ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) — An Abingdon woman who died “under suspicious circumstances” in 2002 is now suspected to have been murdered by her partner, according to a news release from the police department.

Abingdon officials stated that Derek Wayne Journell, now 51, had been dating the victim when he was 31 years old. The victim was identified at a press conference as Deborah Paige Fletcher, who was 39 years old when she died.

Twenty years ago, Abingdon officers arrived at the Johnston Memorial Hospital — then located at 351 N. Court St. — following a suspicious death. In a press conference Thursday morning, Abingdon Police Chief Jon Holbrook confirmed the victim died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Police interviewed witnesses, medical staff and Medical Examiner’s Office members. An extensive investigation along with consultations with the local Commonwealth’s Attorney led to no charges at the time, and the case turned inactive.

“[Investigators] initially suspected [Journell], and they were glad to have some finalization with this case,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook revealed that a man in Roanoke admitted to local police in January 2021 that he had committed a violent crime years ago.

“In January of last year, Roanoke City Police Department called us because they had a man report he had committed a violent crime nearly 20 years ago here in Abingdon,” Holbrook stated in a news release. “Our investigators got to work immediately and have been pursuing this case tirelessly since then.”

At the press conference, Holbrook said the confession sparked an immediate response from the Abingdon Police Department (APD).

“Once we were alerted — once we linked it back to the suspicious death in Abingdon, we had two investigators that immediately traveled to Roanoke and started a fresh investigation on this case that we’ve had inactive for almost 20 years.”

The confession led the U.S. Marshals Service to adopt the case and assist in serving the warrant. The APD filed a second-degree murder charge on Journell. The APD worked alongside with Roanoke City Police Department, the Medical Examiner’s Officer and the Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.

“They spent a large amount of time pulling old records, old case files and trying to even locate old medical records to be able to come to the conclusion that it was second-degree murder in this case,” Holbrook said.

Fletcher’s family provided the following statement to News Channel 11 following Journell’s arrest:

On behalf of Paige Fletcher’s mom, Vicki Fletcher, and the rest of Paige’s family on the Harris and Fletcher sides, we want to express our appreciation to the detectives and Chief of the Abingdon Police Department, to Commonwealth Attorney Josh Cumbow, and the Victim Assistance team for their dedication and professionalism. Paige’s death almost twenty years ago was a tragic time for our family, and the unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding her death made our grief more complicated. We hope now to get answers and seek justice for Paige, and we feel a sense of peace knowing the process has begun.

Family of Paige Fletcher

Journell remains behind bars in the Roanoke City Jail without bond.

You can watch the full press briefing with Abingdon Police Chief John Holbrook below:

News Channel 11 has reached out to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for further comment but has yet to hear back.