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Debra Sue TUGGLE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: History of mental illness
Number of victims: 1 - 4
Date of murders: 1974 - 1982
Date of arrest: March 1984
Date of birth: 1958
Victims profile: Thomas Bates, 2 (her son) / William Henry, 21-month-old (her son) / Ronald Johnson, 9-month-old (her son) / Tomekia Paxton, 2 (her fiancé's daughter)
Method of murder: Suffocation - Drowning
Location: Little Rock, Pulasky County, Arkansas, USA
Status: Sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 1984. Released in 1994

Tuggle, Debra Sue

Between 1974 and 1982, Debra Sue Tuggle killed her three sons and her fiancé's daughter.

This African American woman, born in Arkansas, had a history of mental illness when she suffocated her first two children in 1974. At the time, death had been attributed of SIDS.

Her third son died in 1976, also of suffocation, but Tuggle was able to escape prosecution.

In 1982, she was suspected of drowning her fiancé's daughter, Tomekia Paxton, and arrested for her murder in March 1984.

In September 1984 she was convicted of second-degree-murder for her death and sentenced to ten years in prison.

She was released in 1994 at the age of 36. Due to insufficient evidence, Debra Sue Tuggle was not tried for the murder of her own children.


Debra Sue Tuggle

A former mental patient in Little Rock, Arkansas, Tuggle was arrested in March 1984 and charged with murdering four of her own children over the past decade. 

The first two victims -- sons Thomas Bates, age two, and William Henry, 21 months -- were suffocated at different times in 1974. Another son, nine-month-old Ronald Johnson, suffered a similar fate in 1976, while two-year-old Tomekia Paxton, the daughter of Tuggle's boyfriend, was deliberately drowned in 1982. Held on $750,000 bond pending trial and ultimate conviction on the outstanding murder counts,

Tuggle was also suspected -- but never charged -- in the death of a fifth child. Coroner Steve Nawoiczyk told newsmen that a faulty legal system had permitted Tuggle to remain at large for years, escaping prosecution in the string of homicides that claimed her children's lives. No motive was presented in the case. 

Tuggle was convicted on one count of second-degree murder in September 1984 and sentenced to ten years in prison. The three other counts of murder were dismissed by the court on grounds of insufficient physical evidence, while state law barred introduction of her standing conviction to prove a series of pattern crimes.


TUGGLE, Debra Sue

The case of Debra Tuggle perfectly exemplifies how loopholes in "The System" may allow determined murderers to roam at large for years.  As the rarest of predators-a black female serial killer of children-she fell through the cracks of a government network designed to protect those she killed, claiming at least five victims before she was brought to a semblance of justice.  Sadly, even when her crimes had been revealed, the very agencies that should have stopped her killing spree a decade earlier were more concerned with bad publicity than human lives.

With 20/20 hindsight, ¡t is easy to declare that Debra Tuggle never should have been allowed to have a child, much less the five she ultimately bore to different fathers in 11 years. 

She clearly lacked the temperament for motherhood, but there was something else at work in Tuggle's mind as weil, beyond mete rage or boredom with the drudgery of her maternal role: a dark and deadly "something" that compelled her to eliminate the very lives she brought into the world.

Debra's first child, William Henry, was born in 1972.  Eighteen months later he had a half-brother, Thomas Bates, and the pressure of raising them was mounting on Debra, pushing her over the edge.  Both children died suddenly in 1974, Thomas barely two months old, William three months short of his second birthday.  Physicians in Debra's hometown of Littie Rock, Arkansas, were sympathetic to the grieving mothers plight.  In the absence of physical symptoms, they blamed William's death on pneumonia, listing Thomas as a victim of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

A third son, Ronald Johnson, was nine months old when he suddenly stopped breathing in 1976.  Again, Debra's public display of grief was convincing; once again, SIDS was blamed for the death.  Two years later, Tuggle shot herself in the abdomen, an apparent suicide attempt, and was briefly committed to a state hospital for treatment.  The doctors there pronounced her "Ocured", and she was on the street in time to bear and kill her fourth child-Terranz Tuggle-at Malvern, Arkansas, in 1979.  As far as Malverns finest could determine, ¡t was simply one more SIDS-related death.

For all her aversion to children, Debra seemed to enioy men and sex.  Gravitating back to Little Rock, she met George Paxton, 10 years her senior, on a blind date.  They hit ¡t off at once, and by early 1982, Paxton had asked Tuggle to share his home. lf anyone asked, she was there to care for Paxtons three children, but Debra's duties were not limited to housekeeping.  By the spring of 1983, she would herself be carrying a Paxton child.

But first, she had an urge to thin the herd.

On June 23, 1982, Paxton was out at the movies when Debra had him paged, sobbing out the news that his daughter, two-year-old Tomekia, was dead.  She had no explanation, and the hospital demanded none. lt was stretching credibility to blame SIDS for the death of a child Tomekia's age, but stranger things have happened in the world of pediatric medicine.  Case closed.


The news that she was pregnant in the spring of 1983 knocked Debra for a loop.  That May, she tried to give herself a coat-hanger abortion, but she bungled the attempt.  George Paxtons family doctor tried to have her booked for psychiatric treatment by the state, but his petition was denied.  A healthy girl, G'Joy Paxton, was born in October 1983 ... but Debras time was swiftly running out.

lt took an employee of the state mental health department, Dr. Alexander Merrill, to finally see through Tuggle's years of "bad luck" in November 1983.  Merrill was the first to analyze a list of unrelated victim surnames, recognizing that a single woman had been linked to five child deaths within a decade.  Pulaski County's coroner, Steve Nawajoczyk, was interested, and so were the police.  On March 20, 1984, Debra was jailed on four counts of first-degree murder; Terranz Tuggle's case, in Malvern, remained llopen." Two days later, the court set her bond at a prohibitiva $750,000.

Little Rock physicians and Arkansas public health officials were quick to absolve themselves of any negligence in Tuggle's case.  Debra's children each had different fathers, after all-and besides, her explanations of the sudden deaths were "credible." In retrospect, we know that "normal" SIDS does not haunt any given mother, claiming the lives of child after child, but Arkansas doctors appeared to be learning their craft by trial and error.

In custody, Tuggle admitted pressing a pillow over Tomekia's face to "stop her crying" while Debra watched television.  She held the pillow in place for some two minutes with the desired result but claimed she still "didn't think Tomekia was dead." Only laterpresumably when her program was finished-did the murderess realize her "mistake."

Skeptical jurors convicted Tuggle of first-degree murder on September 18, 1984, but they dredged up sympathy enough to recommend the statutory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.  Sentenced accordingly, Debra still faced one more trial, on charges of murdering her first three sons.  Conviction on those charges could bring a death sentence, but Tuggle's luck had finally begun to change.

On December 7, 1984, Circuit judge Floyd Lofton dismissed al¡ three outstanding murder counts.  There was no scientific evidence to indicate a homicide in Ronald Johnsons death, the judge declared, and state law barred the prosecution from using Tuggle's prior conviction on an identical crime to make the case.  As far as Thomas Bates and William Henry were concerned, Judge Lofton ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on their deaths after 10 years of official inaction.  Prosecutors vowed to appeal the ruling, but their efforts were futile, leaving Tuggie with the prospect of mandatory release at age 36 in 1994.

Dr. Merrill, meanwhile, had established a system for tracking suspicious SIDS deaths in Arkansas.  He was hot on the trail of another sinister case-four deaths in one family-when his superiors fired him in january 1985.  Officially, Merrill was canned for airing "unwarranted criticismo of state health officials.  In his view, the doctor had been punished for "making waves" and exposing the foibles of a negligent bureaucracy.

No motive was advanced by prosecutors in the Tuggle case, but her behavior-including the bungled suicide attempt-points toward another case of munchausen,s syndrome bay proxy, in which unstable mothers or other caregivers deliberately harm their charges, thriving on the resultant sympathy and attention. Then again, perhaps she simply hated children.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


Coroner Assails System In Deaths of 4 Children

The New York Times

March 23, 1984

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A faulty legal system allowed a young mother accused of killing four children and suspected in the death of a fifth to escape suspicion for years, Coroner Steve Nawojczyk said today.

''It scares the hell out of me that somebody could get away with killing five people over a period of eight or nine years,'' he went on.

''This particular case was brought about because of a breakdown in the system.''

The woman, Debra Sue Tuggle, 26, appeared for a hearing before Judge Andy Clark in Municipal Court today and was held under $750,000 bond.

Miss Tuggle, a former mental patient, was charged with murder in the 1982 drowning death of her boyfriend's 2-year-old daughter, Tomekia Shenee Paxton, and the suffocation deaths of her three sons, Thomas Lee Bates, 2 months, and William Earl Henry, 21 months, in 1974, and Ronald Earl Johnson, 9 months, in 1976.


Debra Sue Tuggle, Arkansas Serial Killer of Children - 1984

“Coroner: Faulty System Missing Deaths”


Mar. 23, 1984

Little Rock, Ark.– People were aware Debra Sue Tuggle’s children were dying, but no one suspected she was killing them because of a “breakdown in the system,” a coroner says.

“It scares the hell out of me that somebody could get away with killing five people over a period of eight or nine years,” coroner Steve Jawojczyk said Thursday.

Ms. Tuggle, 26, a former mental patient, is accused of killing four of her children and suspected in the death of a fifth.

“People were aware her children were dying, but her stories were believable enough that it wasn’t reported,” said Jawojczyk.. “This particular case was brought about because of a breakdown in the system.” Ms. Tuggle appeared for a preliminary hearing before Municipal Judge Andy Clark and was ordered held under $750,000 bond.

She was charged with first-degree murder in the 1982 drowning death of her boyfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, Tomekia Shenee Paxton, and the suffocation deaths of her three sons, Thomas Lee Bates, 2 months, and William Earl Henry, 21 months, in 1974, and Ronald Earl Johnson, 9 months, in 1976. Authorities in Malvern, Ark., where Ms. Tuggle once lived, are investigating the 1979 death of Ms. Tuggle’s fourth child, Terranz Andrew Tuggle, 2 ½ months.


“Child-killer suspect ‘sick,’ boyfriend says”

Altoona Mirror

Mar. 22, 1984

Little Rock, Ark. – A woman accused in the suffocation deaths of four children over an eight-year period should have been slopped by public officials who knew she was mentally ill, her boyfriend said.

“My daughter should not be dead,” said George Paxton, 36, of Little Rock.

A preliminary hearing was scheduled in Little Rock municipal court, today for Debra Sue Tuggle, a former mental patient.

Ms. Tuggle is charged with first-degree murder. in the 1932 death of Paxton’s 2-year-old daughter, Tomekia Shenee Paxton, and the earlier deaths of three of her own children.

Thomas Lee Bates, 2 months, and William Earl Henry, 21 months, both died in 1974. Ronald Earl Johnson, 9 months, died in 1976.

Charges were pending in the 1979 death of Ms, Tuggle’s fourth child — Terranz Andre Tuggle, 2 ½ months — at Malvern, Ark., where Ms. Tuggle once lived, said Deputy Prosecutor Ed Scrimshire. Police said they did not know the motive for the slayings.

“She had always been kind and gentle to my children,” Paxton said. “I don’t hate her. She’s a sick person.”

The deaths were first attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and pneumonia. Police began their investigation in November. after Pulaski Counly Coroner Steve Nawojczyk became suspicious about so many SIDS-deaths in one family.

“We launched an investigation beginning with the last case and from that we worked backwards.”

State Medical Examiner Dr. Fahmy MaLak recently determined that Paxton’s daughter died of suffocation rather than pneumonia.

“How could Ibis woman kill five kids?” Paxton said. “Hospital people slick together. They’re not going to say, ‘We really messed up.’

Ms, Tuggle had a history of mental illness, police said. But Paxton. who met her on a blind date, said Ms. Toggle’s doctor assured him the woman was well before Paxton let her move in with him in early 1982 to help care for his three children.



Debra Sue Tuggle



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