THE BRONX, NY (PIX11) – Vanessa Morris, 52, has never recovered from trauma she suffered more than 20 years ago while witnessing a violent crime that ultimately sparked anxiety, depression and PTSD.
On March 20, she left her mother’s home in the Bronx near Van Cortlandt Park South and did not return.
“Years ago, her cousin – who was like her best friend – was killed in front of my daughter,” Morris’ mother, Linda Morris, a retired nurse, told PIX11 News.
Cousin’s husband was on the run for 2 1/2 years before he was caught.
“I sent her away to Seattle while he was on the run,” Linda Morris said. “She lived with my brother. She testified in court. The first ended in a hung jury, so she had to testify in a second trial.”
Although the killer was convicted of murder and jailed for 32 to 36 years, Vanessa Morris’ fears did not abate.
“She has this paranoia that people will follow her,” Linda Morris said. “Whenever she gets scared, she thinks someone is following her.”
Vanessa Morris was around 25 when she witnessed the murder, and she channeled her pain into her artwork. Her empty bedroom is filled with stunning paintings celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture alongside major figures from politics and pop culture.
A large painting of murdered rap icon Tupac Shakur hangs over Vanessa Morris’ bed. A smaller piece honoring the late Congressman John Lewis also has a place above the bed. There are many other beautifully crafted paintings, created using a variety of materials, displayed on another wall.
Just before she disappeared, Vanessa Morris created an artwork depicting a train approaching a subway station with a woman standing alone on the platform. Morris’ mother said the play was inspired by the tragic death of Michelle Alyssa Go, a woman who died after being pushed in front of an oncoming train in January. Go sustained her fatal injuries at the Times Square train station at 42nd Street and Broadway.
When PIX11 asked Morris’ mother if her daughter had ever exhibited or sold her work, she replied, “No. She started giving it away.”
Vanessa Morris’ grandmother Emily Fletcher, 89, cried as she recalled the feisty girl who changed after witnessing the horrific crime.
“We begged her to seek advice, but she didn’t want to,” says the grandmother.
Proud of their Costa Rican roots, the close-knit family eventually convinced Vanessa Morris to speak to someone during the pandemic.
“She started counseling maybe a year ago,” Linda Morris said. “She was on phone calls with the therapist because of the pandemic.”
Linda Morris said her daughter used to be very sociable and outgoing.
“And gradually she became less and less outgoing as the anxiety and fear increased,” she added.
Linda Morris said her daughter has worked for the Visiting Nurse Service over the years and has been employed at fitness centers and an optometrist’s office, but that has changed.
“For the last six years, she hasn’t worked at all as her emotional distress has gotten worse,” said Linda Morris. “She used to socialize, but she cut herself off.”
Her daughter found solace in playing the guitar and creating her art.
“Last summer she sat across the street in the park and drew,” says the mother.
The COVID-19 pandemic did little to ease the daughter’s anxiety. Vanessa Morris and her stepfather did not want to get the vaccine, although her mother, brother and other relatives have been vaccinated and boosted.
“He likes [Vanessa]believed in this conspiracy theory about the vaccine and the government,” said Linda Morris.
Tragically, while Vanessa Morris suffered another bout of depression that required hospitalization in late December, her stepfather developed COVID symptoms.
“He died of COVID pneumonia on January 5,” said Linda Morris. “When he died, she was in the hospital.”
Linda Morris said her daughter was close to her stepfather and struggled with the loss after she was released from the psychiatric ward. On March 20, the night of her disappearance, Linda Morris said they watched “American Idol” and talked about coping with life’s challenges.
Linda Morris said her daughter was inspired by a 101-year-old man who achieved his lifelong dream of graduating from high school.
“I said to her, ‘It’s never too late to start over,'” recalls Linda Morris, 72. “Because of my age, we had a conversation about the future of her life.”
Morris recalled telling her daughter that she would benefit from having a job to make ends meet. The mother said her daughter is also receiving a disability grant.
“She said, ‘Mom, I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you too,’ and she went to bed,” said Linda Morris. “When I got up the next day, she was gone.”
Linda Morris said she forgot her phone and keys and didn’t take any clothes with her. She called the police, then made inquiries at emergency shelters, hospitals, and morgues. City Council Member Eric Dinowitz’s office was also notified.
Vanessa Morris’ younger brother, James Evans, was grateful for any attention his sister’s case could get.
“I just want to know that my sister is okay… that she’s warm and safe,” Evans said. “We are a close-knit family; we love each other.”
Linda Morris, who has worked in emergency rooms and even psychiatric departments throughout her 43 years as a nurse, struggles with her own sadness at her daughter’s struggles.
“When she’s fine, she’s so cute,” she said. “She’s the gentlest person you know.”
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