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Shoplifter or Troubled Soul?

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Shelley Morrison admits she’s guilty, though her memory of exactly what happened that spring afternoon is still hazy. It was April 23, just before Morrison, who plays Rosario, the cranky Salvadoran maid on Will & Grace, was to attend a rehearsal of the NBC sitcom. “I remember going to the store,” she says, to buy some shoes, purchasing them, “and the next thing I remember is being surrounded by security guards outside and being taken to their office. I emptied my pockets to find this horrible jewelry I would have never bought for myself or given as a gift in a million years. I have a complete blank on anything in between.”

What Morrison, 66, who returned to work on the show this month, does recall is the shock she felt, sitting in that office as she was formally arrested for shoplifting $446 worth of costume jewelry from Robinsons-May department store. After being booked by LAPD cops, she was held for eight hours and finally released on $20,000 bond. “My great fear was that I was going to go to jail,” says Morrison, who gave her first print interview since the arrest. “That scared the bejesus out of me.” Says her husband of 30 years, Walter Dominguez, 56: “Shelley is the most scrupulously honest person I have ever met” and had never gotten so much as a traffic ticket. “The whole episode has been extremely difficult for her.”

At their L.A. townhouse, “Walter put me in my nightgown and put me into bed,” she says. “We unplugged the phone and turned the TV off. I spiraled into this black pit for about 2½ weeks. I was horrified at what I’d done. I’ve always been a very spiritual person.” (Born into a Spanish-Jewish family in The Bronx, Morrison, like her husband, a faith healer with a Native American background, practices the religion of the Lakota Sioux.) “But I really lost my spiritual core.”

She also lost 30 lbs., refusing to eat. Dominguez had to force her to take protein shakes. What ultimately-roused her was the support she received from castmates and family (the couple have no children). “Sean Hayes [who plays Jack] called and said, ‘I live so close by! I can go get groceries!'” says Dominguez. Calls also came from Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and Megan Mullally. “We all love Shelley and will stand beside her,” says Mullally.

Even today, Morrison says she can’t remember actually taking the items, but she doesn’t deny her guilt. “In talking with my lawyer, I said, ‘I did it, I take responsibility.’ I am not above the law, regardless of whatever reason it was.” One explanation, according to a therapist she has been seeing, is that Morrison, a volunteer counselor for cancer patients, AIDS sufferers and senior citizens, has “spent a lifetime taking care of other people,” she says, “and not taking care of myself.” This, perhaps, was her unconscious way of doing that. Her husband thinks stress might have also been a factor. In 1998 Morrison underwent a mastectomy to remove a cancerous tumor; a year later she had another growth removed from her lung (she is now cancer-free). Plus, says Dominguez, “we had a lot of family problems.”

On June 4, Morrison pleaded no contest to a charge of petty theft, a misdemeanor. She was given a $300 fine, one year probation and told to stay away from the store. So far, the incident doesn’t appear to have damaged her career. Even before her sentencing, NBC renewed her contract for three more seasons. “There’s been a huge swell of love from people who don’t even know her, dropping off letters and flowers,” says Dominguez. That support has helped her move on, she says. “The people who will judge me will judge. I can’t help that. But I did get to see how much goodness there is and how much love I am blessed by.”

Michael A. Lipton

Ruth Andrew Ellenson in Los Angeles