrops (Washington County Sheriff's Office)

Robert Elmer Atrops (Washington County Sheriff’s Office)

A 68-year-old man in Oregon has been arrested in connection with the cold-case killing of his estranged wife more than 30 years ago.

Robert Elmer Atrops was taken into custody at his home Thursday morning and charged with one count of second-degree murder in the 1988 death of 30-year-old Deborah Atrops, authorities announced.

According to a press release from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, a then-34-year-old Atrops in reported Deborah missing in November 1988. The two had separated about five months earlier, and she had been living in an apartment with their then-8-month-old daughter.

Atrops reported that on the evening of Nov. 29, 1988, he picked up their daughter from a babysitter while his wife was getting her hair done. According to the release, she was supposed to pick the child up before 8 p.m., but Atrops said she never arrived. Police say he called several of her acquaintances before reporting her missing to the Tigard Police Department.

The following day, he told Washington County Sheriff’s investigators that he had not seen his wife since before he picked up his daughter from the sitter. Deborah’s car was then entered into the database for vehicles involved in missing person cases.

Her vehicle was discovered on Dec. 1, 1988, parked at the end of a dead-end street. Several witnesses told investigators the car had been parked there since the morning of Nov. 30. Police say the keys were on the driver’s seat, the driver’s side window was down, and the license plates had been removed.

Investigators found Deborah’s body in the trunk of the car. Based on the body’s position, investigators believed she was killed elsewhere and placed in the trunk. An autopsy determined Deborah had been assaulted and strangled.

The Washington County District Attorney’s Office Cold Case Unit launched in 2020, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Justice Department. In May 2021, the unit partnered with the sheriff to re-open Deborah’s case.

“Over the next year and a half, detectives and investigators reinterviewed multiple witnesses and had forensic evidence reexamined,” officials said. “On Tuesday, February 28, 2023, details of the case were presented to a Washington County grand jury. After hearing all the evidence, the grand jury indicted Mr. Atrops for one count of murder in the second degree.”

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.