It was gripping. Terrifying. And sad. And miraculous. All wrapped up into one.
If you’ve never heard a rape victim openly discuss the horrors of and survival of being kidnapped, repeatedly raped, beaten and abused, and most of us haven’t, the story that Debbie Cuevas Morris tells will forever be part of your memory bank.
The week before Christmas this Knoxville Realtor shared her story with the Rotary Club of Farragut, her story about what two men did to her when she was a 16-year-old high school student in a rural town north of New Orleans. And what they did to her then 20-year-old boyfriend, Mark Brewster.
She is the author of “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking,” which details her struggle of being a victim of kidnapping, rape, torture and attempted murder, and her journey toward forgiveness of her abductors. After her ordeal ended, she survived massive depression, severe PTSD, drinking heavily and feeling like a complete failure.
Today, she lives in Knoxville with her husband, Brad, and works as a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. They have two children. Brad is a corporate jet pilot for Pilot/Flying J. She eventually was able to get on with her life, graduating from LSU and being a special education teacher for 30 years.
Her testimony in the trial of Robert Willie in Louisiana helped convict this man who was the rapist in the movie “Dead Man Walking.”
The two men drove Debbie and her boyfriend to a wooded area near Mobile, Alabama. They took Mark into some woods, hanged him from a tree, burned him with cigarettes, cut and stabbed him, shot him in the head and left him for dead. Then they stuffed Debbie into the trunk of the car and drove back to an area near her hometown, Madisonville. Over the next two days in a trailer home they raped her many times, tortured and abused her, taunted and threatened her.
Now comes the first miracle. The two men, for some reason, did not murder her. Instead, they released her close to her hometown and she ran across a river bridge, all the way to the town’s grocery store. And she called her mother. She then took the FBI and others to where she remembered Mark was and they found him – alive. Two miracles.
Mark today is paralyzed from the waist down.
Willie was tried, found guilty and put to death. The other man is serving two life sentences without parole. Eight days before they attacked Debbie, the men had killed another young woman in Hope, Arkansas, that became the topic of the book and movie “Dead Man Walking.”
Many years passed before Debbie learned to forgive them.
“Until this happened, I had my life planned out. I was a cheerleader, in student government and was an honor student. My plans were made to escape my small town,” she said.
She finally survived by learning that forgiveness is more powerful than “unforgiveness.” She also was happy that Louisiana has fair and swift justice. “I wanted them to pay the price for what they did to me and Willie’s execution was the start of my turnaround,” she said. “I was angry at everybody for a long time. I wanted peace and joy and was tired of being angry, feeling rage and shame.”
A book by Corrie ten Boom helped her find her way back and led her to her career as a special education teacher and the mother of two children, the life she originally wanted.
Her book, which was published in 1998, is available on Amazon.
In reviewing it, the “Library Journal” said, in part: “When the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ was made, she contacted Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who counseled Robert Willie in prison and who was the focus of much of Debbie’s anger. After speaking with Sister Helen, however, Morris was able to use her Christian beliefs to learn to forgive. Although Morris does include details of her awful ordeal, this is more a personal reflection on human nature than a traditional true-crime book.”
When you hear her speak and witness the emotions that remain, her story is both very real and human. And memorable.
If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop Tom King an email or call 865-659-3562. We meet each Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. at Fox Den Country Club. Join us and see how you like it.