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Forgiving Her Rapists 

Madisonville native Debbie Morris shares the story of how she came to forgive Robert Lee Willie, the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was 16.

"... if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." -- Debbie Morris, crime survivor, quoting the Bible (Matthew 6:15)

The fear comes in parking lots," Debbie Morris, a 37-year-old native of Madisonville, La., says, quietly.

It also appears anywhere she stops while driving alone at night. Taking her two young children to an empty park near their Cincinnati-area home is out of the question, even during daylight hours. When she is with her husband, Morris becomes anxious if they sit too long in a parked car.

The nightmares are fewer and further between, however. And the fear, she's convinced, weakens its grip as her faith gets stronger. And she will assert herself and correct others who refer to her as a "victim" of one of Louisiana's most notorious criminals.

"I am a crime survivor," Morris says, with steel in her voice.

It's been more than two decades since Morris was 16-year-old Debbie Cuevas, kidnapped from her Northshore hometown and raped by two armed ex-convicts, who then took her on a three-state crime spree.

The men also abducted her then-boyfriend Mark Brewster, 20, who they left alone to die -- tortured, stabbed and shot in the head -- tied to a tree in the Alabama woods off Interstate 10.

Brewster and Morris survived. Today, one of their tormentors is dead; the other, in prison.

Robert Lee Willie was executed in 1984 for the rape and murder of Faith Hathaway, a 19-year-old Mandeville woman killed by Willie and accomplice Joseph Vaccaro shortly before they kidnapped Brewster and Morris. Willie's execution was depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun and spiritual adviser to Willie at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Vaccaro is serving three life sentences for his crimes at a federal penitentiary in Kansas. Morris says Brewster does not give interviews. Morris, meanwhile, ended years of anonymity with her 1998 book, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking -- an autobiographical response to both the movie and Prejean's book.

A former special education teacher, Morris has a Web site (www.debbiemorris .net) and a television movie deal in the works. She now lectures widely on faith-based healing, forgiveness, and crime victim rehabilitation.

"Crime victims and their families need to understand our own healing is not contingent upon what happens to the predator of that crime," she says. "We have the freedom and the ability to heal and to find joy in life, regardless of what happens to the perpetrator of the crime. It's not his punishment or lack of punishment that ultimately matters."

A devout Southern Baptist and self-described conservative, Morris favors school prayer, opposes gun control and considers the American Civil Liberties Union "a useless organization." She supports life sentences for rapists and child predators. But unlike most other conservatives, she opposes the death penalty and mandatory minimum-sentencing for drug offenders; she also sees little utility in crime victims' rights groups.

She and her husband, Brad, a commercial airline pilot/trainer, try to help prisoners by corresponding with them through a faith-based national "Pen Pal" network. Morris says she has corresponded with Vaccaro and hopes to visit him in prison. She says she has passed a criminal background check, but federal prison officials have yet to bless her request to visit her convicted kidnapper-rapist.

Morris also plans to visit Angola prison in September with a prison ministry group. "I have a special desire to go there because Robert Lee Willie was there," she says. And she wants to move her family back to Madisonville, her hometown and cradle of her worst nightmares.

On the night of May 31, 1980, Debbie Cuevas, 16, and Mark Brewster, 21, were sitting in his car on the scenic Tchefuncte riverfront in Madisonville. It was hot that night. They were facing each other, each with a back to a car door, talking and sipping milkshakes.

Debbie knew she had violated the 11 p.m. curfew set by her mother. Friday night had become Saturday morning.

Two men parked a white pick-up truck nearby, got out and walked toward their car. "You know these folks?" Debbie asked. Her date turned, but too late. One man put a revolver to Brewster's head. Then Debbie felt the hand of the other man around her neck. He pressed a sawed-off shot gun against her cheek.

The men forced the couple into the back of Brewster's car, promising to release them outside of Covington. When they stopped, however, they pistol-whipped Brewster and locked him in the trunk of the car.

Robert Willie turned to Debbie. "Time to get in the back seat, blondie," he said. "And take off your clothes."

Willie raped her. Joseph Vaccaro held the gun. The two men then drove their hostages to Alabama. Turning off Interstate 10, they found a remote dirt road leading into the woods. They stopped the car and took Brewster out of the trunk. They ordered Debbie to take his place. "Anything ya'll want to say to each other before he goes?" asked Willie. The tone was mocking, recalls Morris.

She continues: "Mark looked at me and said very softly, 'I'm so sorry.'

"I tried to smile. 'Everything's going to be OK. Don't worry about me.'"

The men marched Mark into a clearing and tied him to a tree. They burned his body with cigarettes, stabbed him once in the side, cut his throat, shot him in the head and left him to die. They returned to the car, laughing and making "animal-like" screams that echoed in the woods. They put their remaining hostage back in the car and eventually drove back to Louisiana to look for drugs.

At one point, Vaccaro began rambling, Morris recalls. "I sure hope what happened to our last girlfriend doesn't happen to you," he said.

"Why? What happened?" she asked.

"Oh! It was terrible!" His voice took on a strange, trance-like tone. "I don't know what happened, but it was real ..."

"Shut up!" Willie interrupted. "Ain't no need to talk about that."

But Vaccaro continued, spilling the details about a woman who was "all cut up and stabbed in the chest." The murdered woman was later identified as Faith Hathaway. They had dumped her body near Fricke's Cave, near the Bogue Chitto River off Highway 25, and south of Franklinton.

This time, Willie and Vaccaro returned to the remote area with Morris. "Relax," Willie told her. "We're just looking for a place." He did not elaborate.

En route, however, an elderly black man and young boy -- on foot and with fishing poles -- appeared at a bend in the road. The old man smiled and waved, unnerving her abductors. Willie cursed the potential witnesses. "Oughta run them niggers over," he said. But he drove on.

Morris never saw the old man and the boy again. Ever since then, she has been hard-pressed to deny the existence of angels.

After deliberating with Vaccaro by the river, Willie raped Debbie again. They drove her to the trailer home of a third man, Tommy Holden, where Vaccaro raped Debbie at Willie's insistence. Holden also made advances but panicked when Cuevas told him she had been kidnapped and raped by his cohorts. Holden later forced an argument about her fate.

Morris heard Willie say they should lock her in the trunk and set the car on fire. Later, he agreed to take her home. "We're making a big mistake," she heard him say. "We're all going to end up in prison over this!"'

Willie threatened to kill Morris if she went to the police. The men released her near a Madisonville area cemetery, and sped off.

Throughout her ordeal, Morris had the presence of mind to memorize landmarks and road-markers. She helped the police find Mark, critically wounded, but alive.

Holden, Willie and Vaccaro were later captured in Arkansas. Willie and Vaccaro were returned to Louisiana to stand trial for the murder of Hathaway. FBI agents asked Willie why he had not killed Debbie, too. "He said when he looked in my eyes, he saw love." Morris recalls. "He said, 'I just couldn't kill her.'"

But Willie changed his tone after she testified against him. "He made a lot of threats against me," Morris says, her voice breaking. "He told someone in an adjoining cell that his ambition was to get out and kill me. He was going to escape. He was going to find me and cut me into little pieces so my own mother wouldn't recognize me."

At the Hathaway trial, Willie tormented the victim's mother and stepfather -- Elizabeth and Vernon Harvey -- by declaring in court how much he enjoyed raping their daughter.

A jury convicted Willie of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Newspaper accounts hailed the 16-year-old girl from Madisonville, whose testimony put Willie in the electric chair on Dec. 28, 1984. Vaccaro went to prison for his role in the crimes. Several years after the trial, Holden committed suicide by hanging.

On the night of Willie's execution, nearly four years after the kidnapping, Morris decided to forgive her rapist for his crimes against herself only.

"As much as I hated the thought of him dying hating me," she writes in her book, "I realized it might be just as bad for him to die with me hating him."

'"There was no one to tell -- but God. Lying there in bed in the dark, I began to pray. Lord, please help me deal with whatever happens tonight. I really do forgive Robert Willie. As best I can, anyway. If the execution goes on, please make it fast and painless. I don't want him to suffer anymore. If he dies tonight, help his death to heal the Harveys and their pain. Amen.

"With that prayer pronouncing my forgiveness of Robert Willie, I gained an emotional release, a sense of freedom. ... Somehow, it cut me loose from the control Robert Willie had over me all those years. I fell asleep."

After Willie's execution, Morris says she learned that forgiveness is "not an event, but a process." And she found it easier to forgive Willie, than her mother, God -- and herself.

"It's the people that we love the most that we have the hardest time forgiving," Morris says.

"I trusted God. I trusted my Mom. I thought they would take care of me." Her mom had been out on a date the night she was kidnapped. Morris was angry that she did not know until the next day that her daughter was gone. Her mother just assumed Debbie got home safe and was spending the night with her grandparents, who lived next door. Morris harbored the anger for years.

And, she says, she felt abandoned by God.

Like her mother, now a recovering alcoholic, Morris began to drink heavily, often in New Orleans. She also battled depression. After several drinking "blackouts," she joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She earned a degree at LSU and took a job as a teacher in St. Tammany Parish. She returned to church and renewed a friendship with Brad Morris. They married in 1991.

Dead Man Walking was published in 1993; the movie followed in '95. The film led to a rapport between Morris and Sister Prejean. "I owe a lot of gratitude to her," Morris says of the nun, who later earned a Nobel Prize nomination for her crusade against the death penalty. "She did something for Robert Willie that I never could have done. She went to him and personally told him about God ...

"She never saw the brutal, disgusting person that I saw. And I didn't see the person she knew in prison." Unlike the movie character, however, Willie expressed no remorse for his crimes against Morris.

Dead Man Walking moved Morris to write her own book with a message -- "the hope of forgiveness." She dedicated it to her children, Conner, 6, and Courtney, 3.

In 1998, the year her book was published, Morris' message was put to the test. She received an unexpected visit from an intermediary -- for Joseph Vaccaro.

It was the week of Thanksgiving. Morris was signing her book at a Books-a-Million bookstore in Gretna. A "very non-threatening looking" woman waited until nobody else was around. Then, she approached the author. "She said this is probably going to come as a surprise to you," Morris recalls. It did.

The woman participated in a church-based correspondence program with prison inmates. She was a "pen pal" of Joseph Vaccaro. "She said he wanted to send me a letter and he wanted my permission to do that," Morris recalls. "He wanted to know if he could send it through my publisher. He made it clear he didn't want any personal information about me."

Morris agreed. The bookstore encounter turned out to be a "gift." "Joseph Vaccaro wrote me a letter, asking me to forgive him," she says.

She has communicated with the convicted kidnapper several times since then. "He has been extremely respectful of me. And he has never sent me a letter or anything without asking for permission first."

She decided a little over a year ago that it's time to visit Vaccaro in prison. "I want to tell him to his face that I forgive him," she says. "And I want to share with him, more importantly, God's forgiveness."

She stresses, however, that "forgiving him doesn't mean I excuse what he did to me, to Mark, and most of all, to Faith Hathaway."

She would oppose his parole if it came up. She thinks he's a "long shot" for rehabilitation. However, she says, he has learned to read and write in prison. "The person I knew when he kidnapped me would never been able to express the way he has to me in those letters."

A convict's con game? Morris thinks not. She has faith. "I have no fear of Joseph Vaquero," Morris says, the steel returning to her voice. "And I really do not believe he has any animosity toward me."

Debbie Morris' conservatism appears to defy any orthodoxy.

"I believe first and foremost in the value of every person; it doesn't matter to me what crimes they have chosen to commit. I don't think most conservatives would say that."

To Morris, the tone of many victims' rights groups is too militant and angry. "What I needed was not for someone else to be angry, but for someone else to say that I was OK, that I wasn't doing anything wrong, that I was still a good person, that I was still lovable," Morris says. "Helen Prejean told Robert Willie 'you're a child of God and that is enough.' No one said that to me after I was kidnapped."

She agrees with arguments that individual victims should not be the final arbiter of clemency for prisoners. "I forgive Joseph Vaccaro. I don't feel he is in any way a threat to me, but I don't presume to say he is rehabilitated either," she says. "There are still consequences for what he did. His crime was against all of us in society. That is why victims should not have the right to decide the punishment. ...

"The nature of the crime is important to consider," Morris adds, noting that there is a difference in being "young and stupid and doing irresponsible things" and committing cold-blooded crimes. "Sometimes it just doesn't matter what [violent criminals] did after their crime. They forfeited their lives.

"These things are difficult for me to say, because I believe in redemption and I believe in forgiveness, but I also believe that all of our actions have consequences."

As for rehabilitation, Morris doesn't believe it comes from any system or program. "I think rehabilitation of violent criminals has to involve a change of heart," she says. "And we never know the heart of another person. The best guide that we can see ... is the fruit of that person, the things that they do."

Morris opposes the death penalty and says that race and wealth often determine who gets punished and who goes free. She says she would have been more outspoken if Willie's execution were today and feels partly responsible for his death. His execution "sickens me as much as what Robert Lee Willie did to Faith Hathaway. Two wrongs don't make a right."

Still, there are people, she believes, who can never re-pay their debt to society. "Robert Willie paid the greatest price that could be paid, and it did not pay out the debt that he owed. That is why we need the grace and forgiveness of God."

It's been more than 16 years since Robert Lee Willie was executed. And Joseph Vaccaro has been locked up for more than 20 years. Yet, Debbie Morris works hard to face the lingering fears from the attack-- in parking lots, parks and other public places.

She still has nightmares, particularly when her husband is out of town, but with less frequency and less intensity. "Robert Willie had a lot of power over me for a long time," she says. "As soon as I awake, he no longer has power over me. I have power over him."

She longs to reclaim her Louisiana hometown. "I miss the food and the weather and my family. I would love to be able to live back in Madisonville. Some people find that hard to believe -- and I would want to live on the riverfront."

She warms to memories of Mardi Gras and seafood po-boys. She laughs freely; the steel is gone from her voice.

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