Betty's Story: A Mother's Forgiveness

ByABC News via logo

March 28, 2005 — -- Meet Betty Ferguson, of Erie, Pa., the first of three finalists in the "Good Morning America"/Simon & Schuster "Story of My Life" contest.

Hers is the story of a mother and daughter, a murder mystery and an incredible twist that led to personal redemption.

Betty says that her life really didn't begin until the birth of her first child, Debbie. "When she was born, I felt a closeness to somebody that I never really felt before," Betty said.

She and her husband, Dick Gama, had four other children, filling Betty's life with happiness, but Debbie and her mom shared a special bond.

Debbie loved life, says Betty, but she was a typical teenager. She and her best friend, Robin Burick, were twirlers together and joined at the hip.

"Debbie became a double twirler where she twirled two batons," said Betty. "And I was very excited for her because I didn't really have much of a life of my own."

Then something terrible happened. On a muggy August day in 1975, Betty's world turned upside down.

She and Debbie had an argument. Debbie stormed out of the house and wasn't heard from for days. Betty thought maybe her daughter had run away.

"We started looking for Debbie, going to her friends' house, calling people," Betty said.

After days of agony, the family received some devastating news. Debbie's body had been found in a creek, with wire around her hands, neck and ankles. She had been raped and strangled, according to the coroner's report. Debbie was 16 years old.

Betty could not believe it when she heard the news.

"It took my breath away," she said. "I could feel the air, I could not get it into my lungs. I thought I was dying in that chair."

Months dragged by and the police found few leads in the case.

Anger soon overwhelmed Betty, as well as a hunger to find out who killed her daughter. She decided to take matters into her own hands.

Weeks went by before the first clue appeared.

"I saw something in the newspaper," said Betty. "The wire that was embedded around Debbie's neck, wrists and ankles was copper-coated wire. I remember hearing the police say that."

Betty read there were burglaries of copper-coated wire nearby. She was now living a real-life murder mystery.

A private detective Betty hired soon found a connection to the most unlikely suspect -- Debbie's favorite high school English teacher, Raymond Payne.

But police still dragged their feet, says Betty. It took several months for the police to test the wire and make a connection to Payne. The wire used in the killing matched wire he had in his possession, and he was arrested.

A year after Debbie's murder, Payne pleaded guilty to a homicide charge. He said he tied Debbie to a tree, but insisted he didn't rape or kill her. He said he didn't know how she died.

A three-judge panel didn't buy Payne's story. It convicted him of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Hatred consumed Betty like a venom within her.

"I hated him more than I hated anyone in my life," Betty said. "I dragged that hate with me everywhere I went."

She emotionally abandoned her other children and began to drink heavily. It was the darkest hour of her life.

Six years after Debbie's death, in a startling turnaround, Betty started to talk about forgiving Payne.

"Debbie died that day, and I had to figure out how to live on Earth without her, and the method I chose was to forgive Ray," Betty said. "I did it to save my family and myself."

Amazingly, Betty took her forgiveness a step further, by visiting Payne in prison and telling him herself.

Betty recalled their first meeting. "The guard opened the door and Ray came into the room and I opened my arms, and he opened his arms, and I hugged him. We cried," she said.

Not everyone forgives Payne, including Debbie's best friend from high school.

"I absolutely do not forgive him, because he took a part of my life that I will never be the same," said Burick.

But Burick says she's proud of Betty and is moved by her journey to forgive. "You can look at a woman and say, 'You know what? I hope that I can be that someday.'"

Betty and her younger children visit Debbie's grave often. She talks to Debbie, even telling her about entering "The Story of My Life" contest.

But Betty knows telling her story is only a step in the process -- a process that will never be complete.

"Thirty years later, forgiving Ray doesn't have anything to do with my grief over Debbie," said Betty. "Grief is a journey and some day me and Debbie will meet again."

If you'd like to read an excerpt from Betty's story, "The Story of My Life: A Mother's Forgiveness," Click Here.