THE BRONX, N.Y. (PIX11) — Vanessa Morris, 52, never recovered from a trauma she suffered more than 20 years ago when she witnessed a violent crime that ultimately triggered anxiety, depression and PTSD.
On March 20, she left her mother’s Bronx home near Van Cortlandt Park South and didn’t come back.
“Years ago, her cousin – who was like her best friend – was killed in my daughter’s presence,” Morris’ mother Linda Morris, a retired nurse, told PIX11 News.
The cousin’s husband was on the lam 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 was living with my brother. She testified at trial. The first one ended with a hung jury, so she had to testify at a second trial.”
Even though the killer was convicted of murder and sent to prison for 32 to 36 years, Vanessa Morris’ fears didn’t subside.
“She has this paranoia that people are following her,” Linda Morris said. “Whenever she gets anxious, she believes someone is following her.”
Vanessa Morris was about 25 years old when she witnessed the murder, and she channeled her pain into her artwork. Her empty bedroom is filled with impressive paintings celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture along with significant figures in politics and pop culture.
A large painting of slain rap icon Tupac Shakur hangs over Vanessa Morris’ bed. A smaller piece honoring the late Congressman John Lewis also has a place over the bed. There are many more beautifully crafted paintings, created with a variety of materials, displayed on another wall.
Right before she disappeared, Vanessa Morris created an art piece depicting a train approaching a subway station, with a woman standing alone on the platform. Morris’ mother said the piece was inspired by the tragic death of Michelle Alyssa Go, a woman who died after she was pushed in front of an oncoming train in January. Go sustained her fatal injuries at the Times Square station at 42nd Street and Broadway.
When PIX11 asked Morris’ mother if her daughter ever exhibited or sold her work, she replied, “No. She started to give it away.”
Vanessa Morris’ grandmother Emily Fletcher, 89, cried as she recalled the vibrant girl who changed after witnessing the terrible crime.
“We begged her to get counseling, but she didn’t want to,” the grandmother said.
The tight-knit family is proud of its Costa Rican roots and finally convinced Vanessa Morris to talk to someone during the pandemic.
“She just started counseling maybe a year ago,” Linda Morris said. “Because of the pandemic, she was doing telephonic talks with the therapist.”
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 had done work for the Visiting Nurse Service and was employed at fitness centers and an optician’s office over the years, but that changed.
“The last six years, she has completely not worked, as her emotional distress got worse,” Linda Morris said. “She used to socialize but she has cut herself off.”
Her daughter found comfort in playing the guitar and creating her art.
“Last summer, she sat in the park across the street and painted,” the mother said.
The COVID-19 pandemic did little to ease the daughter’s anxiety. Vanessa Morris and her stepfather did not want to get the vaccine, even as her mother, brother and other relatives got vaccinated and boosted.
“He, like [Vanessa], believed in this conspiracy theory about the vaccine and the government,” Linda Morris said.
Tragically, while Vanessa Morris suffered another bout with depression in late December that required hospitalization, her stepfather developed COVID symptoms.
“He died Jan. 5 from COVID pneumonia,” Linda Morris said. “When he died, she was in the hospital.”
Linda Morris said her daughter had been close to her stepfather and struggled with the loss after her release from the mental health ward. On March 20, the night she disappeared, Linda Morris said they watched “American Idol” and talked about dealing with life’s challenges.
Linda Morris said her daughter was inspired by a 101-year-old man who realized his life’s dream of getting a high school diploma.
“I said to her, ‘It’s never too late to start over,'” Linda Morris, 72, recalled. “We had a conversation about the future of her life, because of my age.”
Morris remembered telling her daughter that she would benefit from having a job to make ends meet. The mother said her daughter also receives a disability stipend.
“She said, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you, too,’ and she went to bed,” Linda Morris said. “When I got up the next day, she was gone.”
Linda Morris said she left her cell phone and keys, and didn’t take any clothing. She called the police and then checked with shelters, hospitals and morgues. The office of City Council Member Eric Dinowitz 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 my sister’s safe … that she’s warm and safe,” Evans said. “We’re a tight-knit family; we love each other.”
Linda Morris, who worked in emergency rooms and even psychiatric wards during her 43 years as a nurse, is struggling with her own sadness about her daughter’s troubles.
“When she’s feeling good, she’s so sweet,” she said. “She’s the gentlest person you know.”