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