She was one of Columbus' most gifted dancers. But there was more to Deborah Hardy than met the eye.
Editor’s note: It’s been more than three decades since four men kidnapped Deborah Hardy from her East Columbus Street apartment and took her to Linden Park, where she was shot in the head and left in her car to die. In November 1984, two months before her killers were indicted, Columbus Monthly published this profile of Hardy.
The murder itself attracted little public attention. The stories in the newspapers were routine; the facts of the crime as reported by Columbus police homicide detectives weren't spectacular or even out of the ordinary. Sometime between 2:30 and 3 o'clock on the morning of Aug 30, detectives say, a young black dancer, Deborah Denise Hardy, 33, of 1471 Columbus St., Apt. B, was shot in the head in the back seat of her red Pontiac Firebird. The car was parked behind a maintenance garage at the Linden Park Recreation Center. A fisherman walking through the park discovered the unconscious woman about 3:40 a.m. and ran to a nearby Columbus fire station for help. Paramedics rushed Hardy to Riverside Methodist Hospital, where she died less than 12 hours later without regaining consciousness. Her killer or killers remain at large.
The autopsy performed the next day by Franklin County deputy coroner Patrick Fardal was equally unremarkable. It took less than one hour for Fardal to determine that Hardy had died of massive cardiopulmonary arrest brought on by a "gunshot wound to the head with perforations of the skull and brain." He noted that the bullet smashed through the right side of her skull, just in front of and a little above her ear, piercing her brain and lodging itself on the left side. A partially copper-jacketed, .38-caliber bullet was recovered from brain tissue on the left side of Hardy's head and turned over to detectives. Fardal observed only three other injuries. There were bruises to Hardy's arms and forehead and her lips were swollen, indicating that whoever killed her may have grabbed her by the arms and struck her in the face before firing the fatal shot. A supplementary toxicology report, prepared by Dr. Daniel Couri, revealed the presence of cocaine and methadone, a narcotic drug often used to treat heroin addicts, in her blood.
Nothing spectacular. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was all typical of those three-paragraph murder stories you'll find every other day in local “area news” columns. Deborah Denise Hardy, it seemed, was just another of those East-Side drug users who occasionally wind up dead on a bad side of town.
But in some very different parts of town, in the middle-class neighborhoods where local arts supporters live, Deborah Hardy's death seemed anything but routine. Deborah Hardy murdered? The Deborah Hardy? How could that happen? She was so good.
Beneath the cold facts in police reports and the coroner's files lies another story, an untold story about a woman who led two lives—one dark, ugly and secret, the other bright and very public. The bullet that smashed through Deborah Hardy's brain that morning ended a tormented Jekyll-and-Hyde. existence. Secrets she had been hiding for years—drug addiction, arrests for prostitution, time spent in prison—now began to come to light.
Deborah Hardy wasn't just another junkie with a record who ended up dead. She was also an important part of the Columbus arts scene, a beautiful dancer and a choreographer, who had a master's degree from Ohio State University, who owned her own dance studio, who once danced as a soloist with the old Columbus Civic Ballet. Hardy's violent death and the ensuing revelations about the dark side of her life shocked an arts community that knew her only as one of the bright stars of the local dance scene. The truth about Deborah Hardy may never be fully known. But as fragments of her story trickle out, it continues to shock and dismay those who knew her as an artist.
How could someone so talented, so ambitious, so dedicated to dance and the arts ever become trapped in the murky and violent world of drugs and prostitution? How did she keep her problems secret as she applied for and received grants from the Ohio and Greater Columbus arts councils, and jobs teaching dance in the Artists in the Schools program and at OSU? What could have caused such a promising life to go so horribly wrong?
Deborah Hardy, her friends and colleagues will tell you, was one of the best, perhaps the best, locally born dancers ever to perform and work in Columbus. She had style. She had grace. She had raw talent and power and an electrifying stage presence. It didn't matter whether she was dancing ballet, jazz, disco or modern. There was an aura of intensity and dedication about the way she moved to music. Her dancing was precise and fluid, her original choreography innovative and dramatic. She was, in the words of one friend, "a little ball of dynamite," wrapped up, surprisingly enough, in a 5-foot-1, 92-pound body. Watching Hardy dance made people "feel good,” says the friend. The art of dancing made Hardy feel good, too. It was her life, and had been almost from birth.
Hardy was born Deborah Denise Bland on Feb. 14, 1951, the oldest of three daughters in a middle-class family headed by Arthur and Sarah Bland. The family home was at 1833 Franklin Park South, just across from the park, and it was there, as a toddler, that Debbie first showed off her talent as a dancer. The performances were impromptu to be sure, staged when she was 2 or 3 years old. But Rhonda Burke, a childhood friend who now owns her own dance studio in Columbus, remembers that Debbie's parents dutifully recorded those early efforts on film nonetheless. The Blands, who friends say doted on Debbie, wanted to encourage their daughter's interest in dancing, and when she was about 4 years old, enrolled her in classes with dance instructor Bettye Robinson, who now operates the black dance group, Les Danseurs Noir.
Burke, who joined Robinson's classes several years later, recalls that it was apparent, even back then, that Debbie's dancing was a cut above that of her peers. The girls were in their preteen years at the time, and Robinson sometimes took them on out-of-state field trips to observe professional dancers and to perform. Debbie loved the trips, the big cities and the glitter and allure of professional dancing. And Burke says, "There was no situation—whether we went to New York or Philadelphia—where she didn't stand out." From then on, Debbie Bland's single-minded dedication to become a professional dancer bordered on an obsession. "It was her passion," says Burke. "What she pulled from herself was blood, sweat and tears. She could project that. Her dream was to become the best; to grow up and go to New. York and be the best."
For awhile, it looked as if she might get her wish. She continued her lessons with Robinson as a teenager and even started teaching several classes on her own. Other opportunities opened up, too. Her parents were able to send her to the private St. Joseph's Academy for Girls, a respected Catholic school that was operated by the Sisters of Notre Dame until it closed in 1977. She started high school at St. Joseph's in 1965, and the nuns there remember her as an intelligent student who often contributed to school activities. She helped stage and choreograph school productions and danced in many herself. “She was a very fine young lady," says Sister Marie Tarpy, who was principal of the school at the time, "She was a beautiful dancer. She had an inner discipline. She was well mannered, courteous, thoughtful and gracious. There was a certain kind of refinement about her."
Debbie was still in high school when she got her first break as a dancer. She auditioned for and won a spot on the fledgling Columbus Civic Ballet, the forerunner of today's professional Ballet Metropolitan. She quickly became one of the stars. Her dancing won her awards and praise. She became the company's first black soloist and was featured in a cover photograph in the Dispatch Sunday Magazine. Life must have seemed good at the time. She wasn't yet 18 and was at the top of her chosen profession in her hometown. “She was a beautiful dancer, really," remembers the ballet's director Bud Kerwin, now an assistant professor of dance at Butler University in Indianapolis. "She was a very strong performer. She was sort of a leader, really someone who seemed to be enjoying very much what she was doing. She was someone who could definitely go on and do something with dance professionally."
And that's just what Debbie tried to do after graduation from St. Joseph's in 1969. She moved to New York, enrolled as a dance major at Adelphi University on Long Island, and hit the streets for auditions in between classes. Things looked promising at first. She landed an understudy job in the Broadway hit “Bubblin' Brown Sugar,”danced in a production of “Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope”and worked on university productions. She graduated cum laude from Adelphi with a bachelor's degree in dance in 1973. Around the same time, she met and fell in love with Darryl Lynn Hardy, a medical technologist from White Plains, New York. The couple returned briefly to Columbus in 1974, and were married on April 20 at Debbie's church, St. Phillips Lutheran on East Long Street. Friends say Debbie was excited and optimistic about her marriage and the prospect of living and working in New York. But it was shortly after the couple returned to the city and set up housekeeping in the Bronx that things started coming undone.
Hardy had all the skills, the training and the drive it takes to make it as a professional dancer in New York City. The only thing she lacked was something over which she had no control: height.
In a town with thousands of talented job-seeking dancers, there just isn't much demand for one who stands only 5-foot-1, talent or no talent. It was a refrain Hardy heard constantly as she tried to break into the big leagues. She auditioned for a spot with the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but was turned down because of her size. And it was the same story elsewhere. "That kept being thrown up to her,” explains Burke. “ ‘You're just too short.' She graduated with honors from high school and college, so it wasn't intellect and it definitely wasn't her ability to dance. We're not just talking about being able to dance—she was extremely good. [Her height] was the only reason she didn't make it. It [was] kind of frustrating."
Nobody knows exactly when Hardy first got involved with drugs, or why. Some friends say she was still at Adelphi when she started experimenting; drugs, after all, were a part of the college scene in the late '60s. Others say she started around the time of her marriage, when it became increasingly apparent she would not find steady work as a dancer. "Some people have the ability to be flexible," explains a friend. "When they try one thing they've always dreamt they wanted to do, and it doesn't work out, they back off and turn around and try another. Maybe she wasn't flexible enough and the big city took advantage of her insecurities."
Whatever the reason, Hardy's personal and professional lives soon began to fall apart in the face of what friends describe as her bitter frustration and disappointment over not being able to dance in New York because of her height. New York police say her husband, Darryl, was arrested in the Bronx on Dec. 3, 1974—less than eight months after their wedding—and charged with attempted murder, first-degree robbery, criminal possession of a gun and reckless endangerment, stemming from what they call a botched robbery attempt. Hardy separated from him and returned to Columbus in February 1975, shortly before Darryl pleaded guilty to attempted robbery in a plea bargain and was sentenced to up to seven years in prison. Deborah Hardy eventually filed for divorce in 1980, five years after her separation from Darryl, but the case was dismissed a few months later when neither party showed up for a hearing. Although there's no indication they had lived together since 1975, the Hardys apparently remained legally married until Deborah’s death.
When she returned to Columbus in 1975, friends say Hardy was at rock bottom—addicted to heroin and depressed about her dancing career. "I saw her in the hospital when she came back from New York and she was ill," says a friend. "When I saw her she was in St. Anthony's in a rehab program for heroin."
Perhaps because of her drug problems, Hardy also began to get in trouble with the law. On Oct 19, 1976, she was indicted by a Franklin County grand jury on 15 counts of forgery and two counts of receiving stolen property stemming from an Oct. 1 incident at the Eastland Mall Lazarus. Court records show she was accused of using stolen charge cards and identification to purchase goods in the store. While awaiting trial on those charges, Hardy was indicted again by the grand jury on Feb. 11, 1977, on one count of receiving stolen property and one count of forgery involving a stolen Huntington National Bank money order that belonged to a market in Pickerington.
A few days later, on Feb. 16, she was arrested by Columbus police vice squad officer Terry Black at the corner of Walnut and High streets and charged with soliciting for prostitution. Police charged that Hardy offered to go half and half—intercourse and oral sex—with Black for $50. The charges were dismissed later in a bond forfeiture agreement. On March 13, 1977, Hardy was arrested again, this time at the family home on Franklin Park South, and charged with writing a $30 bad check to Lazarus in June of 1976. The charge was later dismissed after she made restitution and paid court costs.
Just a little more than a month later, on April 27, 1977, Hardy waived her right to trial after a plea bargain on the 15-count Lazarus indictment and pleaded guilty to one count of forgery. She was sentenced by Judge Paul Martin to from six months to five years in the Women's Reformatory at Marysville.
Just four days after Martin passed sentence, court records show Hardy was arrested again, this time at the Franklin County Women's Correctional Institution, where she was awaiting transfer to Marysville. The charges were more serious this time: felonious assault and aggravated menacing. Police alleged that Hardy stabbed one workhouse guard and threatened another with a butcher knife during an altercation in the kitchen of the facility. On Aug. 18, 1977, Hardy pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted felonious assault, again in a plea bargain. Martin tacked another one to 10 years onto her sentence, to be served concurrently. Hardy also pleaded guilty that day to forgery in connection with the stolen Huntington bank money order and was sentenced to an additional six months to five years. The receiving stolen property charge was dropped. At the same time, she was indicted by yet another grand jury on a theft charge involving checks stolen from the Allstate Insurance Company in 1976. That charge was dismissed, too, as part of the plea bargain.
Debbie Hardy, star of the Columbus Civic Ballet and cum laude graduate of Adelphi University, was now a criminal. She would spend the next 10 months of her life in Marysville, living with murderers, robbers and prostitutes, before being paroled on June 15, 1978.
Prison wasn't a rehabilitative experience for Hardy; her friends say it left her cold and hard. “Before she left and went to New York she was a very optimistic, very light, aspiring person," says Burke. "When she came out [of prison], she was like hard-core. Just even in the way she looked. She went from this very feminine person and came out rough.”
Still, Hardy made attempts to put her life back together again. After her release from prison, she became actively involved in the mainstream Columbus arts scene for the first time since her days with the Civic Ballet. In December, 1979, she landed a CETA job as a choreographer with Columbus Stage Centre, a local black community theatre that has since changed its name to Center Stage Theatre. She choreographed the group's production of “The Me Nobody Knows” and taught dance classes to children. She also commuted to, and eventually lived for a short time, in Cincinnati, where she worked as a dance instructor at the Cincinnati Arts Consortium, a black community arts center. She performed interpretive and liturgical dances at her church, St. Phillips Lutheran, and taught an occasional children's class there, too. And she fulfilled a dream by opening her own dance company and school, the Hardy Contemporary Dance Theatre.
Hardy's dance company worked for a time out of Stage Centre, but eventually set up shop in a spacious studio at 82 N. Grant Ave. It immediately won praise for its role in helping develop talent and audiences in the black community. Its annual recitals were performed before packed auditoriums. It put on shows at the Greater Columbus Arts Festival, on the Statehouse lawn, at shopping malls and at other dance studios around town. Its class offerings—in ballet, jazz and modern and African dance—encouraged aspiring young artists to think of dance as a career. The Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) recognized the company's value to the black community, and the arts community at large. Hardy received nearly $7,000 in grants from the two organizations in 1981 and 1982.
There were other successes, too. In 1980, she started teaching dance in GCAC's Artists in the Schools program. Two years later, she enrolled as a graduate student in the OSU department of black studies. She taught a dance class there as a graduate assistant and received her master's degree in the fall of 1983.
On the surface at least, Deborah Hardy's career seemed to be flourishing. Few people she met or worked with during these years ever suspected that she had a drug problem or had spent time in prison. She kept her personal life very secret, her friends say, and for good reason. The arts councils, the Columbus schools and OSU might not have been so supportive had they known of her background. Even as she seemed to thrive, however, there were hints that all was not well with Hardy's life.
Friends say the first thing they noticed was a change in her temperament. When she got out of prison in 1978, she was no longer the girl the nuns at St. Joseph described as "having a certain refinement about her.” Says one friend, "She would tell you if she felt you were wrong or right," and didn't hesitate to use profanity to get her points across. Adds a dancing colleague, "She was not a diplomat. She was out of control. I always blew that off to artistic temperament, but she had a temper."
And the arrests started again. On Dec. 15, 1979, while she was working with Stage Centre, Hardy was arrested in her car downtown by Columbus police officer Romey Saunders and charged with public indecency. Saunders alleged that she was "engaging in sexual conduct in public.” The charge was later dismissed on the technical ground that the police officer improperly filled out the complaint.
Several months later, in April of 1980, Hardy was fired from her CETA job at Stage Centre after several raucous verbal confrontations with then executive director Carole Khan-White. Hardy later sued White and Stage Centre business manager Charles E. Evans III for defamation because of a letter they jointly wrote to the Columbus CETA office, asking that she be fired. The letter alleged, "On several Occasions I [Khan-White] have discovered her [Hardy] in my private office without permission. … Ms. Hardy was allowed the total use of the facility, free of charge, on Sunday afternoons to build her own dance company. ... On March 15, 1980, she came into my office screaming that all dance classes sponsored at Stage Centre through the Ohio Arts Council. . .were her classes, not Stage Centre's classes, and that she was paying rent for the facility [at 855 N. Nelson Road] ..."
In lawsuit filings Khan-White also alleged that Hardy on several occasions “caused outbursts and disturbances among the administration, a visiting cast director and cast members.” Hardy sued for $20,000, but dropped the case before it came to trial.
She was arrested again, for the last time, on Jan. 6, 1983, during a period when she was attending OSU and teaching classes there. Vice squad officer Joe Smith arrested her for soliciting on Fifth Street south of Main Street, after he said she offered to go half and half with him for $40. She pleaded guilty to the charge on May 16, 1983, and was fined $100 and costs.
Was Hardy prostituting herself to support a drug habit? That seems likely, but people who knew her as a dancer still have trouble accepting the probability. “We still can't believe all we've been hearing," says one friend. "As far as we were concerned she was Shirley Temple, not Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde." Adds another, "Do you think she would have had many students if parents thought she was out hooking at night? I don't know how she pulled it off. Her demeanor in the day wasn't indicative of her behavior at night. It wasn't like you knew you were sending your 5-year-old to her ballet lessons and your husband might meet her on the street at night.”
People at the arts councils and OSU were shocked, too. "There was nothing to suggest in her performance and in her behavior around here to indicate that was true," says Dr. William E. Nelson, chairman of the OSU black studies department. "I found her extremely reliable, extremely talented as a dancer and it was for that reason I agreed to hire her [as a graduate assistant]. If we had known she had been arrested for prostitution while she was working here, it would have been a concern to me. That's a side of Deborah I never saw." Hugh Murphy, who coordinates the Artists in the Schools program for the Greater Columbus Arts Council, says, “The schools were very happy with what she did. Deborah's [evaluations] were uniformly glowing. She had a real gift for working with children and coaxing from them performances that were really amazing to watch."
Life apparently began to unravel for Hardy only a few months before her murder. In May of this year she was forced to close her dance company because she couldn't afford to pay the rent on the studio. "She didn't want to close it," says dancer Dino Anderson, a boyfriend who had been living with Hardy for about a year at the time. "She was very strong in trying to keep it open. But financially she couldn't do it.” In June, she also quit a part-time job as a dance instructor at the Wharton School of Ballet after several disagreements with the owner, Hope Wharton. “It was obvious at some times that she was not happy," says Wharton. “I really didn't see signs of another life going on, except that she was troubled."
Anderson, who broke up with Hardy shortly after she closed her studio, says that the company's demise was the low point of a year in which she had turned more and more to drugs to escape her problems. He says Hardy had told him in the summer of 1983 that she was in a drug rehabilitation program, but was having trouble shaking the habit. "She told me she'd be off by September of '83, but then September rolled into December."
After the first of the year, Anderson says, Hardy really began to act strangely. “She would go into the bathroom and lock the doors," he says. “People would call and she would grab the phone. I started getting scared.” Anderson saw her for the last time just weeks before her death. "She didn't even recognize me," he says. “I stayed the night with her and we talked. I put her in front of a mirror and said, 'Look at yourself.' I told her she had to quit." Hardy, he says, told him she would.
No one will ever know if Deborah Hardy could have shaken her drug habit and rebuilt her life and dancing career. The gunman who put a bullet in her head that August morning saw to that. The people who cared about Deborah Hardy, though—the ones who marveled in the beauty she could create with her dancing—believe she could have bounced back. To them the Hardy whom police and court records describe as ex-con, convicted prostitute and heroin junkie was just a dark and secretive aberration. They remember a diminutive ball of dynamite who made them feel good when she danced.
If Deborah Hardy could have chosen her own epitaph, perhaps she'd have picked the phrase from her vanity license plates: "5-FOOT-2." If she had been 5-foot-8, or even 5-foot-5, she might be dancing in New York today, might even be the star she always wanted to become. But even on tiptoe, Hardy barely nudged 5-foot-2. And they don't need short dancers in New York.
This story originally appeared in the November 1984 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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