On March 4, Frances McDormand will sit inside L.A.’s Dolby Theater and learn whether she wins the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving, irrepressible mother seeking to shame local police into solving her daughter’s murder.
Deborah Marion has yet to see the movie. Not because the parallels between that fiction and her fact would be unendurable. No, she’s missed the film for more pragmatic reasons. “Movies are like $15 now,” she says flatly. “I can wait.”
In July 2010, Marion’s son, Lorenzen Wright, returned to his hometown of Memphis. A 13-year NBA veteran, Wright was hoping to play overseas but was aware that, at age 34, his sports career was winding down. After midnight on July 19, he made a call to local 911 interrupted by a series of crackles and pops. Gunshot. Gunshot. “Goddamn!” Wright said. Then the line went dead. When Marion filed a missing persons report for her son three days later, she warned police, “When y’all find him, it’s not gonna be good.”
She was—tragically, foreshadowingly—correct. On July 28, cadaver dogs searching a remote wooded area of southeast Memphis led police to Wright’s body, riddled with bullets. Wright’s 265-pound frame that once took charges from Shaquille O’Neal now weighed 57 pounds and was so badly decomposed—due to rain, heat and scavenging animals—that there could be no open-casket funeral. (Strangely, Wright was still wearing a gold necklace and an expensive watch.)
Then a grandmother in her 50s, Marion had to be physically restrained from charging through the police tape. As she told SI, “Ain’t no way [the police] could’ve caught me. I’m from Mississippi, baby.”
Marion was deeply bereaved and, she concedes, likely in shock. But most of all, she was burning with rage. She had a theory as to who had killed her son and she was not shy about sharing it. Lorenzen and Sherra Wright had divorced shortly before his death. They shared custody of their four children and waged ongoing battle over money. Sherra was the last known person to have seen Lorenzen alive. “Y’all need to start looking at his ex-wife,” Deborah Marion told others.
Like Frances McDormand’s character—strikingly far from the glamour of Hollywood; strikingly close to the movie’s fictionalized Ozarks town—Marion then became both a crusader and a detective. She held vigils for her slain son. She passed out fliers. She pressured specific detectives and the Memphis Police Department in general to step up their efforts. The case lingered. Investigators were pulled off. Memphis police came to believe Wright’s slaying was drug-related and involved out-of-state, maybe even international, crime syndicates.
Nevertheless, she persisted. Marion called detectives so often they recognized her number on caller ID. When the police denied that the case was cold, there was Marion to quip, “It’s not cold; it’s frozen.” For years, she devoted most of her days to trying to solve the crime. She accumulated so much evidence, filled so many notebooks, that she had to rent a storage locker when the accumulation had overwhelmed her drawers and closets. She filled notebooks upon notebooks with timelines and inconsistencies and tips for the police to pursue. Her grim financial state today is in no small part due to the investigating expenses she ran up.
She became convinced that Sherra Wright had orchestrated her son’s killing. Marion noted that on the night Lorenzen disappeared, Sherra and a male acquaintance ignited a bonfire in the backyard fire pit of Sherra’s house, never mind that it was the middle of summer.
When in 2014 Sherra, then a pastor, wrote a book titled Mr. Tell Me Anything, about an NBA wife who murders her husband, Deborah Marion shook her head and then her fists. “This is the book I wanna read: How I Orchestrated Getting My Ex-Husband Killed.” At one point she shared her revenge fantasy with her psychologist, who tried to dissuade Marion and added that psychologists are duty-bound to report such fantasies to the police. Marion didn't care. “You [didn’t] bury anything you birthed into the world, so you don’t know what I feel.”
The $55 million Wright had earned in the NBA was largely gone by the time of his death. Afterward, Sherra collected a $1 million life insurance policy; within months of collecting it, the account had dwindled to $5.05, Sherra having spent the death benefits on everything from a $32,000 Escalade to an $11,750 trip to New York City to $69,000 in furniture.
In 2015, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports collaborated on a written and video project titled “Who Killed Lorenzen Wright?” Asked whether she had any role in her ex-husband’s death, Sherra Wright paused and responded curiously, “At first, I’m a wife, then I’m a mother, and then thirdly I’m an author. The law enforcement should do what’s best to find out who’s the killer.”
Last November, more than seven years after Wright's death, police found the murder weapon in a remote lake in Walnut, Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, as part of an investigation called “Operation Rebound,”—a nod to Wright’s prowess as a power forward—police arrested a Memphis man, Billy Ray Turner, and charged him with first-degree murder. When Turner made his first court appearance in front of Shelby County judge Lee Coffee on Dec. 7, Marion was there. She stood and hissed at Turner, “How could you have murdered my son?”
The judge scolded her for the outburst—“I know it's been seven long years for you. Please be respectful of the courtroom and be respectful of the administration of justice"—but allowed her to remain. In an exchange as unusual as it was poignant, Marion responded, "I want to apologize, but if anybody had a son that was murdered they'd feel me." Then the judge volunteered that his own father had been killed, implying that he grasped the dimensions of her pain.
Turner was a deacon at the church where Sherra Wright once served as minister. It did not take police long to connect the dots. On Dec. 15, Sherra Wright was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and extradited from California to Tennessee, where she is now being held on $1 million bond. She entered a plea of not guilty on Monday.
At a press conference, Memphis police all but parroted what Marion had been saying for years, suggesting that, motivated by money, Sherra Wright had conspired with a man to kill her ex-husband. Says Rewis Williams, a childhood friend of Lorenzen and his point guard in high school, “Miss Marion was dead on. Everyone will get what we been waiting for this whole time.”
The woman of conviction now awaits conviction. Marion vows to attend every day of the murder trial. She’s told herself it will be a long process. But already she’s jumped to the penalty phase. "I don't want [Sherra] to get the death penalty,” she says. “I want her to miss her kids like I miss mine.”
If the last seven-plus years have exacted a price, it’s mostly been financial. Marion recently set up a GoFundMe page, seeking $30,000. She wrote: “The last seven years have been a constant struggle and I've done the best I can to persevere. In the last few months, things have gotten increasingly difficult, and now I'm asking for your help to continue my fight for justice for my son and see it through to resolution.”
Otherwise, she says, her spirit is strong. In keeping with a promise she made her son years ago, she has hired a lawyer to try to gain custody of her four grandchildren.
It’s a bitterly painful role and one, of course, she wishes to hell she didn’t have to play. But what a winningly courageous performance. Asked recently via text how she is holding up, Marion wrote back, "A MOTHER’S LOVE CAN'T BE TOUCHED. IT’S NOT OVER YET BUT I’M NOT TIRED YET."