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Angel on Death Row

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photo of Debby Morris

Morris: Let's see when I was 16 years old, I was with my boyfriend, we were on the riverfront in Madisonville, and these two strangers approached our car with guns and they kidnapped us at gun point, drove us to Alabama where they shot Mark and left him to die there. Brought me back to Louisiana. They drove me around for a long time. I was raped and after some time passed they let me go.

Q: Could you go into a little more detail...

Morris: It was about 11:30, 11:45 at night. Mark and I were sitting in a car on the riverfront in Madisonville. Which is a place that has restaurants and houses and there're frequently a lot of people that gather there, go sit there to look at the river, relax, whatever. And we were drinking milk shakes which we often did .... We were sitting facing each other in the car. He was leaning against his door and I was leaning against the passenger door, kind of hanging my head out of the window a little bit. It was a hot night. And a truck pulled up on the other side, on Mark's side of the car and I don't see well at night so I couldn't really see what the people looked like who were getting out at first. And they started approaching the car and I can remember asking Mark are these -- do you know these people? Are these friends of yours? And right about that time before he could turn around to look one of them had made his way around the car and they had guns. And they pulled the guns on us. One of them put a gun to my head and they forced their way in the car. They told us not to panic, they just wanted our car and our money and not to do anything stupid, that they had killed people before and they would kill again.

Q: And what happened to Mark?

Morris: Mark was tortured and then shot in the head. Before they did that to him they stabbed in the side and cut his throat, burned him with cigarettes, all tied to a tree. And then they shot him in the back of the head.

Q: What did you expect would happen to you? I mean --this is the hard part Debbie-- I mean did you think you were going to walk out of there alive?

Morris: Initially I did think that I was going to walk out alive. Initially I didn't think that they were going to harm me. They said that they only wanted our car and our money and you know that was fine. I became more concerned later but I never really thought that I was going to die until much later. I think all along I kept thinking that somehow I was going to get free. Somehow if I waited long enough there was going to be an opportunity for me to find a way to get away from them.

Q: Tell me about when you did think you would die?

Morris: When I did think I was going to die was when they were arguing about what to do with me. And Robert Willie started talking about killing me. He said that he was going to lock me in the trunk of the car and burn the car. And that was the first time I think that I actually thought I was gonna die is when I heard him say that.

Q: Where did that happen?

Morris: That happened in an area right off River Road which is in Covington. It was out in the woods. They had taken me out there to get Mark's car which they were gonna burn. And they were arguing about whether to let me go or whether to kill me, you know just what to do with me. And that's when Robert Willie started talking about burning me in the trunk of the car.

Q: Tell me about the couple of times that they talked about killing you.

Morris: There were several times actually. One time Robert Willie was cleaning his fingernails with a knife and he looked at me and said do you know what I could do to you with this knife? And then other times if we happened to be anywhere near people or anything he would threaten to kill me if I made any noise or tried to get away or tried to do anything like that, he would kill me. It was a constant threat like that.

Q: And tell me about the -- you had said that there were really two times really when you started crying ...

Morris: The first time that I cried or got really emotional was when we were driving back after they had taken Mark out into the woods in Alabama and left him there. We were driving back through Pascaville, Mississippi which is where my dad lives now and did then. And we were going to come up to the red light that is the street that he lives on and I started trying to talk Joseph Vaccaro into letting me go. Robert Willie was sleeping in the back seat of the car and I guess being so near to safety and so far away from it made me very emotional. I started crying and just trying to beg him or talk him into letting me go quietly so that Robert Willie wouldn't hear. We got to the red light and we were stopped there. Joseph Vaccaro started getting extremely nervous and upset because I was crying and started telling me to stop crying, stop crying --he didn't like that-- and finally he reached over and punched me in the chest. And it knocked the wind out of me. So I stopped.

Q: Tell me about the other time you started crying.

Morris: The other time was the morning that they released me. I had fallen asleep for a short period of time and I woke up with someone touching my face and stroking my cheek and I had already been raped three times at this point and I thought that it was about to happen again. I think by that time I just was exhausted and I hadn't had anything to eat and I just could not go on with it. So as I woke up I just started crying and asking to please not do this to me again. Just take me out in the woods and kill me because that's what they were gonna do anyway. I started thinking at that point that this was getting hopeless, that I wasn't gonna get out of this. And I was just begging and crying, "Let me go -- just take me out in the woods and kill me, I'm tired of this, I can't do this any more."

Q: Tell me a little bit about where that happened? That was in the trailer or something right?

Morris: That was in a trailer, I'm not sure exactly where it is now, it was out in the woods, somewhere, I don't recall anything being close around, any houses or anything being close around. It was a trailer -- it had a fence around it, with dogs. It was the home of a person that Robert Willie and Joseph had come into contact with earlier that day for drugs. They decided to go back to his house and we got there, it was a trailer in the woods with a fence around it.

When we got there, we went inside and the three of them started using drugs, smoking marijuana and I think they may have had some pills -- I'm not sure I remember. And eventually the person whose trailer it was, his name is Tommy Holden, passed out. He had been using a lot of drugs earlier. It seemed obvious to me. And he passed out and then after that happened Joseph Vaccarro took me in the back room of the trailer and raped me.

Q: At that point when you think about this whole thing, you were with them what a day and a half, two days, 30 hours?

Morris: From approximately midnight on Friday until 7am on Sunday.

Q: From Friday night to Sunday, what was happening to you during that 30 hours? I mean, what were you thinking? What were you going through?

Morris: I think that they had just taken control of me. I was scared. I didn't know if they knew me and if they had planned to do this to me or if I was just someone you know that they randomly selected. I was wondering about that. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this, how I was going to get through this. I was trying to predict what they were going to do, trying to figure out who I could trust the most or who was the weakest. You know, maybe there was a weak spot that I could capitalize on to get out of it. I just was trying to think of how I was going to get out of this.

Q: And what did you think of -- how did you understand what they were doing to you? Were they terrorizing you?

Morris: They did a lot of things. They -- they just were exerting their power over me. More than anything they were trying to make me scared with the guns and the knives. They teased me a lot. They were just making sure that, that I knew that they were in control.

Q: And how did you come to think of them? I mean, what did you think of them as? Were they gentlemen?

Morris: No. I could tell that they were -- they seemed uneducated to me. They didn't -- this sounds kind of weird when you're talking about people who are killers-- but I mean they had no kind of social skills or etiquette or anything like that. They used real crude language. They talked to me with no respect, you could tell that they just had no respect for women, in Robert Willie's case especially, but for people in general.

Q: And when you think back then, what did you think of Robert Willie? At that point.

Morris: Robert Willie was the leader of the two. He seemed much more in control. He was definitely the person calling the shots. He was the person that I was the most scared of. I knew it didn't take a long time to figure out that he was not gonna be the person that I would be able to get away from. He was just the meanest, he was the meaner of the two. The other person, the other guy, Joseph [Vaccaro], just seemed extremely unstable to me. Robert Willie seemed crazy to me because he would be really mean one minute and then the next minute he would be talking about me being his girlfriend or something and wanting to date a girl like me. And then he would be mean again the next minute.

Q: Can you detail for me when and how you got away. What happened?

Morris: We drove to this place right off River Road, back into the woods and it was the three of them, the three men and me. And Joseph Vaccaro and Tommy Holden left me there with Robert Willie, they were going to burn all of the evidence, the car and all and Joseph Vaccaro and Tommy Holden left to go into town to get some supplies and food and things like that and gasoline, they left me with Robert Willie and when they came back I thought that they were going to let me go and Robert Willie started arguing with them, and the three of them started arguing about what to do with me.

Robert Willie wanted to kill me and he said that he was going to -- I heard him saying that he was going to put me in the trunk of the car and burn the car. the trunk of the car and burn the car. And I was sitting in the car and they were a little bit in front of the car, so I could hear what they were saying. I think that was the first time that I realized that I was going to die, that they were really going to kill me and that I wasn't going to be able to get out of it. And all I could think was that I was not going to die by burning in the trunk of a car. So I slid over the near door of the car and I just was gonna choose to take off running and make them shoot me in the back and kill me that way. So I scooted over to the edge of the car and I took my sandals off because I knew I couldn't run in sandals and I rolled up my pants legs so that I wouldn't trip and I was just about to start running because that's how close I was and Robert Willie said fine, 'We won't kill her, we'll take her home.' And so I stopped for just a moment and he said we'll go -- he told Tommy Holden-- we'll go in your car.

They drove to right outside of my hometown of Madisonville, they stopped the car in front of the cemetery and told me to get out. And I didn't really believe that they were gonna let me go, but I got out of the car and I can remember trying to be slow so that they would drive off ahead of me. But they didn't so I started walking and I didn't really think they were going to let me go. I thought that either they were going to grab me and pull me back into the car or that they were gonna run over me with the car. I just didn't real -- at this point they had teased me so many times without letting me go that I just couldn't really believe that they were gonna let me go that easily. About that time the car just drove off past me. And when it got out of sight I just started running as fast as I could into town.

Q: When you were kidnapped did you know about Faith Hathaway? When did you find out about that?

Morris: The first time that I heard about Faith was when I was giving my statement to the sheriff's deputies. And I heard them talking about another girl who was missing and that this could possibly be related. I think the first time I remember knowing that it was related was when they found her body at Frickie's Cave and I had been to that place and identified that place as the place where Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro had taken me and Robert Willie raped me there.

Q: What kind of emotions did it summon up in you?

Morris: It, it terrified me knowing how close I had come to actually dying and knowing that I had been in the same place where her body was lying not too far away. It, it made me scared, it -- just the realization of it was terrifying. I was thankful at the same time. I felt so lucky -- lucky is not really a good word. Just, just so grateful and thankful that it wasn't me.

Q: When Robert Willie was executed.... how did you feel about that then?

Morris: I had a very numb feeling. After he was executed, I felt relieved. I felt like I didn't have to be as scared any more of him. But before, the couple of days before and the night before, just was a real numb feeling, I wasn't happy, a lot of people would ask me if I was happy that he was going to be executed and that's not ever a feeling I remember having.

Q: Tell me what your feelings were about Robert Willie being executed and, at that time, how you felt about the death penalty.

Morris: I think that although I had a lot of feelings, the main feeling I had was relief that he was never gonna be around to hurt me again. I was gonna be able to let go of some of the fear. It was -- however, very conflicting for me because it was hard knowing that a person was going to die, perhaps because of some things that I said in the trial or my role in it. I felt some sense of responsibility. I was definitely for the death penalty then. I wanted him to die. But there as no happiness or no joy in that at all. I think just because of the responsibility that I felt. I didn't really feel like it was my fault, just that I had a role in it and it wasn't a good feeling knowing that I had anything to do with something that eventually would lead to somebody's death.

Q: And at that time, was there something you were hoping he was going to say to you? Was there something you wanted to say to him?

Morris: I don't think I would have had the courage to talk to him. But a part of me wanted to. I think I wanted to know or I needed to know, did he have any remorse for what he did? Was he sorry for what he did to me? Why me? Did he ever -- I wanted to ask him-- did he ever think about that during the time he was in prison? Did he ever rethink that and think maybe I shouldn't have done that, she was a nice person, how could I have done that to her?

Q: And what about you to him? I mean was there anything that you wanted to say to him or something that you had to resolve in yourself before he died?

Morris: I needed to be able to let go of the hate and the anger before he died. I needed to find a way to forgive him. Even if I hadn't resolved the things that happened to me or I can't say that, that I had recovered from the things that happened to me but I didn't want a person dying without me being able to find a way to forgive him.

Q: Did you?

Morris: I think I did to the greatest extent that I could. I don't know if I was able to fully forgive him. I wanted to and I tried but I knew that later on in my life I had a lot more problems dealing with the actual things that happened to me, the rape and kidnapping and all. And when I dealt with those issues, a lot of anger came up -- but it was different. It wasn't as much like it was directed at him. So I feel like I did forgive him to the greatest extent possible and I think since then, I've done a lot of healing which has brought me more to a fuller forgiveness.


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