- Matthew was 19 when a police officer killed him in 2002.
- Earlier that day, his mother came home to find him drunk. He became violent when she confronted him, so she called the police. To this day, his mother regrets ever calling 911.
- She’s one of five mothers who shared stories with Insider about losing their sons to police shootings. You can read the other stories in the six-part series here.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Debbie believes that her son Matthew never recovered from the trauma of his childhood.
More than a decade before his death in 2002, Matthew and his older brother had been repeatedly sexually abused by their father, Debbie told Insider.
It continued to affect their behaviour and mental health long after their mother figured out what was going on and got them out of the situation.
“I left when my older son was 7. I think that impacted them for the rest of their life,” Debbie said. “My younger son was having some difficulties.”
In March 2002, Matthew, 19, was living with his mum in Florida and had plans to enter college the next semester. He wanted to major in computer science and ceramics, his mother said.
One night during a difficult stretch with Matthew, Debbie left to attend a practice session at her tennis club. She was hesitant to leave but was told she’d be kicked off the team if she missed another session.
Debbie said she returned to find Matthew unconscious on the floor. He appeared to have been drinking.
“I got him up and set him on the bed and realised he had been dangerously intoxicated. So I tried to get him to get up and do some things he was supposed to do that day,” Debbie said. “He got angry, and he just kind of hit me on the cheek.”
Realising she needed some help, Debbie called 911.
“When I did that, he threw my phone. I went outside and ran over to the neighbour’s house,” she said.
Matthew got in his car and drove off. A deputy from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office who was responding to Debbie’s call stopped him.
The sheriff’s office told reporters at the time that the deputy pulled Matthew over in a traffic stop. It said Matthew got out of his car and slashed at the deputy with a sword.
The deputy told Matthew to drop his sword several times. The deputy said he fired his weapon because he feared for his own life.
“Apparently he had a sword with him, and the cops got out and shot him six times and killed him, I think, probably within six seconds,” Debbie told Insider.
The Independent Florida Alligator reported that Matthew’s mother had said he also threatened her with the sword before she called 911.
Debbie asked to be identified by only her first name to protect the privacy of her surviving son. Insider confirmed her identity and reviewed news reports from the time.
No longer able to trust the authorities
After her son was killed, Debbie’s life devolved into chaos.
News outlets picked up Matthew’s story, and Debbie began to be recognised in the grocery store. Even when she tried to go back to work as a physician two weeks later, it was all anyone was talking about.
“They were very nice. They brought gifts. But I needed to escape it. It was too painful,” Debbie said. “I really wanted to die. I wished that I could die.”
Her son’s killing left her paranoid, scared for her own safety, and distrustful of the police.
“I trusted them. I thought that I was a single mother raising my two sons â€” I always thought that if things got totally bad that that was someone there to help,” she said.
Everywhere Debbie went, she was reminded of her son. If she saw a police cruiser, she felt on edge and unsafe.
Most of all, she felt guilty for being the person to trigger the police response and its violent outcome.
Debbie had been concerned about her son’s mental health. At the time he was killed, he was highly intoxicated. While he was never formally diagnosed with a substance-use disorder, researchsuggests that can often occur together with mental-health problems â€” and perhaps even more frequently among young people and those who experienced childhood trauma. Both can lead to significant changes in behaviour and thinking.
Debbie tried to stay in Gainesville.
“I tried to stay the whole year. They say you should stay a full year before you make a huge decision. I had bought a house there and intended to spend the rest of my life there, but I could not stay,” Debbie told Insider. “Six months into it, I said, ‘This is driving me crazy, and I have to get out of here.'”
Debbie moved to Virginia, a few hours from where she grew up, and had her mother move in with her.
She studied a variety of religions to try to find something that felt right.
Then she wrote a fiction book about a police killing based on her son’s death.
“I wanted other people to know, before you make that call, are you OK with people being killed?'” she said. “If not, then you need to find another solution.”
From there, she kept doing anything she could to avoid her grief.
“I built a house. Then I built an office building. Then I started a business. It was almost like in ‘Forrest Gump’ when he started running and just kept running. It was really the same thing,” Debbie said. “I just kept building things. I got a dog. I wanted to have another baby, but that probably wasn’t going to happen.
“I just kept running like that until I finally stopped and sort of went backwards.”
In 2012, while Debbie and her older son were on vacation in Nice, France, her son told her that he likely wouldn’t have children. Hearing that crushed her. In the back of her mind, she had been waiting for grandchildren to be happy again.
“For 10 years I woke up every day and I was sad because I was still breathing,” Debbie told Insider. “After that, I said I needed to plan some other, different life instead of waiting on my grandkids, because that’s just not going to happen.”
She sold her office and took a position as a director of medicine at a hospital in North Carolina. A few years later, she moved to Nashville. Then she settled in Phoenix, where she lives now.
“My son had tried to get me to come out west for 13 years. I understand now why he came,” she told Insider. “It looks so different, like a different planet, and I think it is easier to build a different life away from all of that.”
The police found that Matthew’s shooting was justified
Hours before speaking with Insider, Debbie glued together a piece of Matthew’s pottery that had broken during her most recent move.
She worries about her surviving son, who’s married and successful but still shows signs of suffering, she said.
“Overall, he’s like me. He’s functioning and appears to be doing well. But he’s not having kids, and I think that is probably from the abuse. And maybe it’s because of Matthew,” Debbie said.
“We both look like we’re functioning well, but probably not as well as you’d think when you peel the layers back. No one is an alcoholic. Nobody is a drug addict. But probably socially we’re both not doing as well as we would have had we not gone through this.”
Debbie says she still isn’t comfortable around the police. The sheriff’s department had found that Matthew’s killing was justified and that the deputy followed policy. A grand jury cleared the deputy of any wrongdoing, local news reports said.
But Matthew’s shooting raised questions in the community about whether the deputy could have helped him without using deadly force. Some officers told a local newspaper that if it had been them, they would have stayed in their car. One pointed out that Matthew didn’t have a gun and wasn’t a danger to other drivers, and that the deputy would have had plenty of protective backup.
The deputy, they said, had other options available.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said that at Insider’s request he would reach out to the deputy who shot Matthew. The deputy didn’t return a call seeking comment.
“My thought is if killing someone and then getting a vacation for it is policy, then that’s what needs to change,” she said. “We should not have policies that say in the course of your job it’s OK to kill someone.”
That police brutality is being discussed on a national stage now gives her hope. Debbie is considering writing another book, this time a nonfiction one.
“I feel like this story needs to get out there, because you need to stop and think: These people who come when you call 911, they might not be your solution,” she said. “They may be your worst nightmare.”
- Read more from this series:
- These mothers called 911 to seek help for their struggling sons. Their children ended up dead.
- Miles Hall’s mother did everything she could to protect her son with schizoaffective disorder. Police still killed him.
- Eric James Andrews was struggling with his mental health. His mother called the police for help, but they shot him dead.
- 4 years after police shot Jamarion Robinson more than 50 times in an Atlanta suburb, his mother is still waiting for answers
- A police officer said ‘I don’t have time for this’ before shooting an 18-year-old with a mental illness dead in his home, his mother says