PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has made an arrest for the 35-year-old murder of Deborah Lee Atrops, who police say was killed by her husband while the couple had been separated in 1988.

Investigators with Washington County’s Cold Case Unit allege Robert Elmer Atrops, then 34 years old, murdered his 30-year-old wife and filed a missing persons report when she didn’t arrive to pick up their adopted daughter on Nov. 29, 1988.

Mr. Atrops lived in the couple’s home on Conzelmann Road in Sherwood, and Mrs. Atrops lived in a Salem apartment with their eight month old. Mr. Atrops told investigators that she never arrived at the house when she was expected between 7:30-8 p.m.

On Nov. 30, 1988, Beaverton Police investigated a two-door 1988 black Honda Accord at a dead end of Murray Road that they said had belonged to Mrs. Atrops. According to the report, the car was missing license plates and the driver’s window was down.

Police said they found Mrs. Atrops’ body inside the car trunk, and it appeared she had been placed there after her death due to the position of her body. Witnesses said they saw the car there in the early morning of Nov. 30, 1988.

An autopsy on Dec. 2, 1988 reported that Mrs. Atrops had been physically assaulted and strangled to death, but the case remained unsolved.

The Washington County Cold Case Unit partnered with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in May 2021 to reinterview witnesses and reexamine forensic evidence.

“This particular case is the first case that this unit has worked on to be able to hopefully bring some closure to the family,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. “It is so important for us to be able to send that message to the families that we haven’t forgotten and to the criminals that they’ll be held accountable.”

On Tuesday, new witness interviews and forensic evidence, collected by Washington County’s Cold Case Unit, were presented to a grand jury, who then indicted Atrops for second-degree murder.

“That is the most important thing for us to do is make sure they have that closure and that we can hopefully bring this case toward that ultimate resolution,” said Barton. “The end of the investigation portion and the beginning of the prosecution portion is really just a turning of the chapters because we still have quite a ways to go before we can get to that point of closure for the family and for the community.”

In 2020, Washington County received nearly half a million in federal funds to launch its Cold Case Unit. They found around 40 cases — including deaths and sexual assaults — dating back to the 1960s that have the potential to be solved.

“The internet didn’t exist and DNA was this brand new things that came out in the 1990s, even, so the technology we have today allows us to go back and reexamine evidence that the investigators of yesterday may have never contemplated could be examined in the ways we’re looking at it,” said Barton. “We really rely on the work that they did, collecting that evidence, preserving that evidence, maintaining that evidence, that when we go back, we can use these tools we have today.”

Barton says this is just the first step to getting closure for many families like Deborah’s. 

“We know they’ve already been through the most horrific thing anyone can imagine and even though it may have happened years or decades earlier, it still has an impact on these families and the community, so the goal is to, we can never undo what happened but we can always control the response that we have,” said Barton. “We hope we can solve more cases moving forward because there’s plenty of work to be done.”