Debbie Payton and Shango Wade
One of North Portland's most heartbreaking anniversaries passed quietly this week – the killing of Debbie Payton and Shango Wade.
The tragedy would probably go unnoticed by most Portlanders except for one thing: their roadside memorial on a telephone pole at North Killingsworth and Rodney, which has borne the handsome couple's photo for many, many years.
The sign, which faces west, says: "Dedicated to Debbie & Shango, September 30, 1994, We Love You, Rest in Peace."
Created and tended by Wade's two best friends, Tracy Terry of North Portland and Mike Lacy of Medford, the "Debbie and Shango" sign is remarkable because over the years it has withstood graffiti wars, gentrification and more – without ever being defaced or removed.
Contacted this week by phone on the anniversary of the murder, Terry and Lacy each fought back tears as they recounted stories of their friends and their efforts to make sure the couple's memory stays alive on the street corner where they died.
"People are probably wondering – hey that sign is still up there," Terry said. "They haven't even taken it down at Christmas when they decorate the streets – they decorate around it."
Wade, 26 when he died, was originally from Los Angeles. He had moved with his parents to Grants Pass, eventually becoming roommates with Lacy in Medford, where he stayed until deciding to relocate to Portland to work in construction with his other best friend, Terry.
"He was a builder," Terry said. "I'm a builder myself and he framed houses and he taught me how."
A Senseless Murder
Wade had only lived in Portland a few months before he and Payton, 30, from Beaverton, were gunned down by Earl Douglas Wilkins, who admitted to a Multnomah County jury that he'd stolen $1,000 worth of stereo equipment from Wade's home.
Wilkins claimed Wade pulled a gun during a confrontation over
Earl Douglas Wilkins
the return of the stereo equipment. According to Wilkins, he shot the couple to death in Wade's minivan in self defense.
The court transcript shows that almost every witness to the murders, which occurred on a Friday at 1 p.m. at the corner of North Killingsworth and Rodney Streets, contradicted Wilkins' claims.
Testimony indicated that Wilkins had a handgun hidden in the waistband of his pants. After a brief argument, he calmly took out the gun, discharged it several times into the van, then walked away as the vehicle drifted across Killingsworth Street, crashing into the power pole where the "Debbie and Shango" sign now hangs.
Many witnesses also testified that Payton and Wade never owned guns or weapons. Neither of the two had any record of violence or law breaking of any kind.
Wilkins, who already had more than a dozen convictions for sodomy and robbery dating back to the early 1980s, was convicted of aggravated murder and missed a death sentence by one vote of the jury. He remains incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary without parole.
Wade's friend Lacy still chokes up as he describes his friend's services, held in Grant's Pass where his remains were buried at the Granite Hills Cemetery.
"At the funeral there were probably 600-700 people easily," Lacy said. "I got up and spoke at the funeral and I couldn't hold it together anymore when I saw how many people were there, from LA and Portland and Seattle – people from everywhere showed up."
Payton left behind twin sons, Brian and Jeremy, who were about seven years old at the time of their mother's murder. Afterwards, they went to live in Los Angeles with their father.
A few years ago a friend emailed Lacy with a link to a story profiling the twin sons. Today Jeremy Payton is a graduate student at Arizona State who plays safety for the Sun Devils; Bryan Payton, a college senior, made his mark as a star player at Oregon State but transferred this fall to Indiana where he's a running back for the Hoosiers.
"They are doing fantastic, and that was so good to hear that after that kind of tragedy the boys turned out so well," he said.
Today, Terry and Lacy each have a tattoo of crossed hammers to commemorate Wade's life. The design is also part of the "Debbie and Shango" sign, along with a photograph of the couple in happy times.
Terry still works in construction, while Lacy has run his own sign-painting company in Medford, called Art Effects, for the past 20 years. He says the "Debbie and Shango" sign has been replaced and upgraded a few times since the mid-1990s as digital graphics technology has improved, most recently in late August.
In 2007, a local blog about public art in Portland hailed the "Debbie and Shango" sign as a poignant roadside memorial. Written by an anonymous author, the photo and commentary includes posts by Debbie's relatives and Terry's wife, Kristin.
"This time – 1994 – was a scary time for North Portland," the blog says. "Crack was cheap and available on a dozen street corners. Treatment centers and social services were being downsized … Even with such noise – this was an awful and memorable tragedy."
Lacy and Terry say their mission is to keep the beloved couple's memory alive – no matter how the neighborhood changes around the street corner where they were so brutally killed.
"They were friendly, warmhearted, pretty much Shango would do anything for anybody, Debbie was the same way," Terry said. "For somebody to come and take their lives, it was tough for us back then -- and still is today."
"I've started working on another sign to replace the newest one because I keep getting better at what I do," Lacy said. "I keep wanting to do the sign better and better."