To Top

Meet Debbie Love of Heads Up Self-Defense for Women in Solana Beach

Today we’d like to introduce you to Debbie Love.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Debbie. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I never imagined I’d be where I am today. It’s been a 32-year journey even though when it began there was no path or journey in mind, there was only fear. It was the summer of 1988 and I was watching the late evening news as I always did before going to sleep when I heard the name Julie Love. I sat straight up in bed and saw my cousin’s picture below a caption which read, “Have You Seen Julie Love?” My mind was racing. I called the local TV station and they confirmed the story. It was late, too late to call family. I pretty much sat in silence till morning. I located my uncle and her brothers the next morning at the home of Julie’s fiancé which had been turned into a headquarters. Members of the press were outside hoping to talk to anyone they could and police officers were inside. My uncle was pale; he hadn’t slept. He was glad to see me and I was glad to see him. We hugged each other tight then sat silently and watched the unbelievable commotion going on around us. This was the beginning of a nightmare and the beginning of my story.

Julie, 27, attended a business meeting on the evening of July 11, 1988, but never made it home. Her abandoned car was found two miles from her condo in the affluent neighborhood of Buckhead. She had run out of gas.

“HAVE YOU SEEN JULIE LOVE” became the new mantra all over town, on radio and television. That poster was appearing on car windshields, shop windows, and even billboards; Julie was everywhere! Hundreds of volunteers showed up every day to help search for her. The local news stations were relentless in their coverage. It didn’t take long for rumors to fly with wild stories of why Julie might have disappeared. Anyone who knew her knew none of it was true. Julie was happier than she’d ever been; she was teaching physical education to preschool kids at The Epstein School, while making a success of her children’s aerobics program in schools all over Atlanta, and she was newly engaged to her longtime boyfriend.

Before long, every law enforcement agency became involved, including the FBI. There were manhunts with dogs, fields were scavenged and psychics were listening to.

The Democratic National Convention came to town bringing thousands of journalists all wondering who is she? The Washington Post, New York Times and others picked up the story, and brought more attention to her case. (Here is the link for the WAPO article:

Julie’s disappearance made people, especially women, confront their own mortality, including me, especially me. You see, Julie and I were almost identical in size and body type. We used to joke that we got the Love gene because we were both petite, athletic, under 5 feet and 100 pounds. Julie excelled in gymnastics and managed to be adorable in any sport she participated in, while I had no problem strapping on pads to join my brother and his friends in a friendly game of tackle football.

I was working at a law firm in Buckhead, not far from where Julie’s car had been found. I had already taken as much time off from work as I could so I would use lunch hours and time after work to search. This went on for 13 months.

Finally, there was a break in the case when a bruised and battered woman walked into the police station and said she knew what happened to Julie. She told law enforcement everything she knew and even agreed to wear a wire.

Janice Weldon was in the car that night along with her boyfriend, Emmanuel (“Demon”) Hammond and his cousin Maurice Porter when they spotted Julie walking. They offered her a ride but she declined and pointed towards one of the houses nearby. They pulled away but then spotted the abandoned car and circled back. The two men jumped out, one grabbed Julie and the other hit her with a sawed-off shotgun and threw her in the car. That was just the beginning of a horrific and tragic night for Julie.

With the information provided by Weldon, the two men were arrested and Julie’s remains were found. In the end, Hammond was convicted of murder, kidnapping, rape and armed robbery and received the death penalty. Porter pleaded guilty to the same charges and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Weldon was given immunity and not prosecuted in the case.

Many believed Weldon should have been prosecuted as well. I disagreed because I knew she was a victim too. Each time she tried to leave, Hammond threatened to kill her and she had no doubt he would. While in prison, he put a $20,000 hit on her. It took a lot of courage for her to come forward, and if not for her, we would still be wondering what happened to Julie. Her father, who passed away a few months ago, would have died without knowing if his daughter was dead or alive. Even if it’s bad news, it’s better than not knowing.

If not for Weldon’s courage, my story would have ended there. Because Weldon was willing to tell the gritty and nightmarish details of that night, I couldn’t let go of the constant voice in my head saying “if it could happen to Julie, it could happen to me.”

In the meantime, I was pregnant and my fear went into overdrive. Whenever I left the house, I was afraid. At the office, I stopped going out to lunch and would ask security to walk me to my car in the underground parking lot. There would be no more errands at night.

At Julie’s funeral, I was almost eight months along. While standing graveside next to her dad, I made a promise to my unborn son, with a whisper I told him, “I will always keep you safe.”

For me, life was not getting back to normal. Now I had a son to protect. My fear persisted. I wanted to learn what to do if someone attacked me, so I started going to self-defense classes. I tried several but nothing took. Either I was too small to make the techniques work, or I wasn’t able to respond to an attack as quickly as the instructors obviously expected I should. I went to a lot of classes and they pretty much taught the same things. So why couldn’t I learn? The only thing each class had in common were the instructors; they were all male martial artists.

Time passed and we moved to the San Diego area. My son, Mark, was eight and going to a new school. Just like Julie and me, he got the Love gene, in that he was not very tall, and kids were bullying him because of it. I found a karate studio for Mark, which he loved, and I’d sit and watch every class. It didn’t take long before Mark was developing real skills. He was getting sharper and balanced; he was coordinated and quick. He may have been shorter than the other kids, but now he had a confidence he didn’t before and it showed in the way he carried himself. The bullying stopped.

The day he tested for his youth Black Belt, I could not have been more proud. I had been waiting for this day for a long time. I went to him, bowed and asked if he’d mind if I started training too. His response, which still brings tears to my eyes, was “Mom, I’ve been waiting for you to ask.” That day I bought a gi (uniform), and joined Mark on the dojo floor. That was 20 years ago.

Mark knew why I wanted to start training. He knew I was serious about it, and he was patient and always willing to help me. I dubbed him my at-home sensei. Mark outranked me  but he never took advantage of this, he didn’t have to. I respected his accomplishments and he respected me for not only jumping into the arena, but also for the reasons I was there. It made us closer. It gave us a bond, something we shared. We went to class several days a week, travelled to camps together and shared the same friends. We would never run out of conversation.

During my training, my sensei would always make sure I could perform the self-defense techniques that were part of the curriculum. If my size was a problem, they would show me how to make it work by tweaking it.

I don’t believe anyone will dispute that women and men think differently and respond to things differently. This is especially true when it comes to physical attacks. The contrast between how a woman reacts to an attack versus how a man reacts couldn’t be starker. While I wasn’t surprised at what I learned, I was beginning to understand why I wasn’t able to perform the way the self-defense instructors in Atlanta expected I should. Someone who teaches self-defense to women should understand that women not only learn differently than men, they think and react differently than men.

Take for instance the term “fight or flight” which is defined as, “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” In the midst of an attack, women typically do not fight or try to flee. Women usually freeze and wait for it to be over. Why? Because it can take a few seconds for a woman to realize what’s happening to her. For that reason, the term “fight or flight” has been changed to “fight, flight or freeze” because that’s what women tend to do. What I teach takes the freeze factor into consideration, so even if it takes a few seconds to wrap your head around what’s happening, you still have defenses.

When a man is standing over you and everything on him seems huge and you feel tiny, often the only way to win is to cheat. And, I will show you how to do that too. If non-consensual encounters between men and women were fair, cheating wouldn’t be necessary.

I believe women should learn to protect themselves from the point of view of another woman, a woman who has experienced many of the same things. With this in mind, I began developing my own defenses for women. Each technique had to be effective, make sense to women, be easy to perform and easy to remember. One tactic I use to help women learn and remember certain techniques, is to teach them as dance steps. Women have a knack for remembering dance steps. It works!

I have also developed defenses against another type of sexual assault that women constantly deal with which may seem minor but happens far too often and that is “casual sexual assault.” It often starts when we’re young and wouldn’t dare speak of it. So, it continues and we continue to stay silent. It will either stay the same or get worse. Casual sexual assault usually occurs at social or family gatherings, weddings, casual dinners or at a family or neighborhood barbeque. It’s the hug that gets uncomfortable as it goes on too long or one that includes an unwanted touch from a creepy neighbor. If it happens once and nothing is said, it’s going to happen again. Women detest this but if we call it out, we’re accused of making a big deal out of nothing. Well, it’s not nothing! If we, as women, learn to handle this ourselves and teach our girls how to deal with this type of assault when it happens, one by one, we may be able to put an end to it. Imagine how empowered a young woman would feel after such an encounter.

Self-defense for women is a much larger topic than most people realize. Because of what happened to Julie, I learned that self-defense is far more than learning how to fight back. It includes being aware of everything, like making sure your car has plenty of gas and is well maintained. Julie made a simple mistake that night by not filling up her gas tank. That simple mistake turned into a tragic mistake because she ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Self-defense is about making good decisions and listening to your intuition when it’s telling you something isn’t right. It’s knowing that you’re most likely to be assaulted by someone you know rather than a stranger even though it’s the stranger we fear. It’s knowing what a predator looks for in a victim, how they choose a victim and knowing how to avoid being chosen. It’s about keeping our children safe, and knowing the red flags that signal something might be going on with your child. In school our kids are taught about “stranger danger”, but how do you warn them about people they’re supposed to trust like their scout leader, priest, therapist, teacher, babysitter, coach or uncle? Fact is over 90% of the time it’s someone the family knows and trusts.

The journey that started with that one tragic event back in 1988 has become an obsession which started with the desire to learn a few self-defenses moves, but has turned into so much more. Not only do I have the knowledge that comes with 20 years of martial arts training, but I know what will and what won’t work for women and I’ve developed techniques that will actually work for women, and a unique way of teaching. It makes a huge difference when you have a woman who has experienced sexual assault teaching other women how to handle it. As a speaker, I’m able to speak to any age group, for instance, if it’s senior citizens, I focus on issues affecting them specifically as they are typically targeted for different reasons than other age groups. The other day I was invited to speak to a nonprofit group supporting young single moms not just about their safety, but also about keeping their children safe and recognizing the signs if something is wrong.

I’m proud to be where I am today. I stayed in the arena and never gave up. I was 44 when I started and 20 years later, I’m stronger and more confident than I’ve ever been plus I get to train six days a week with my best friends, how lucky am I?

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
While I didn’t necessarily think it would be an easy transition, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about being a business owner. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. My past 40-year career in estate planning didn’t set me up as a small business owner. What I had was a passion and a story but no knowledge of how to grow a business from that. Then I got a call out of nowhere from a woman who had seen my flyer at Seaside Market advertising self-defense classes. She was looking for a keynote speaker for a charity event to benefit Helen Woodward Animal Center to be held at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club. There would be close to 150 people attending who had spent big bucks to attend. Gulp! I said yes even though I had no public speaking experience. The event was a success and a line of women waited to talk to me about their daughters or granddaughters who they felt needed to take my classes. No one called. I did, however, get other speaking opportunities which made me realize I could reach more people through speaking than I could in my classes. Then I discovered networking, which was an eye opener. With every new networking group I’d attend, when I’d say what I do, a hush came over the room. Both men and women would comment on the importance of what I do, but as one person told me, I need to learn how to close the deal. In all honesty, I didn’t know I would have to be closing any deals. While I never thought it would be easy, it has taken much longer than expected to find my footing. Then came Covid19, which has taught me the art of the pivot. I now do speaking engagements and teach self-defense on Zoom.

Heads Up Self-Defense for Women – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Heads Up Self-Defense for Women is a place for women and girls to learn about all aspects of their safety, what to do and what not to do, how to carry yourself, what to watch for and how to defend yourself. What to do, for instance, if a man is standing too close, is coming on too quickly, or gets you in a room and blocks the door so you can’t leave. What to do if a man is eyeing your child.

As far as I’m aware, I’m the only woman in the area focusing on all aspects of women’s safety. As a martial artist, I have the ability to take on anyone who may want to harm me. As a female martial artist, I know what it takes for a girl, woman or anyone of smaller size to fend off an attacker. As a victim of sexual assault, I know the mindset of a woman who feels helpless. As a child who was molested by a family member, I can speak to that as well.

My classes are tailored to the age of the audiences in front of me. As an example, if it’s a group of kids, then I’ll speak to them in a way they understand. If it’s seniors, it’s a completely different conversation.

I have one rule in my studio, no men. When you add even one man to a room full of women discussing sexual assault, the dynamics of the room changes. Women tend to clam up and do not speak as freely. The Heads-Up Studio is a safe place for women to come together.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Karate training exclusively for women and girls. The benefits of martial arts for women and girls are endless. But most women won’t consider it. Why? When you peer into the window of a martial arts studio, you often see men going toe to toe with each other. It’s an intimidating scene and a woman will walk away thinking ‘I don’t want any part of that.’ Women have a fear of getting hurt or seriously injured. My answer is to simply remove the testosterone from the equation, and offer women their own space for training. This removes the intimidation factor, eliminates the fear and substantially reduces the chances of injury.

By having a female-only environment, you have a space where women can learn with each other, grow with each other and develop skills that are truly remarkable. Want kickass arms and legs? This is where it happens. Where every move you make has a purpose, and could potentially save your life.

What else? If some women would rather not deal with the protocols and ranks, that’s okay, or not want to wear a gi (uniform), that’s okay too. To me, it’s developing the skills on your own terms that’s important. It’s having the confidence of knowing you have the ability to stand up for yourself and protect yourself that matters.

Contact Info:

Suggest a story: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

More in