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For Deborah Murphey, Free Living Is Hard Living

Six years ago, the State of Georgia sent U.S. marshals to Murphey’s home in Frankston, Texas, to take her back to the prison she’d escaped from 33 years earlier. That didn’t work. But now the state has another plan.

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Deborah Murphey, photographed in 2008 at her home in Frankston.
David Anderson

In November 2007, four U.S. deputy marshals slipped into Frankston, a small town in East Texas, to arrest a 53-year-old woman named Deborah Murphey. Deborah was a fugitive. Thirty-three years earlier, in 1974, she had escaped from the Georgia Rehabilitation Center for Women, where she had been serving a seven-year prison sentence for participating in an armed robbery of a gas station outside Atlanta. (At the time of the robbery, she was seventeen years old.) She had eventually made her way to Texas, where she married, raised two children, and went to college to get a nursing degree.

“As far as I can tell, she became a model citizen,” Greg Anderson, the sheriff of Anderson County (where Frankston is located), told me when I did a Texas Monthly story on Deborah that ran in December 2008. “She lived among us in peace and harmony. I don’t even think she got a traffic ticket.”

Someone hiding from the law—even for years and years—is not a particularly unique story. But what got me curious about the case was the news that Deborah had escaped five previous times from that women’s prison, inevitably getting caught after each escape before escaping for good on the sixth try. What I found equally curious was what happened when the marshals came to the door of the little frame home in Frankston that she shared with her husband, Richard (who was at work that day). She excused herself for a moment, went to the back bedroom, and grabbed a shotgun, apparently to commit suicide. “You need to take this before I do something bad to myself,” she finally said to one of the marshals, handing 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?”

Because of some wily legal maneuvers by Dan Scarborough, an attorney from the nearby town of Palestine who agreed to represent Deborah pro bono, she was not immediately extradited back to Georgia. A local judge released her on a $250,000 bond, and she returned to her home to await her fate. She became a recluse, rarely leaving her house and refusing all requests for news media interviews until Scarborough persuaded her to talk to Texas Monthly.

The story she told me set off a surprising public reaction. Outraged Texans wrote letters to the governor of Georgia, demanding that he let Deborah live out the rest of her life in Frankston. A few wrote letters to Texas’s own Governor Rick Perry, asking that he sign some sort of executive order preventing Deborah from being taken away. The letter-writing campaigns—along with a barrage of newspaper and television coverage—seemed to have had an effect on the Georgia Department of Corrections. It didn’t pursue its court case to extradite Deborah. By all indications, the case was closed.

But it was not closed at all. Today, Deborah and Richard are still in East Texas, but they are living on a mere $945 a month due to a decision made by the Social Security Administration, based on information it received from the Georgia Department of Corrections, to block Deborah from receiving her monthly Social Security disability check. She and her husband now live in a mobile home, and they can barely afford to buy medications for Deborah’s medical maladies (she suffers from heart disease, diabetes, and Paget’s disease, a bone disorder). “I’m basically homebound here in the trailer,” Deborah told me when we spoke in mid-January. “We barely can afford gas to drive in to get some groceries.”

When I first interviewed Deborah, she was in her mid-fifties and already in bad health. A few months earlier, she had suffered a heart attack. Because of her Paget’s disease, she could not stand for more than ten or twenty minutes at a time, and she was mostly spending her days in her recliner or at a table in her home, sewing quilts.

When we started talking, Deborah told me that she had been raised by a physically abusive father who regularly beat her, her sister, and mother. She said that her father kicked her out of the home when she was a teenager. She ended up working as a waitress in Atlanta and spending her evenings getting drunk and doing drugs. On the night of February 11, 1972, she said, she got in a car with two men in their early twenties whom she had just met after a night of partying. She was asleep in the back seat when the men stopped at a Hi-Lo gas station in Duluth, outside Atlanta. They grabbed the money out of the cash register and then raced away. A police car came up behind them. One of the men shot at the police car. The driver ran through a police roadblock and crashed the car. Deborah was found on the back floorboard.

I figured Deborah had made up the story so that she would look innocent. But when I went to Georgia to double-check what she was telling me, I came across a story in the Gwinnett Daily News, a now-defunct newspaper that covered Duluth in the early seventies, which confirmed most of the details from Deborah’s account. What’s more, the two young men never said to police that she had been part of the crime. Nevertheless, the county’s district attorney called Deborah “a drifter,” and after a one-day trial, a jury found her guilty of armed robbery.

That, however, wasn’t the most stunning part of the story. Deborah told me that almost from the day she arrived at the prison, she was sexually assaulted by guards. “One of the guards came after me right after I got there,” Deborah 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.’ ”

It was so bad, she said, that she made her first escape only three months after arriving at the prison. She was found in Atlanta and returned to prison, where the assaults quickly resumed. One employee told her that if she didn’t meet him in an empty office for sex, 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.

Again, I was suspicious that she was making up these stories about prison life—or, at the least, exaggerating them—to justify her escapes. But then I contacted Robert Cullen, an Atlanta attorney who in 1984 had filed a class-action lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections. As part of that lawsuit, he had released statements from nearly two hundred female inmates who were at the women’s prison detailing the sexual abuse they endured from male guards or staffers. Cullen told me that when he was interviewing the inmates for his lawsuit, several of them said that he ought to find Deborah and talk to her about what she had gone through. (As a result of the lawsuit, 36 prison employees were eventually fired, suspended, or transferred for allegedly having sexual contact with inmates, and 17 of those were indicted for sex crimes.)

Deborah told me that once she had escaped for the last time and made it to Texas, she decided to live a perfectly clean life so that she would never again be stopped and questioned by a police officer. And she did: stories abound about her being a good wife and mother as well as a devoted nurse. In fact, she added, she was so terrified of returning to prison that she carried a bottle of nitroglycerin heart medication with her wherever she went. She vowed that she would swallow the entire bottle of pills and die if she saw the U.S. marshals coming after her again. “I’ve made my peace with my husband and my children, and I’ve made peace with myself,” she said during our interview. “I know it will be my time to go.”

As for Deborah’s allegations about the abuse she experienced in prison, spokesmen for the Georgia Department of Corrections would not comment. Nor, after the Texas Monthly story was published, would the department comment on its plans to extradite her except to say that it was required by law to bring her back. Nevertheless, as the years passed, I figured Georgia officials decided this was a fight they could not winat least in the court of public opinionand that they had decided to let Deborah go.

But in October 2012, Deborah received a letter from the Southeastern Program Service Center of the Social Security Administration. The letter began, “We are writing to inform you that we plan to stop your Social Security benefits. . . . The law prohibits us from paying Social Security benefits to individuals who have an outstanding arrest warrant for a crime which is a felony.”

Deborah had been receiving a Social Security disability check (which automatically provided for Medicare) that totaled $1,200 a month. Suddenly, she and Richard were dependent on his $945 monthly Social Security check. (Since my Texas Monthly article had been published, he had retired from construction work after suffering a heart attack of his own.) They sold their home in Frankston and bought a mobile home outside Palestine. To make a little extra money, Richard built birdhouses that he sold from the back of his pickup truck and Deborah sold a few of her quilts. But because she couldn’t afford all the thread and the batting (the material that went inside the quilts), she quickly ran out of inventory. Their two children, when they were able, would give them money to pay for a couple of Deborah’s prescriptions. And a doctor took some sympathy on them and gave her a free checkup. “But he said she needed a lot more care than what she was getting,” Richard told me.  

In a hand-written letter to the Social Security Administration, Deborah begged that she be allowed to have her monthly check. “I have multiple medical conditions and rely on Social Security and Medicare to be able to survive,” she wrote. “Without these benefits, I will not have medical care or medication. I will die.” She sent similar letters to the Department of Corrections and the Georgia governor’s office. She said that in early 2013, an official from the Department of Corrections and another official from the governor’s office jointly called her. (She couldn’t remember their names.) They told her that the state was not going to pay the costs of coming to Texas a second time to extradite her, but they added that if she ever wanted to receive her Social Security check again, she would have to come to Georgia, turn herself in to the Department of Corrections, and finish her prison time (she had served slightly more than two years of her seven-year sentence when she escaped), plus serve some additional time, which would be decided by a judge, for the escape itself.

Georgia was definitely following the letter of the law when it passed on her name to the Social Security Administration to have her disqualified for benefits. But once again, a spokesman would not comment on Deborah’s case or on the reasons why the decision to cut off her Social Security check was made in 2012, five years after a warrant was issued for her extradition. 

Whatever has happened, Deborah (who turns sixty at the end of January) told me that she and Richard, who’s 69, will get by. “We have each other,” she said, “and I’m just grateful I had the chance to have a life with him and to raise two good children.”

And if the U.S. marshals do ever return? There was a silence. “I’ve still got my bottle of pills with me,” she finally said. “And I’ve got my goodbye letters already written to Richard and my children and my grandchildren. And I’ve written out my wishes for a funeral. I just want to buried in an old wooden box and put in the family cemetery back in Frankston. And I hope someone will say at the funeral that Deborah Murphey ended up being a good woman. That’s all I want.”

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