In August 1975, Debbie Gama, a vivacious 16-year-old, had an argument with her mother, Betty Ferguson. After Gama stormed out of her family’s home in Erie, Pennsylvania, she was never seen alive again. Read this Debbie Gama wiki to find out what happened to the teen, including information on one of the longest running appeals in U.S. history.
The Last Time Debbie Gama Was Seen Alive
In the summer of 1975, Deborah Lynn “Debbie” Gama was a 16-year-old student at Strong Vincent High School in Erie, Pennsylvania. She had been enjoying her summer with friends and was hoping to make the most of the last weeks of her vacation.
On the afternoon of Thursday, August 7, Gama and her mom Betty Ferguson got into an argument over a common complaint. Laundry. It was her day to wash clothing; Gama didn’t want to do it. Instead, she wanted to go shopping with her friend, Robin Burick.
But her mom insisted on the chore and, begrudgingly, Gama did the laundry. When finished, she stormed out of the house on rural West 10th Street, between Cascade and Raspberry streets.
“She was not happy with me,” Ferguson recounts. “So our last words were not pleasant.”
That evening, Betty, her husband Norm Ferguson (Gama’s stepfather), and her youngest daughter Myshelle Gama went to a drive-in. When they got home, Debbie was in bed; it was around midnight. That was the last time Betty Ferguson saw her daughter.
Debbie Gama Goes Missing
Friday was a hectic day. The family was putting their house up for sale; the realtor was coming over to appraise the house and Betty Ferguson wanted Gama to make sure her room was clean. It wasn’t. Ferguson was mad, but cleaned it for her daughter anyway.
The realtors came over and it was chaotic. Too busy for Ferguson to worry about where her daughter was. Besides, she was probably at the beach with a girlfriend. At least that’s what she thought until that friend called and asked where Gama was.
“I don’t know. I thought she was with you,” Ferguson said. Gama’s girlfriend replied, “No, she wasn’t with me.”
Ferguson still wasn’t concerned; Gama was probably out with another friend. Regardless, she would find out Saturday when the entire family planned on going to Conneaut Lake.
Ferguson thought she heard her daughter come in Friday night, but when she went to check on her Saturday morning, she wasn’t there.
“Still, I’m mad at her at this point, thinking that she probably was mad at me on Thursday and maybe she’s getting back at me, so she’s going to not come home,” Ferguson said.
The family canceled their Saturday plans after sitting around and waiting for Gama. Ferguson called a few people, but no one had seen her daughter.
After Sunday rolled around and there was still no word from Debbie Gama, her family started to get worried. She had never been away from home for this long. Family and friends went looking for Gama. Norm even barged into someone’s house accusing them of having his stepdaughter there.
At this point, they called the Erie police to report Debbie Gama missing.
By Monday, they had contacted everyone, including the teenager’s boyfriend. Nobody knew where Gama was. It looked like she had either disappeared or been kidnapped.
A Life-Changing Phone Call
On Tuesday, they received a phone call. Norm answered. The person on the other end of the call told him, “You better not read the newspaper. They found a body at nine o’clock Monday night in a creek.”
Betty and Norm laughed at the idea. “That doesn’t make any sense. How could something like that happen to Debbie? Sixteen. Who wouldn’t like her?”
They didn’t take it seriously. Until the following Thursday, August 14, when the police asked Norm to come down and identify some clothing.
Betty stayed at home with some family and her ex-husband, Dick Gama (Debbie’s father), sitting in the picture window at the front of the house waiting for Norm to return in his van.
He was gone for a while, but soon returned escorted by the police. And that’s when Betty Ferguson learned that the body found Monday was indeed her daughter.
Debbie Gama had been found face-up in Cussewago Creek. Her wrists and ankles were bound in wire and wire was embedded in her neck. She had been raped and strangled.
Christmas 1975: Still No Suspects
Police still didn’t have any suspects by the end of the year.
Betty Ferguson recalls, “No suspect as of Christmas. The pain was so bad, so deep, I never thought I’d recover. I thought at 32 I’d spend the rest of my life in the hell that I was living in. I didn’t know that there would be another way.”
February 1976: Suspects Start to Emerge
As is often the case when it comes to murder, police initially suspected Debbie Gama’s boyfriend and even her stepfather. But those suspicions were unfounded and soon dismissed.
One serious suspect did attract attention in February of that year: Debbie Gama’s favorite high school English teacher, Raymond Payne.
A Suspect in the Cross Hairs
It was a private investigator hired by Betty Ferguson who found a link from the case to Payne in the form of the copper-coated wire found at the crime scene.
Several months later, after they finally tested the wire, police told Betty and Norm Ferguson that Payne was their prime suspect in the murder of their daughter, Debbie Gama.
But the news didn’t just bring relief, not at first anyway.
In Betty’s words, “I wanted him dead.”
While Betty dismissed friends’ ideas of hiring a hit man, little did she know her husband was thinking the same thing.
On one occasion, Betty said, Norm left the house with a gun and drove to Raymond Payne’s home, lying in wait in the weeds. Payne was on his roof, fixing something. Norm had him in his sight. He lay there for a long time, then decided he didn’t have it in him to kill someone. He put the gun down and went home.
Betty didn’t find out about his actions that day for many years.
A Brief Meeting
Betty Ferguson never spoke to Payne during the investigation phase. She did see him, though, at a band marathon at Strong Vincent High School. Raymond Payne was playing an instrument in the band. She walked into the building and stood there.
A short time later, Payne walked up to Norm Ferguson and said, “Hi. Where’s Betty?”
“She’s right there,” Norm replied.
Betty stared at Payne. He disappeared quickly into the crowd. At that point, Betty felt for sure that he was guilty.
September 1976: Payne Arrested
In September 1976, Betty received a phone call from police. Raymond Payne had been arrested. Payne confessed and pleaded guilty to murder.
Raymond Payne’s Version of Events
There are two versions of what transpired the night of August 8, 1965. Both are very similar.
In Payne’s version, he tries to paint himself as a bit of a victim of circumstance.
In his statement, Payne said he met Debbie Gama while she was standing on the corner of 10th and Raspberry Streets and took her for a ride.
Before meeting Gama, Payne was smoking pot and had taken two “downers” (meprobamate). After the teenager apparently agreed to take some of the pills herself, Payne asked her if she would pose for some “bondage pictures.” Gama allegedly agreed.
The pair continued to smoke marijuana as they headed for the secluded Everett C. Hall Community Park, a wooded area in in Waterford Township in Erie County.
After they arrived, Payne said, Gama allegedly gave him permission to tie her hands and ankles together with clothesline he bought at the local Kmart. He then had the teen get down on her knees. Payne tied one end of the rope to a tree, wound it around her neck, and then tied the other end to another tree.
Here, Payne alleges, he discovered that he left his camera in his truck. Despite the fact that his 16-year-old student seemed to be affected by the drugs she had taken, and was bound in wire…around the neck…he left her to go to his truck to retrieve his camera.
While at his truck, he decided it was a good time to smoke some more weed. He then loaded his camera and made his way back to the bound Debbie Gama. By the time he got there, she had fallen forward and died.
Payne claims he panicked. He cut the wires, placed her in his truck, and drove the body back to his farm. Instead of, as one would, calling police or paramedics, he says he attached cement blocks to her body with copper wire and dumped her lifeless body into a pond on his property.
Two days later, the body surfaced. Raymond Payne put Gama’s body into his truck and drove to another location to give it a second try. He took her body to Cussewago Creek and simply threw it in. It was discovered just a couple of days later.
Raymond Payne denied having raped Gama that day, or having sexual contact with her in any way.
Because of these circumstances, Payne’s lawyers argued that Debbie Gama’s death was entirely accidental and that, at most, he was negligent and should only be charged with third-degree murder.
Also see: Debra Sue Carter Wiki: Carefree Waitress Savagely Murdered in 1982 Now Focus of Netflix Docuseries
What Really Happened That Night?
Despite pouring out his heart, there is reason to believe that Payne was not entirely forthcoming.
Apparently, Raymond Payne told Anthony Lee Evans, who was also serving time in the Erie County prison in January and February 1977, much, much more.
Evans testified that Payne described to him what really happened that night.
Evans said Payne told him that while he and Debbie Gama were riding in his truck, he put some downers in her beer. When she was incapacitated by the drugs, Payne took the teen to the woods where he tied her up (in the same way he described to police) and had sex with her.
Debbie begged Payne to stop, crying and screaming. Debbie’s response had “made him mad”—he grabbed the rope on either side of her neck and strangled her to death. Payne allegedly told Evans that he covered the body with leaves and left it there for several days. He came back several days later after settling on where to permanently dispose of the body.
Evans further testified that Payne told him that Debbie Gama’s death was part of a sexual fantasy that he’d had for a long time.
“…he likes to tie women up and do crazy things to ‘em.”
Evans’ testimony corroborates many of the most damning statements made by Payne. In both circumstances, Payne admits that Debbie Gama was under the influence of drugs, whether she took them voluntarily or was tricked or pressured into taking them.
The only real difference is the manner in which Debbie Gama died. But for the court, Evans’ story that Debbie died fighting off a rape held more credence than Payne’s accidental death story.
Paul R. Daube, a chemist who worked with the Pennsylvania State Police, testified that tests he conducted on hemorrhagic body fluids taken from Debbie Gama’s vaginal and anal areas showed the presence of seminal acid phosphatase in both areas. Seminal acid phosphatase is found only in semen.
The accidental death theory didn’t hold up. In the words of the court, “It is our belief that the testimony of Evans is more consistent with the established facts than the self serving statement of [Appellant].”
The murder of Debbie Gama was ruled premeditated and deliberate. Payne was alone with Gama when she died due to “circumstances caused by him.”
Post-Conviction DNA Testing
Since being convicted to serve the rest of his natural life in jail by a three-judge panel, Raymond Payne has been trying to prove Gama’s death was an accident and he should have been convicted of manslaughter—in which case, he’d be out by now.
His quest has resulted in one of the longest-running murder appeals in U.S. history.
On May 16, 2011, Payne filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the Erie County District Attorney’s Office for its refusal to permit DNA testing.
On December 16, 2014, the trial court signed a stipulated order permitting post-conviction DNA testing. The DNA test proved conclusively that the seminal fluid found on Debbie Gama’s body did not come from Raymond Payne.
On August 21, 2015, Payne filed a petition asserting he is entitled to a new trial or degrees-of-guilt hearing, based on the post-conviction evidence. On April 13, 2016, the court denied Payne his request.
It concluded that Payne failed to show that the DNA evidence exonerates him of the murder of Debbie Gama and would have changed the outcome of the initial trial. The presence of semen and the identity of the donor were not determining factors in finding Payne guilty of first-degree murder. Moreover, Payne was not convicted of any sexual offense.
The evidence, which included Payne’s admission of guilt, his statement to Crawford County District Attorney Donald Lewis, and his concealment of Gama’s body, clearly established his guilt of first-degree murder.
In effect, DNA evidence would not have changed the outcome. Whether Payne raped Gama was immaterial to whether he murdered her.
Pennsylvania Superior Court Upholds Conviction
In September 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court refused to overturn Raymond Payne’s murder conviction and life sentence, saying there was not enough evidence to pave way for a new trial.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Burns opined, “It was the correct decision…he strangled her to death and that’s what matters.”
But that’s not the end of it.
Two months later, the Superior Court withdrew the three-judge panel’s ruling and ordered a panel of nine Superior Court judges to hear a re-argument of the appeal. That discussion took place in April 2018, but the Superior Court has not yet returned with a decision.
Payne says the DNA evidence clears him and that he had been imprisoned unfairly.
“Having just spent my 42(nd) xmas in prison…it is now clear to me that the intention of the commonwealth is to keep me in prison until I die,” Payne wrote.
Debbie Gama’s sister, Myshelle Will (nee Gama), and her family are waiting on the Superior Court decision.
“It has been forever,” she said. “We are still waiting. We are definitely ready for this to be done.”