The Fugitive

She was convicted at age eighteen of armed robbery and broke out of a Georgia prison five times before escaping for good in July 1974. She made a new life for herself as a loving wife and a caring nurse in East Texas, where no one—not even her husband—knew her dark secret or the terrifying experiences that had made her run.

December 2008By Comments

On a mild November afternoon in 2007, two dark SUVs with tinted windows slipped into Frankston, a small town in East Texas. Inside the vehicles were four U.S. marshals Dressed in civilian clothes with handguns strapped to their belts. One held a photo of a thin teenage girl, her hair dark and straight, her eyes as brown as chestnuts.

The SUVs slowed as they approached a wood-frame home just across the street from the town’s water tower. One marshal got out and walked toward the front porch. One stood by the street. Another hid his gun underneath his shirt, strode around the house, and knocked on the back door.

Inside, a dog barked. A woman in her fifties, wearing thick glasses, jeans, and a faded blouse, sat in a recliner by a window that looked onto the backyard. She was sewing a pattern of red flowers onto a quilt. The television was tuned to a cable news channel. On a small table next to the recliner was a half-eaten cheese sandwich.

The marshal knocked again, and the woman slowly rose, steadying herself with one hand on the recliner. She walked across the room, past her framed nursing degree hanging on a wall. When she opened the door, the marshal stared at her for several seconds. He said he worked for the city and wanted to make sure her water was on. She checked a faucet in the kitchen and informed him that everything was fine.

He thanked her, walked to one of the SUVs, looked again at the photo of the teenage girl, and returned to the house. When the woman opened the door a second time, the marshal’s gun was back on his belt. “You’re Deborah Gavin, aren’t you?” he asked.

“I’m Mrs. Deborah Murphey,” she replied, but her voice faltered.

“Ma’am, we’re here to take you back to Georgia,” the marshal said. “It’s been thirty-three years.”

The woman noticed another marshal in the yard, his hand on his gun. She said she needed to put her dog, Roxy, an aging, overweight blue heeler mix, in the rear bedroom so that she wouldn’t cause a commotion. She went with Roxy into the bedroom, shut the door, grabbed a single-barrel shotgun leaning against a wall, and then picked up the telephone to call her husband, who was working in nearby Tyler. “Richard,” she planned to say, “there’s something I’ve never told you.” But he didn’t answer. She tried him again, and then again.

Minutes passed. “Ma’am?” the marshal called from the entryway. “Ma’am?”

Finally, she opened the bedroom door, the shotgun in her hands, the barrel pointing toward the ceiling with the stock open. “You need to take this before I do something bad to myself,” she said, giving him the gun, and then she nearly collapsed, her hands pressed against her heart. “Do you not know what they did to me there?” she asked the marshals. “Do you not know?”

It was the biggest news ever to hit Frankston, population 1,231. People who knew her simply couldn’t believe what they were reading in the papers. Sweet Deborah Murphey, the 53-year-old nurse who used to work at the hospital over in Tyler, was a fugitive—“the nicest lady in the world turned into an escapee from the law,” marveled Linda Veitch, the owner of the town’s biggest beauty salon, the Hair Depot.

In April 1972, when Deborah was just eighteen, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for an armed robbery of a gas station outside Atlanta. But within four months of arriving at the Georgia Rehabilitation Center for Women, which was then the state’s only prison for female inmates, she escaped. She was apprehended and reincarcerated, but she soon escaped again. In less than two years, she broke out of the facility five times—“some sort of record, no doubt,” a prison official would later say—getting caught each time. But on her sixth attempt, in July 1974, she made a clean getaway, evading the guards and eventually making her way to Texas. There she married, raised two children, and graduated from college with a nursing degree. “As far as I can tell, she became a model citizen,” said Greg Taylor, the sheriff of Anderson County, where Frankston is located. “She lived among us in peace and harmony. I don’t even think she got a traffic ticket.”

Whenever a fugitive escapes from one state to another and is caught by a U.S. marshal, he or she is usually held at a local jail until formal extradition proceedings get under way. But after Deborah’s arrest, Dan Scarbrough, an attorney from the nearby town of Palestine, took her case pro bono and quickly filed a motion with a district court in Anderson County, claiming that the marshals had come for Deborah without a certified copy of an arrest warrant. A sympathetic judge released her on a $250,000 bond. She returned to her home, where she was immediately besieged by everyone from reporters and television producers to many of Frankston’s own wide-eyed citizens, who just wanted to get another look at her: this upright, small-town woman who had once been so utterly defiant of the law and whose past was such a secret that even her husband had been unaware she was a fugitive.

Questions swirled. Why, nearly everyone wanted to know, had she gone to get the shotgun when the marshals arrived? Was it true, as rumor had it, that she had come close to killing herself? If so, was it because she was ashamed that her past life was about to become public, or was the idea of returning to prison just too devastating to contemplate? And what was she going to do if the marshals returned with the proper warrant?

But Deborah refused to give any interviews. She rarely left the house except for trips to the doctor or her attorney’s office or to attend a couple funerals for old friends. During one visit to Tyler, she suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the very hospital where she had once worked. Then, this past September, as word leaked that the Georgia Department of Corrections was finally compiling the proper court records to bring her back, she agreed to let me come see her. When I arrived at her home, she was sitting in her recliner, where she spends much of her time due to poor health. (Besides her bad heart, she also suffers from Paget’s disease of bone, a chronic skeletal disorder.) Richard, a soft-spoken,
silver-haired man, had taken the afternoon off from work and was sitting on a couch in his overalls. Roxy lay nearby.

“It isn’t right what they’re doing to me, and they know it isn’t right,” Deborah said, staring at a blank spot on a wall, her eyes blinking rapidly behind her glasses. “It isn’t right at all.”

She was born in Waco, the oldest of five children. Her father, who served in the Air Force, was regularly transferred from one base to another around the country, and by the time Deborah was a young teenager, the family was living in Orlando, Florida. When I asked her what her childhood was like, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “My daddy drank, and he hit my mom, then he started hitting us kids. I got whipped with a coat hanger. I had my jaw and my nose broken. He’d get mad at me for any kind of reason, like not making good grades in school, and off he’d go.”

She took a breath. “One day he made me pack some clothes in a paper bag, and he took me out and left me beside a road, telling me not to come back because I was worthless. He came back a while later, saying he hoped I had learned my lesson. But I knew right then I needed to leave.”

Deborah said she first ran away in the eighth grade. She ran away so many times that she was sent to a juvenile reform school and later to a psychiatric hospital, but as soon as she returned home, she’d inevitably leave again, because her father would resume his beatings. “Listen, we all wanted to get out,” her sister Dale, who now lives in Oklahoma, later told me. “If Child Protective Services had been around back then, they would have taken us away because of the abuse. As it was, we had to do what we could.”

When she was fifteen or sixteen, Deborah took a bus to Atlanta, telling no one in her family where she was going. She made her way to what was then known as the Strip, a six-block area along Peachtree Street that local newspapers liked to describe as the hippie district. The Strip was populated with head shops, rock and roll nightclubs with names like the Bowery and the Catacombs, and boutiques that sold tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and psychedelic art. Long-haired street vendors hawked an underground newspaper called the Great Speckled Bird, which railed against Vietnam and Nixon. “I lied about my age and got a job as a waitress at a coffee shop,” Deborah said, “and I lived in a rundown apartment with some other waitresses. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was better than what I had.”

She was a lanky girl, just over one hundred pounds, with bony shoulders and a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The portrait of youthful petulance, she smoked unfiltered cigarettes and experimented with drugs—“LSD, speed, Boone’s Farm apple wine, cough syrup, whatever anyone offered me,” she told me. Needless to say, guys along the Strip lusted after her. Soon after she arrived, she got pregnant, gave birth to a son, and put him up for adoption. Then, on the evening of February 10, 1972, just before her eighteenth birthday, she got in a car with two men in their early twenties whom she had just met, and together they ended up at a Hi-Lo gas station in Duluth, northeast of Atlanta.

Deborah has little memory of what happened that night, she said, because she was wasted on booze and drugs. “I was in a Dodge Dart, I think, and I was in the backseat, nearly passed out. The two guys stopped at the gas station, and the next thing I knew, we were driving away at a fast speed, and then a police car began coming after us. One of the guys pulled out a gun and started shooting.” She continued, “There was a roadblock ahead, and they didn’t stop. They plowed right through it and crashed, and the police didn’t know I was in the car until the man from the wrecker got there and pulled the doors apart and found me on the floorboard.”

I assumed, of course, that Deborah had changed details of the incident to make herself look innocent. But her story jibed almost exactly with accounts of the crime that I later read in the Gwinnett Daily News, a now defunct newspaper that covered Duluth in the early seventies. One of the young men had aimed a gun at the gas station attendant and demanded the money in the cash register (a total of $156). A patrolman had noticed the car, a 1971 Dodge. He gave chase and eventually radioed for help, claiming that someone in the car was shooting at him. Two other police cars stopped in the middle of the road to form a roadblock. The Dodge crashed into them. According to the newspaper, officers had already handcuffed the men before they saw Deborah “almost on the floor” of the car. She allegedly told them that the driver had said just before the crash, “Watch me make those sons of bitches move their cars.”

Because she seemed dazed and possibly suffering from whiplash, Deborah was taken to the hospital. But the district attorney had little sympathy for her. In an interview with the Daily News, he called her a “drifter” who had been kicked out of her home by her father. After a one-day trial, in April 1972, a jury found her guilty of armed robbery and gave her seven years in the penitentiary. “I remember the judge telling me, ‘You might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you’re still just as guilty as the two other boys,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘We’re going to make an example out of you.’”

In 1972 the Georgia Rehabilitation Center for Women was located in a large horseshoe-shaped building on the grounds of the state hospital in Hardwick, in central Georgia. Built in the early twentieth century, it was an ancient, creaking place that was bitterly cold in the winters and stultifyingly hot in the summers—“conditions that certainly were not the best,” admitted Pat Lehn, a longtime official with the Georgia Department of Corrections who in those years helped supervise programs for the women’s prison.

More than three hundred inmates, wearing orange dresses that buttoned down the front, were confined to the prison. Most of them lived in a dormitory and, except for those who had committed especially violent crimes, worked on the state hospital grounds at such places as the laundry and central cafeteria. Although Lehn has no memory of Deborah (she worked out of the main Atlanta offices and visited the prison only periodically), she noted that several prisoners at that time were serving long sentences handed down by judges and older, all-male juries who no doubt had disapproved of the women’s free-spirited lifestyles. “We had one young woman who was there for stealing a rocking chair off a porch,” Lehn said. “I remember Barbara Walters [then with NBC’s Today show] came down to do a story about her.”

When I asked Deborah what her life was like in prison, she hesitated and stared at her husband. In an earlier conversation, Richard had told me that over the years Deborah had spoken about those days “only a little bit at a time” and that she had “once or twice mentioned something about the guards doing things to her.” But he hadn’t heard much else, and as his wife began to talk, I noticed him leaning forward on the couch, biting his bottom lip.

“One of the guards came after me right after I got there,” she said. “He told me in a real low voice, ‘I’m going to do things to you, and if you say a word, you’re going to regret it for as long as you’re here. And even if you tell anybody, no one’s going to believe you because you’re nothing but a no-good inmate.’”

For the next thirty minutes, Deborah told one story after another about the sexual abuse she had endured from at least three guards or male staffers who had worked at the prison or the state hospital. (She adamantly refused to name her attackers, telling me, “There’s no reason to make their kids and grandkids suffer.”) She said one guard took her to an empty floor upstairs in the prison and forced himself on her. Another guard, escorting her to her job at the laundry, suddenly dragged her behind some trees, grabbed her shirt, and pulled her forward so fast “that my head snapped back.” One employee told her that if she didn’t meet him in an empty office, he would inform the warden that he had caught her violating some serious prison rule, which would get her sent to “the hole,” or solitary confinement.

A few weeks after the abuse began, Deborah tried to hang herself by throwing a sheet over a pipe that was connected to the ceiling in her dormitory. Someone pulled her down before she stopped breathing, and she was taken to a psychiatric ward in a different building, “which I actually liked, sitting with all the insane people,” she said, “because it was the only place where those men couldn’t get to me.” A month or so later, when she was told that she was being moved back to the main prison, she made another suicide attempt, this time hanging herself in a bathroom with a shower curtain. When that failed, she decided to escape.

Because the prison in the early seventies was not surrounded by fences—“it wasn’t exactly maximum security,” said Lehn—an inmate who got out of the building had a better than average chance of making it across the state hospital grounds, reaching the nearby woods, and disappearing. An inmate could also, with a little luck, slip away while she was on her work detail. To pull off her escape, however, Deborah did have a fence to climb: the one surrounding the psychiatric unit. One night, she said, she and another inmate threw blankets over the chain-link fencing to avoid getting cut and made it as far as the woods. They hid until daybreak, then started walking. When they got to a gas station, the other woman called her family in Atlanta and asked that they come pick them up.

Six weeks later, police found the two in Atlanta, living in a house owned by a relative of the other woman. (“I know, pretty stupid,” said Deborah.) They were returned to prison, but in January 1973, Deborah attempted her second escape, once again with another inmate, busting open a window in the main prison building and leaping out. The two were caught four months later in New Orleans when they were pulled over by police for speeding. When she returned to Georgia, she was indicted on felony escape charges, and a judge added seven months to her seven-year sentence. She was put in solitary confinement, she told me, and given Valium so that she would stay docile and not escape again.

Deborah assured me that she had informed others about the abuse she was suffering: her psychiatrist as well as a female warden. But as soon as she was returned to prison, the assaults continued. When she made one more attempt to file a complaint, she recalled, the guards stripped her naked, put her in a straitjacket, and bound her feet. So in March 1974, she escaped a third time. When police found her in Atlanta, she was again taken before a judge, who added another year to her sentence. Undeterred, she escaped for two weeks that June. (In my interview with her, she could not remember where police caught her that time.) And on June 30, she attempted to escape a fifth time but was caught the same day.

I later asked a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections about Deborah’s account of prison life. He would not comment. When I then e-mailed him to ask if there was any reason to doubt her story, I received no response. The department’s legal office also denied an open-records request I made to examine Deborah’s prison history, claiming that her records were exempt from perusal because she was still an active inmate.

I then contacted Robert Cullen, an Atlanta attorney who in 1984 filed a now famous class-action lawsuit, Cason v. Seckinger, charging the Georgia Department of Corrections with cruel and unusual punishment. In 1992 the lawsuit was amended to include allegations that female inmates were being sexually abused by guards and staffers, and Cullen gathered more than seventy written statements from women prisoners whose stories were remarkably similar to Deborah’s: They were raped in empty offices or while they were on work detail, and if they fought back, they were thrown into solitary confinement or forced into straitjackets. (As a result of the lawsuit, more than thirty prison employees were eventually fired, suspended, or transferred for alleged sexual contact with inmates, and at least fourteen of those were indicted for sex crimes.) Although Cullen’s case documented a culture of abuse at the women’s prison that went back for years, it didn’t specifically mention Deborah Gavin. But he told me that when he was interviewing inmates, several of them mentioned her and the abuse she had been forced to endure.

Deborah’s final escape came on July 23, 1974, when she was twenty years old. A male guard who had just arrived at the prison had learned what was happening to her, and one night he left a back door open. “He told me to get out and to get out good,” she said. “He said they’d figure out a way to kill me if I was caught one more time.”

She first went to Atlanta, then to Nashville, and then, because she was lonely, she decided to call her mother, who was still in Florida but had separated from Deborah’s father. She told her she had been in prison, had served her time, and was ready for a new start. They went to Texas, moving into an apartment in the Dallas suburb of Irving, where Deborah’s mother had relatives. Amazingly, Deborah didn’t try very hard to live under the radar. She didn’t change her name, and she continued using a Social Security number she had received as a teenager. “I just decided I wasn’t going to get pulled over by the police ever again,” she told me. “I decided to lead the best life I could. I had been running ever since I could remember, and I was tired of it.”

It wasn’t long before Deborah met some men out by the apartment complex’s swimming pool. When she learned they worked construction, doing the brickwork on new homes, she asked about job openings. They introduced her to their boss, Richard Murphey. He was ten years her senior and “gentle as a lamb,” said Deborah, “the kind of man who didn’t raise his voice, not once.” She went to work for him as a laborer, hauling mud and building scaffolding, and soon, he was taking her bowling and out to eat at inexpensive Mexican restaurants. She finally told him about her time in prison, and she did mention that she had once escaped and was later found in New Orleans. But she never said anything about the last escape “because I didn’t want to worry about him going to jail for harboring a fugitive.”

Richard and Deborah moved into an apartment together in 1976. A year later, she gave birth to a boy, Scooter, and in 1979 they had a daughter, Christy. They waited until 1984 to get married, holding their wedding ceremony at a justice of the peace office. She wore jeans; Richard was in his work clothes, brick dust still clinging to his shirt.

The Murpheys relocated to a small piece of property outside Sulphur Springs, in East Texas, and in 1989 they moved to Frankston, Richard’s hometown. Deborah coached her son’s Little League team and took her daughter to Future Farmers of America meetings. “I was always with them,” she said. “I didn’t want them getting into any trouble, facing temptations they didn’t know how to deal with.” When her kids got into high school, she attended all her son’s football games, and she cheered in the stands the day her daughter was named band queen.

During those years, Deborah took one major gamble, writing to the Georgia Department of Education to ask for a copy of her GED, which she had received when she was in prison. To her relief, the request triggered no alarm: The department obviously had no idea a prison escapee was writing. The diploma arrived in the mail, and Deborah used it to enroll in tiny Jacksonville College, not far from Frankston, where she took some math, history, and English courses. Then she enrolled at the University of Texas at Tyler to study nursing. To pay for her tuition and books, she sold her dining room set and worked part-time at a convenience store.

In 1994, when she was forty years old, she walked across the UT—Tyler stage to receive her diploma. Richard was so proud that he later drove her to a mall in Tyler and had a glamour photo taken of her at Hollywood Portraits. She got a job at Tyler’s East Texas Medical Center, where she worked in several departments. Sometimes she’d leave the house as early as three-thirty in the morning to get to the hospital by four so she could do a couple hours of paperwork before her six o’clock shift. A few of the staffers called her Gestapo because she took her job so seriously. But in 2005 her career was derailed when she hurt her back trying to lift an overweight patient. An MRI revealed that she had Paget’s disease, and a CAT scan uncovered a malignant tumor on her right kidney (the kidney was removed). A stress test later showed blockage in her heart, and she underwent surgery to have three stents put in her right coronary artery.

Forced to quit her nursing job, Deborah decided to start a small quilting business. Soon the house was full of quilting books, yards of cloth, appliqués, and sewing machines. Richard removed the furniture from their living room and had a special twelve-foot-long quilting machine brought in, which allowed her to make professional-grade quilts. Although Deborah’s business never got off the ground—she had trouble bending over the sewing machine due to her health problems—she was content. “After I escaped, I had three goals: to meet a good man, to raise my kids, and to go to school and do something with my life,” she told me, tears filling her eyes for the first time since we’d met. “I had done what I had set out to do.”

And then a U.S. marshal knocked on the door.

In 2000 the U.S. Marshals Service began forming task forces around the country to look for fugitives who had escaped from jail or prison, violated probation or parole, or skipped a court appearance. The Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force, out of Atlanta, has been particularly successful: Since its inception, in 2003, it has picked up people in more than 11,000 felony investigations—an average of six a day. “If a case is assigned to the marshals’ office, it remains open until that person is caught,” said James Ergas, one of the Southeast supervisors. “Right now we have about a thousand cases open in our region.”

Ergas would not confirm exactly how the marshals found Deborah. Her attorney, Scarbrough, and Anderson County sheriff Taylor say they were told that a Homeland Security computer program triggered some sort of notification when Deborah filed a Social Security disability claim. But the Murpheys also wonder if one of their relatives, a woman who was angry with them for not helping her out financially, grew suspicious about Deborah’s past and her reticence to talk about it, did some digging, and then informed authorities.

I asked Deborah if, after all this time, she had still been waiting for the marshals to come for her. “I thought maybe I was forgotten,” she said. “I thought maybe there were too many other bad things happening for anyone to remember me.” When I asked what she had felt when they were at her door, she replied, “It was like I was a seventeen-year-old girl again.” She put her face in her hands, trying not to weep.

When she went back to the bedroom, she said, she picked up the shotgun—Richard had taken it out of a closet a couple days earlier to shoot at a skunk—sat on the edge of the bed, placed the butt on the floor, and aimed the barrel directly at her heart. She had planned to lean forward, directly over the gun, and pull the trigger. “But first I was going to call Richard, tell him the truth about who I was and that it was better for me to die than go back. I was going to tell him I was sorry and that I loved him. And I was going to thank him for being so good to me.”

But when her husband didn’t answer, Deborah decided that “it would not be right to leave him with a message on his phone. He and my two kids needed an explanation.” She let herself be arrested, and when Richard heard what had happened, he raced to the county jail to find her. Afterward, as the first reporters arrived at their home, he stood outside by his pickup truck, holding the photo of Deborah from Hollywood Portraits, telling everyone what a good woman she was. When I asked Richard if he felt the slightest bit betrayed that she hadn’t revealed her entire past to him, he replied, “No, she had to do what she had to do. My wife and I have never had a single argument in all our years together, and we’re not going to start now.”

After Scarbrough won his motion to keep Deborah in Texas temporarily, the case seemed to stall. But a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections told me that the state remained committed to bringing her back. “That is what the law requires,” he said. He added that because Deborah had refused to return to Georgia, the state would be sending an extradition request for her to the office of Governor Rick Perry, which required certified copies of her court records. Perry will then eventually sign a warrant that goes to Anderson County, where Deborah will be kept in jail until officers from Georgia come to get her. (If he wants, Perry can refuse to sign the warrant. But the State of Georgia could, in turn, sue him in federal court, and he would most likely lose; a compact among U.S. states requires that they honor one another’s extradition requests.)

In early November, Perry’s office informed me that it had not yet received any request from the Georgia governor’s office asking that Deborah be extradited. And so she waits. The heart attack she suffered after her release has clearly slowed her down: She has trouble catching her breath, and she can stand for only ten to twenty minutes at a time. She has had to surrender her nurse’s license, which she said “was like another blow to my heart.” But, she told me, she knows that many people are supporting her. A group of hospital employees who used to work with her came by with $500 for a defense fund. And some of the boys she had coached in Little League showed up one day to say they were praying for her.

Nevertheless, during my visit to her home, I noticed something unusual about the blinds covering the window next to her recliner. One slat was bent, curved upward so that Deborah could see the backyard. “I’m always looking outside now, waiting for them to come back,” she said. “And when they do, I know exactly what I’m going to do.” She pointed to a vial of heart medication on the windowsill. “I’ll take all those pills, and I’ll be gone. I’ve made my peace with my husband and my children, and I’ve made peace with myself. I know it will be my time to go.”

“Oh, come on, Deborah,” said Richard. “Come on, now.”

Deborah looked at her husband, and the tears returned. “I’m not going back. I don’t deserve to go back.”

Related Content

  • Sam

    I’m always looking outside now, waiting for them to come back,” she said. “And when they do, I know exactly what I’m going to do.” She pointed to a vial of heart medication on the windowsill. “I’ll take all those pills, and I’ll be gone. I’ve made my peace with my husband and my children, and I’ve made peace with myself. I know it will be my time to go.”

    This poor woman has endure enough pain,
    they need to let it be

  • Rachel Zertuche

    Being passed out in the backseat of a car doesn’t mean she should be culpable for the armed robbery committed by a person in the front seat. Also, those prison guards should be ashamed of themselves, but I doubt they are.

    • oldag22

      I agree, that should be a mistrial. Then again, the way our justice system works even if she were found innocent of the armed robbery they could still make her serve time for escaping!

  • Sky Mirror

    This story is from 2008. So what has happened since it was published?