GARY - When murder victim Deborah McHenry was young, she, her brother and
three sisters used to play with Eugene Britt and his siblings.
Now, years later, family members believe that early friendship with Britt
led to Deborah's death.
"He (Britt) was a pretty good fellow," said McHenry's mother, Irene Morris,
as she sat in the living room of her Gary home Tuesday, remembering the years
her family lived next door to the Britts at 1981 Hayes. "You would never think
he was that kind of boy."
Britt, 38, has allegedly confessed to Gary and Portage police that he raped
and strangled eight Gary women, including Deborah, and that he strangled an
unidentified Gary man between May and September.
He is now being held in the Porter County Jail in Valparaiso on charges of
murder and criminal deviant conduct in the rape and strangulation death of
8-year-old Sarah Lynn Paulsen of Portage.
While city detectives are busy building their cases against Britt, who has
not been charged in any of the Gary killings, Morris and her family are
struggling to come to terms with the twist of fate that ended Deborah's life.
"She was a lovely person," Morris said of her youngest daughter, her eyes
filling with tears as she clutched a copy of the Lake County coroner's report
that details her daughter's cause of death. "She (Deborah) didn't fight. She
was just a homebody, a mother."
On the day she died, Deborah, 41, or Debbie as family members called her,
had gone to pick up her food stamps and Social Security check.
That afternoon, Deborah stopped at her aunt's house in Gary to visit and
hang out, her brother, Donald said. The group had a few drinks and talked for
Later, Deborah decided she wanted to go shopping, so Donald took her to a
nearby store. On the way home, though, Deborah told her brother to let her off
at 25th and Broadway, so she could meet up with a friend, Donald said.
That was the last time he saw her.
"Debbie was supposed to come back to my aunt's house, but she didn't,"
Donald said, his voice breaking.
Early the next morning, July 18, a man found Deborah's partially-clothed
body lying in some weeds near a garage at 2940 W. 21st Ave.
Police were able to identify her through a Med-Alert necklace she wore
because of epilepsy.
"Debbie was like a lamb," Donald said, pain clouding his eyes. "She needed
protection. There was no one there to protect her."
Morris believes that sometime after Deborah left her brother on July 17, she
must have run into Britt and recognized him from childhood and stopped to talk
"He was the last person you would expect (to do this)," Morris said,
referring to what Britt was like as a child.
Donald McHenry, though, said while Britt seemed nice enough as a child, he
came from a troubled family and allegedly began abusing alcohol at an early age.
The McHenry family moved away from the Britts in the mid-60s, ending up in
Gary's Glen Park neighborhood.
There, Deborah completed high school, graduating in 1973 from Westside High
Soon after graduation, she started working at a filling station and later at
other similar jobs.
Deborah, who never married, had a stillborn child a few years after
graduating from Westside, Donald said. Later, she had two other daughters, now
19 and 16 years old.
In 1987, Deborah was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor and
underwent surgery to remove it. Afterward, she was never quite the same.
"It took her from 30-years-old to 10-years-old. It affected her thinking,"
Donald said, adding that the family closed ranks after Deborah's surgery to
help her and protect her.
After the surgery, Deborah wasn't able to return to work, so she
concentrated on raising her daughters, Morris said.
Now, Deborah's daughters are trying to get on with their lives and keep
their mother's memory alive, Morris said.
But the task isn't easy.
For her part, Morris is critical of Gary police, saying they haven't been
talking with the family enough. She said she learned that Britt had allegedly
confessed to killing her daughter from the media.
Gary police, though, said they have been doing everything they can to try to
solve Deborah's murder and the other 100-plus that have occurred in the city
In addition, the Cold Squad, the city's special team of detectives assigned
to investigate unsolved homicides, is now focusing its energies on the nine
people Britt allegedly killed.
While some are relieved that Britt is in jail, Morris said she gets little
comfort from that.
"I can't forgive," she said softly, shaking her head. "I can't forgive."