Deb Moy is supposed to be dead.
And yet there she is, queueing up with the rest of the Elon School of Law’s Class of 2016 in a sea of be-tassled black velvet graduation tams to get her hard-won juris doctorate. She pushes on her crutches to mount the stage, then crosses it smoothly, almost like she’s swimming — her prosthetic legs and the carbon-fiber forearm crutches moving the rest of her along.
Deb Moy is not supposed to be walking. And yet there she is.
At center stage she pauses — Deb cannot resist a moment like this — pivots to face the crowd, braces her crutches on the carpet and pulls a quick little hip-shaking shimmy. Then she resumes the glide to pick up her sheepskin to raucous applause.
Here is where she breaks from the procession of newly-minted lawyers crossing the stage. She tucks her diploma under her arm and slips behind the dais, backtracks to stage left as the cheering still echoes in the high rafters of the alumni gymnasium.
Seated alone in the back, I feel an involuntary shiver run through my shoulders and up my neck.
Because Deb Moy is supposed to be dead.
She makes it back into alphabetical order for the final procession, and as she passes by flashes me a smile that brings me back into the moment.
I find her afterwards, pinned at the base of the wheelchair ramp as the gymnasium empties into the lobby. She’s sweltering under her graduation gown, craning her neck to find her people so she can get to the car and, eventually, the afterparty at Scrambled.
“That’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” I tell her. She shoots me a skeptical look.
“I don’t think it’s all that amazing,” she says.
“It is,” I say. And we share a quiet moment in the crowd.
“What do you think it all means?” I ask her.
“I don’t know what it all means,” she says. “The doors just keep opening and I keep going through them.
I have been a journalist now for half my life, and in that time seen a good many things. I’ve seen presidents and paupers, national celebrities and local heroes, people in their finest moments and those at their worst.
You develop a degree of detachment over the years — stop making friends with your sources, stop investing so much emotional energy in your stories — and, often, even the most consequential events fade into the background as new ones come up every week.
But the Deb Moy story has stayed with me since I first wrote about it in 2008, astounding me in ways both good and bad at every turn.
It astounds me still.
One thing I remember about 2008 is how angry I was.
I was still drinking pretty good back then, and I heard about it just days after it happened while I was hanging out at the bars on Greensboro’s Walker Avenue: a fire in the castle on Summit Avenue from which they pulled the charred remains of the musician William Ransom Hobbs and another broken and burned body that turned out to be Deb Moy.
They didn’t realize she was still breathing until after they had carried her from her smoldering apartment — the second time that morning someone had assumed she was a corpse.
Because police discovered very quickly that Ransom had been beaten to death before he had been burned, that Deb had been bludgeoned within an inch of her life and then doused with accelerant before the perp struck the flame. Police had not made any arrests. And at that point, the News & Record had published nothing on the incident save for a single item a couple inches long on B2, until my old pal Jeri Rowe came in hard on the Ransom angle with a series of columns about his life, his friends and his music.
But still, there were few details about the crime itself, and next to nothing about Deb.
I didn’t really know Deb back then except as another face at the bar, but I identified with her as a member of my tribe: the floundering artists, service-industry lifers, lifestyle drinkers and other assorted stripes of the creative underclass. And it pissed me off that no one was doing anything about it. So of course, I did.
All I had to go on were several disconnected threads, snippets gleaned over nights at the bar and in after-hours apartments. Neither Deb, her parents nor any of her friends would talk to me, and the Greensboro police do not typically share details of an ongoing investigation with journalists, or anyone else for that matter.
I used shoe-leather reporting to retrace Deb’s steps that night, construct a timeline of events and a roster of the people who dropped in and out of the group as they wound their way from Walker Avenue to downtown Greensboro, through Westerwood and, finally, to Deb’s first-floor apartment in the castle on Summit Avenue where the fire almost, but not quite, consumed her.
In the process, I would interview a dozen or more of my drinking buddies and bartenders who had been around that night, some of whom had been questioned by police. I remember thinking in the back of my mind during some of these interviews: Jesus, this could be the guy.
The Greensboro Police Department can’t be held entirely to blame for their inability thus far to solve this case.
First responders assumed they were tackling a regular house fire, not the site of a grisly murder, and so the crime scene, already damaged by flame, was also doused with thousands of gallons of water.
“You can recover some things,” Deputy Chief Brian James, who was a lieutenant in 2008, told me then. “But the fire does destroy some evidence. If I told you different that would be false.”
And Detective Tim Parrish, who drew the case, told me that this was not the sort of crime commonly seen in the city.
“I’ve seen some bad ones,” he said. “This one was horrendous.”
Later, in 2012, a few years after his retirement, the GPD would claim that “blunders” in Parrish’s original work caused them to free Michael Wade Slagle, the only person ever arrested for the crime. Parrish flatly denied that characterization.
I never thought I would solve this crime — and I have never come close — but even now, in preparing to write this story, I start picking at threads. Chasing ghosts.
Slagle, known to everyone on the bar circuit as Micah, had thrown in with Deb’s group late in the night, after the debauchery on Walker Avenue, a swing past Ransom’s house around the corner to get his guitar and a stop at the Carolina Theatre, where my old pal Craig Trostle had used his key to allow Deb a run inside to use the bathroom and stand on the darkened stage for a moment before heading back out.
It was about 4 a.m. when Micah sauntered up to the house just down the street from the Westerwood Tavern, lured by Ransom’s guitar playing, perhaps, or the shrieks of laughter emanating from the front porch. After a short hang, Micah drove Deb and Ransom to Deb’s place to continue the party at around 4:30. The fire trucks came around 8 a.m.
Micah left town after his first questioning by Greensboro police. So did the tenant at the house by the Westerwood. And to make things even more complicated, Deb’s neighbor from across the street also left town in the weeks after the incident.
Meanwhile Deb drifted in and out of consciousness as doctors tended to her injuries: burns on over 70 percent of her body, broken ribs and jawbone, a collapsed lung, kidney failure. She endured more than 40 operations and hundreds of surgical procedures, including skin grafts over most of her body and what little they could do to save what was left of her legs.
Because of the trauma and the pain, they kept her in an induced comatose state for much of it. The first thing she said when she awoke months later was, “What happened?”
I meet Deb at the Iron Hen for a late lunch a few days after graduation to catch up. She’s learned not to frequent restaurants during prime hours — parking, crowds, bathroom facilities and table selection all factor into the lesson.
It’s why she goes to the Green Bean on Cornwallis instead of the downtown shop, and why she scouted out the building before her interview with the state bar association.
“It’s in the Lincoln Financial building,” she says. “So what does that look like to me? All of my bathroom breaks are calculated, so my water intake is calculated. [Before I go somewhere] I need to know where the bathroom is, is the floor slippery, what kind of bathroom is it.
“[For the interview] I’ll get a ride,” she continues, “because I don’t want to park four blocks down, huffing it on my walking sticks. This is the stuff you have to figure out. Nobody teaches you.”
Even now, while she’s studying for the bar, she arises at 5 a.m. each day to begin preparing herself to face it.
First she fits her prosthetic legs — one above the knee, one below — with liners, grips her crutches and heads for the shower, where she enacts a daily hygiene regimen on a bench and then anoints herself with several types of skin cream over the grafts that cover most of her body.
“My skin doesn’t have pores,” she says. “It’s all scar tissue on my back. My skin doesn’t sweat, so I get overheated. I get blisters I can’t get rid of. I’m always having some kind of issue. It’s always something.”
She’s able to drive — a modified Honda CRV. She refused to get the minivan with the wheelchair ramp, because she never intended to use her wheelchair, and because when she gave one a test drive it scraped the leather of her Prada boot.
She did rock the wheelchair during her second year of law school, when she broke her femur. But after it healed she was right back on the sticks.
Tony Saia made her prosthetics at BioTech Place at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem and helped her learn to use them. He said her drive impressed him.
“She was more driven to walk than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “She has never ever ever— and I know; I’ve been there from the beginning — had a boo-hoo moment in front of me. Never once.”
She’s got a great pair of boots on today, too, and a sleeveless V-neck top that makes no secret of the scar tissue that covers the entirety of her arms. She lost most of the fingers on her right hand, but that doesn’t stop her from gripping a spoon and digging lustily into a mason jar full of banana pudding.
“People have preconceived notions of what someone like me should be like,” she says.
I recall that I didn’t formally meet Deb until 2013, five years after the fire and just a few months before she started law school. It was also two years after Greensboro police brought Micah back from Jacksonville, Fla., and a year after they let him go before the trial was set to begin. As far as I can tell, the only blemish on his record since then is a recent DWI.
This series of interactions with the legal system dating back to 2008 are what initially inspired her to go to law school — in 2013 she and her family sued Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson, not for money but for information. The case remains unsolved in the GPD files.
A quick email to the department yielded the following response from Susan Danielsen, spokesperson for the GPD:
“Thanks for your continued interest in this case. It remains one of the most poignant incidents in our city’s recent history, and the impact of this crime will continue to affect everyone connected to it.
“We are saddened by the crimes committed against Ms. Moy,” it continues, “and, remain committed to her and the Hobbs family to continue to build a strong prosecutable case. This is still an active and on-going investigation, and we will continue to pursue every lead and follow every bit of evidence until justice is served.”
Deb was incensed about Micah’s release the first time we met. She told me then that the last thing she remembers is seeing Micah in her apartment. This time, it doesn’t come up.
“I used to get so angry,” she says. “Whenever I met someone that would be all they wanted to talk about. I’m glad it’s not all about that anymore.”
She’s still looking for justice, make no mistake. But that search now includes justice for others as well — a summer internship with the Wounded Warrior project introduced her to some of the only people on the planet who might understand what she’s gone through: soldiers who lost their limbs under a different type of fire. They found common ground in trauma and loss.
“Now,” she says, “I come into this profession and I get a whole new level of respect. Without a law degree, you’re almost like a second-class citizen. Everyone at some point needs a lawyer.”
“Now, a lot of the places I go, the only people I know are doing the catering.”
It took her 10 years to graduate UNCG with an English degree. She worked in Greensboro restaurants the whole time and her résumé reads like a dining guide from the turn of the century: Tijuana Fats, the Melting Pot, George K’s, Liberty Oak, Southern Lights, Lox Stock & Bagel, the Revival Grill, 223 South Elm.
“I think being a lawyer is really the service industry on steroids,” she says. “It’s a service industry, the law. You get paid a lot more, but it’s the same thing.”
The job skills, she says, apply too.
“The typical things,” she says. “Multitasking, expediency. I know how to deal with people and I’m not intimidated by strangers. I used to tell people, ‘Always be friends with the dishwashers and kitchen guys.’ I never really worried about management so much, but — for lack of a better word — the little people, they’re the ones who grind, the ones that make the restaurant run.
“I foresee myself becoming friends with the bailiffs and clerks,” she adds.
But the bar exam is still a few weeks away — the end of June — and now she’s really got to go study.
After the Elon graduation, Deb’s people gather at Scrambled on Spring Garden Street for a private celebration. Everyone is here, from the nurses and doctors that tended to her in the burn unit to her brother, sister and parents.
The Rev. Pat Cronin, her family’s pastor at Friendly Avenue Baptist Church, leads the room in prayer before everyone starts to eat.
He’s been there for Deb and her family the whole time, too.
“I call Deb ‘one of God’s trophies,’” he says. “It’s resurrection. Rebirth. Whatever metaphor you got, I’m with ya.
“She lived,” he adds. “And she’s celebrating life instead of living in the past.”
She wears a two-piece dress, fuchsia, with a full, flowing skirt and a V-neck, sleeveless top that shows the scar tissue on her arms and shoulders, yes, but also the thick muscle rippling beneath hard, ropy triceps and thick deltoids, forged by years of pulling herself along.
There’s a bluegrass band playing in the corner with happy, celebratory chatter beneath it. Deb takes a table in front of the band and people pay their respects. Before too long, her father Chuck climbs a chair and commands attention at the center of the room.
It’s his second speech of the night, but he’s still got plenty of material and people to thank. After a point, Deb interrupts from the corner of the room.
“Who is this really about, Dad?”
Everyone laughs, and he just keeps on going.
But it’s okay. One night not too long ago, as his daughter lay covered in burns and barely alive, Chuck Moy thought that nothing in his world would ever be right again.
But that was in the beginning.
Deb Moy, who was supposed to be dead on Sept. 13, 2008, is very much alive. She not only survived the beating, the fire, the surgeries and the indignity of injustice, she has been victorious over them.
And while she was, for a time, defined by the thing that happened to her, in many ways her story is just beginning.
“You always want closure,” the Rev. Cronin says. “I don’t know if I like that word, ‘closure.’ Journey. Journey is better.”
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