2003: Michael Kelly, Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald
Award for Community/Column writing
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Commentary/Column writing

Michael Kelly

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Family'stragedy becomes a miracle

June 30, 2002

June 21, the longest day of the year for daylight, became our family's longest, darkest day.

Our daughter Bridget, 24, a first-grade teacher for the Killeen Independent School District, was kidnapped by a stranger, robbed, shot repeatedly in the back and left for dead. But, at least for now, it is a story of her triumph.

Police are amazed she is alive.

But she will need to heal from severe physical and psychological wounds. Saturday, she was in fair condition at Darnall Army Community Hospital at Fort Hood, the world's largest active-duty military installation.

Imagining the terror she endured fills us with tears. The will to live that she displayed leaves us in awe.

Bridget underwent 6 1/2 hours of emergency surgery. I was the first in the family to arrive. She looked up at me, tubes down her mouth and nose to her lungs and stomach. Her eyes looked lifeless.

Unable to speak, she motioned with her hand. I pulled out a reporter's notebook, and she penned words I will never forget: "Dad, I was thinking about you and Mom and my whole family when it was happening. I just wanted to see you again. ... I didn't want to die."

Bridget had picked up a girlfriend at the airport in Austin at midnight and driven the 80 miles back to Killeen. She dropped off her friend and returned to her own apartment complex. She locked both dead-bolts.

Getting ready for bed, she heard a terrifying sound- someone kicking at her door. She looked out the peephole and the door hit her in the nose, knocking her down. At gunpoint, a young man forced her to her car and to an ATM, making her withdraw $200.

He drove on, and she prayed quietly but audibly: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. ..."

She tried to make a human connection, telling him she was a teacher and that she loved teaching children to read. The man told her to shut up.

He drove her 1993 Nissan Maxima to the edge of a housing development and into a deserted area. He eventually made her turn around - and shot her in the back. She fell, and he shot her again and again.

She played dead, and he left in her car. She began crawling and felt the blood on her fingers and lower abdomen. In danger of bleeding to death, she thought about life: "I might not be able to have babies."

She screamed for help, but no one could hear her. She was scared she would black out. She walked but fell down.

Then came a miracle. She said she felt as though God lifted her up. She got up, walked and began running the 200 yards to a new subdivision. She pounded on a door, and a terrified woman called 911 at 3:50 a.m.

Not knowing that the woman had called for help, Bridget slumped to the house next door and fell on the welcome mat, pounding on the door and screaming for help. Frank James, 43, a retired Army veteran of Desert Storm and Somalia, opened the door and said, "Oh, my God!" He called to his sister-in-law, Aquita: "Get a blanket!"

He checked to see if the attacker was nearby, and knelt next to my beloved, beautiful, bloodied daughter, his hand on her back. Police arrived quickly. The rescue squad helped save her life.

The Killeen Police Department reacted magnificently. A helicopter, a canine crew, patrol cops - officers everywhere. Several hours later, about 14 members of a SWAT team, guns drawn, surrounded a house and arrested a man as he ran out the back door. Jamaal Adrian Turner, 18, has been charged with attempted capital murder.

There is much more to tell, but that can wait for other days. My editors are giving me time off to focus on helping Bridget and dealing with the stress to our family, as well as with the numerous details you don't think about until faced with this horror.

What I want to say for now is thank you.

For the past nine days, we have focused on Bridget. Our far-flung family arrived from Ohio, Florida and Nebraska. Fellow teachers and administrators from Bridget's school at Fort Hood kept watch for days. World-Herald readers sent words of care and concern.

Dr. Clinton Beverly, her surgeon, and other doctors, nurses, counselors and staffers showed great skill. The Army brass, including Lt. Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of Fort Hood and III Corps, showed great compassion.

To all, our family is forever grateful.

Bridget has had ups and downs. She went from critical to serious to fair condition, definitely the right direction. But she has battled nausea, depression and anxiety. At times she has smiled, and the sparkle has returned to her eyes. She faces a tough road ahead, including post-traumatic stress and major follow-up surgery in August.

Late in the week, the James family, who opened their door to Bridget, visited the hospital. Frank and Denette, natives of North Carolina, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in March. He builds modular homes and she works at an Army commissary.

They have two beautiful children - Dont'e, 13, and Nikkiya, 11. Bridget said that as soon as she saw the reaction of the man who opened the door at their house, she knew he was a father.

"Your dad is my hero," Bridget quietly told Dont'e and Nikkiya from her hospital bed. "When that door opened, for the first time I thought I might make it. He was so brave."

When Frank visited the hospital Friday night, he hugged Bridget and said he was glad to see her. We were grateful he opened the door that night. The attacker could have been nearby.

"I wasn't going to leave her there, no matter what," he told us. "Even if the guy returned."

Some have said that people always think these horrible crimes happen only to others. I have never felt that way. I've written enough stories the past 32 years to know that these things can happen to any family - and this time it happened to ours.

Bridget Ann Kelly, third of our four children, graduated from St. Cecilia Elementary, Duchesne Academy and St. Louis University. My wife, Barb, was her Girl Scout leader. Bridget backpacked Europe for a month in college, and spent her spring breaks working with the poor. She intends to pursue a master's degree in reading education.

We used to call her "Midge," as in Bridget the Midget, but now she stands 5 feet 93/4 inches - tall in stature, as well as in spirit.

A Killeen police detective, Sharon Brank, found my work number in Bridget's address book and called me at The World-Herald at mid-morning June 21. It was the type of call every family dreads. I soon was on an airplane, wondering if Bridget would live.

How she survived the urban terrorism, the gunshots and the 200-yard trek for help, I don't know. All I know is that our brave daughter is alive.

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A pleafor more openness on rape

July 25, 2002

Now you don't have to read between the lines and wonder: My daughter was raped.

Since she was attacked June 21 by a stranger who kicked in her locked apartment door, World-Herald news stories and two of my columns have said that she was abducted, robbed, shot and left for dead.

That's in keeping with this newspaper's long-standing policy not to name rape victims. It's a good policy, grounded in the notion that much of society still attaches a stigma to rape victims and that printing names might discourage victims from going to the police.

The policy remains, and victims need not fear that their names will be printed in the paper. They should report a crime that is believed to be the most underreported of crimes.

My daughter's attack in Texas made news in Omaha because of its horrible nature - she was shot in the back with 9 mm bullets - and because she grew up in Omaha. Editors say an additional factor, and one causing Bridget's name to be published initially, was that she is the daughter of a longtime columnist.

A grand jury in Bell County, Texas, indicted a man Wednesday on five counts, including attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault. Because Bridget's name had already been reported in connection with the shooting, the sexual-assault charge created a policy dilemma for editors, who decided - with the concurrence of my daughter, my wife and me - to make a rare exception and report it.

In the hospital more than a month ago at Fort Hood, Texas, unable to speak at first, Bridget wrote that in news coverage of her case, "It's OK if they say rape."

She says she wasn't speaking for others or suggesting how they should feel. But she adds: "Why is it more shameful to be a rape victim than a gunshot victim?"

Surely, it is not. But there is shame in rape, and it rests squarely with the attacker, not the victim.

Historically, though, society unfairly has made many rape victims feel either that they contributed to the attacks or that they are somehow diminished - stigmatized - merely by being victims.

The stigma from this awful crime should be on the predator, not on the prey.

In conversation, our family has spoken openly about our daughter's ordeal. We honor her courage in not only surviving her attack but also in not being ashamed.

To be sure, she has wept. So have my wife and I. So have our daughter's grandmas and brothers and sister and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues and, in some cases, kind people we haven't met. The circle of anguish spreads widely.

Our 25-year-old daughter has endured extreme physical pain from her brutal attack as well as mental pain - post-traumatic stress and anxiety, which will continue. She has benefited from physical and psychological care, and is determined to return to a full life and her career as a first-grade teacher.

But there have been moments of near despair.

"This should never have happened to you," I said painfully at her bedside that first weekend. Crying, she replied: "This should never happen to anybody."

But it does. And the silence about rape may add to the feelings of victimization.

Geneva Overholser, then editor of the Des Moines Register, made that point in 1989. "I believe that we will not break down the stigma," she wrote, "until more and more women take public stands. ... Rape is an American shame. Our society needs to see that and attend to it, not hide it or hush it up."

Sexual violation is not sex, it's violence. It's not love, it's hate. It's not so much an act of lust as of power and control.

Because rape is such a personal and despicable act, it is natural for victims and their families not to talk. But perhaps, in the long run, that works to the advantage of the attacker and to the detriment of the victim.

Justice Department figures indicate that one woman in three is a victim of some form of sexual assault during her lifetime. Since our daughter's attack, that statistic is no longer static - it has come alive, all around us.

Dear friends of ours for 20 or 30 years, several of them, have revealed that they were raped. We had no idea. Some never told police, counselors or even family members.

"If you or your daughter ever need someone to talk to," an Omaha colleague told me quietly, "I'd be happy to do so. A man broke into my home 11 years ago and raped me."

People we met in Texas told us painful and harrowing stories - a 9-year-old daughter, now 23, beaten nearly to death in an attempted rape; a wife, now in her 40s, abducted in her 20s, chained to a pig sty and raped; an airline supervisor's daughter, now 15, raped by a stranger when she was 12.

The news reports of my daughter's abduction and shooting, and of her 200-yard trek to a subdivision seeking help, produced a comforting wave of sympathy and encouragement. The cards, e-mails and prayers had a tangible result for us and for her - they are helping us all get better.

We are so grateful. But at the same time I hold feelings bordering almost on guilt. Why? Because most rape victims must go it alone. They don't get all that moral support.

The walking wounded from the crime of rape try to move on. They rebuild their lives, return to their jobs, rejoin society, caress their children and try to smile - hiding the horror they experienced.

Some victims suffer for years. Some families break up.

And all of that is in addition to the immediate fear of impregnation, HIV or other diseases. (My daughter is not pregnant, and her first HIV test was negative; more are needed.)

Because my daughter's attacker had a gun and was a criminal, he made her feel helpless. But not hopeless.

She tried to talk with him, saying she was a teacher and didn't he remember his teachers? He reacted coldly, telling her to shut up.

Her strong religious faith strengthened her spirit. As he was about to rape her, she told him: "God doesn't want you to do this."

He ignored her. Even as she feared for her life, knowing what might come next, she offered her suffering up to God.

When the man was finished with her, he got dressed and told her to turn around. He shot her in the back, and she fell. He shot her twice more.

He thought she was dead and left in her car.

The Catholic faith, which Bridget practices, honors a saint named Maria Goretti. A century ago this month, Maria was stabbed 14 times in an attempted rape and died the next day.

By coincidence, according to an account I read, she had used words almost identical to my daughter's. Trying to rebuff the man, Maria said: "No! It is a sin! God does not want it."

God does not want rape, and neither does our society. And yet it continues, and we rarely talk about it.

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Rape survivors deserve no stigma

August 11, 2002

I'm still angry. On national TV recently, a guy called my daughter "damaged goods."

I was invited on MSNBC to discuss when, if ever, it is appropriate to publish or broadcast the names of rape victims. On June 21, a stranger raped my daughter Bridget, 25, and shot her in the back three times.

Opposite me was Ted Kavanau, 69, a former CNN vice president, who said the stigma of rape victims will never go away.

"It's always going to be there," he said. "Women who are raped, in almost every single culture, are considered damaged goods."

He and I were in different cities, which was good - because I wanted to damage his nose.

But what I said, my voice rising, was, "The stigma is going to continue because of attitudes like that. They're so backward."

The exchange took place nine days ago on "Nachman," former New York newspaper columnist Jerry Nachman's nightly show. A California sheriff had disclosed on CNN's "Larry King Live" the night before that two abducted teen-agers had been raped.

Most news organizations, including The World-Herald, don't normally disclose the names of rape victims. The names and faces of the California teens had been broadcast widely because they were abducted.

Fortunately, deputies killed their abductor. When the sheriff disclosed the rapes, news outlets began withholding the girls' names and faces - trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

It's a dilemma. This newspaper faced it in my daughter's case because her shooting had made news, and a month later a man was indicted for attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault.

Editors decided, with Bridget's concurrence, to report the indictment. In a column, I pleaded for more openness about rape and for placing the stigma and the shame on the attackers.

The California sheriff shouldn't have blabbed to Larry King about the rapes. My daughter isn't saying, and neither am I, that every rape victim's name should be published.

But on the issue of rape, this country needs a sea change, a "paradigm shift." We need to move out of the Dark Ages in which rape victims are whispered about and stigmatized.

My daughter is a rape survivor, and she is not diminished or embarrassed one bit. I admire her courage because she is standing up not just for herself, but also for many others who are raped.

The U.S. Justice Department says that one in three women will be a victim of sexual assault of some kind. That means millions and millions of women - the crime is widespread, but we mostly treat it as a dirty secret.

The California teens gave an interview to NBC's Katie Couric. And even though rape wasn't discussed, everyone knew they had been raped. The Los Angeles Times quoted experts as saying the TV appearance points to a shift in how people view sexual-assault victims.

The girls must know that we rejoice in their survival and don't consider them, in Ted Kavanau's Neanderthal term, "damaged goods."

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper last week cited my daughter's case and the California girls in questioning whether the news media policy on rape is outdated.

The policy is grounded in the notion that much of society still attaches a stigma to rape and that printing names might discourage victims from going to the police.

Roeper says we quote experts who say rape is a crime of violence and the victim shouldn't be blamed "but then we withhold the names of victims, lest they be blamed or stigmatized."

It's a difficult issue, and there are arguments on each side. But there are no immutable laws that societal stigmas can't change.

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Less than a man

September 1, 2002

I looked into the eyes of the beast who raped and shot my daughter, and I saw nothing.

Not a flicker of remorse. Not sadness. Not cockiness. Not even self-sorrow or apparent regret that he won't be eligible for parole until June 21, 2052, if he lives that long.

Just ... nothing.

In a Texas courtroom Friday, I stood at a wooden lectern, six feet in front of him. He sat shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. The beast had just pleaded guilty and received sentences that require him to serve at least 50 years in prison.

I'll be long gone by then. He would be 68. Friday we met face to face, but certainly not man to man. He is much less than a man.

Ten weeks earlier to the day, Jamaal Adrian Turner, 18, had kicked in Bridget's apartment door, stuck a gun in her chest, terrorized her, robbed her, raped her and shot her three times in the back. She waited for him to drive off in her car, and then she made it 200 yards to nearby houses. Surgeons saved her life.

Turner had returned to the scene with two friends to gloat and show off the body. When he got within a half-block, he saw emergency vehicles and ran.

But one of his buddies froze, and the police in Killeen, Texas, six hours later found where the attacker was staying. They surrounded the house with 14 armed SWAT team officers and arrested him as he ran out.

As a father, what do you say to the creature who savagely, mercilessly attacked and tried to kill your daughter? I got the chance to speak because Texas law provides for a victim-impact statement - a laudable opportunity that Nebraska and other states should provide.

"We stand in the presence of evil," I began, looking at evil and hoping for eye contact.

I spoke for five minutes, and he looked at me two or three times. Once was when I invoked his mother's name, which seemed to surprise him. (She was not present.)

"I feel sorry for your mother, Pearlie. She never wanted this. You were a baby once, a little boy, and you turned into a monster. What was the origin of your evil?

"I know you're sorry you were caught. Are you sorry for what you did to my daughter? Have you any remorse for the pain your depravity caused her, her mother, her sister, her brothers, her cousins, her aunts and uncles and her grandmas?"

No response.

"Bridget, in effect, survived her own murder," I continued. "From what I read, the only truthful statement you made to police is that when you left her, you thought she was dead. In your mind, you had committed murder.

"The great irony of all this is that if Bridget had died as you intended, you surely would have been caught and received the death penalty. So to whom do you owe your life? Bridget. She saved hers and thereby saved yours."

Twelve days ago, Bridget underwent follow-up surgery. But now doctors have diagnosed her with something else - stress-induced diabetes, which they say was brought on by the attack.

She didn't attend Friday's court session, preferring never again to lay eyes on the attacker. So I stood there in her stead.

Friday was a milestone, putting the beast away for good. But it's been a long summer. I'll never be so glad to see the leaves turn.

In a month or so, Bridget will return to teaching in her first-grade classroom. Her spirits are good, and she is healing in mind and body. She laughs. The sparkle is back. I can see it in her eyes.

Her eyes are full of life.

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Michael Kelly's victim impact statement

September 1, 2002

We stand in the presence of evil - the very evil that 10 weeks ago today brutally attacked my beloved daughter. Bridget is a first-grade teacher, loved by many; intelligent, funny, kind, caring and strong; a woman of faith, family and friendship. How she survived was a miracle.

She had picked up a friend at the airport in Austin and driven her to Killeen. After Bridget returned to her apartment complex, this Jamaal Adrian Turner kicked her door in, stuck a gun in her chest, terrorized her and robbed her at an ATM. Then he drove her to a remote area, raped her horribly, shot her in the back and left her for dead.

When he left in her car, she began crawling, praying she didn't pass out and bleed to death. She tried to get up, but fell. Then, she says, she felt she was lifted up by God. She somehow made it 200 yards to nearby houses. A man opened his door, rescuers came and, in 6 1/2 hours of surgery, doctors at the Army Hospital at Fort Hood saved her life.

Bridget's courage affirms life. During her terror, she tried get her attacker to see her as a person. She asked if he remembered his teachers. She prayed aloud, but he was unmoved. Before he raped her, she told him: "God doesn't want you to do this."

He told her to shut up. When he was finished with her, he told her to turn around. He was going to murder her, but he couldn't look her in the face, so he told her to turn around. Then he shot her in the back. She fell and he stood over her, shooting her twice more.

All summer Bridget has endured pain, and so have her family and others who love her. Just last week she had surgery to remove a colostomy. She has suffered and will suffer from post-traumatic stress. I won't even get into the financial losses. And now, on top of everything else, she has been diagnosed with stress-induced diabetes, which doctors say was brought on by the attack. She is learning to live with finger-pricks and daily injections of insulin.

But she is so strong. My daughter is a survivor. Yes, she is also a rape survivor, and she knows that she is not diminished one bit. Rape is not her shame, it's his shame.

When I arrived at her bedside on June 21, she was unable to speak because of tubes in her nose and throat. She wrote in my notebook: "Dad, when it was happening, I thought of you and Mom and our whole family. I just wanted to see you again. . . . I didn't want to die."

Turner: As great as is your contempt for life, Bridget's love of life is greater. The bravery she showed after being raped and shot is greater than anything you'll ever know. Where you were a coward, she was a fighter; where you hate life, she loves it. What you tried so cold-heartedly to take from her, she took back.

Our family is not one of haters, but this tries us beyond all measure.

That first day in the hospital, I told Bridget that by saving her own life, she had saved other women from being raped and killed - because you were arrested. With this sentence, we realize you will never be able to do this to another woman, another family, for the rest of your life.

I feel sorry for your mother, Pearlie. She never wanted this. You were a baby once, a little boy, and you turned into a monster. What was the origin of your evil? I know you're sorry you were caught. Are you sorry for what you did to my daughter? Have you any remorse for the pain your depravity caused her, her mother, her sister, her brothers, her cousins, her aunts and uncles and her grandmas?

Bridget, in effect, survived her own murder. From what I read, the only truthful statement you made to police is that when you left her, you thought she was dead. In your mind, you had committed murder. The great irony of all this is that if Bridget had died as you intended, you surely would have been caught and received the death penalty. So to whom do you owe your life? Bridget. She saved hers and thereby saved yours.

Many who have heard or read of your horrendous deeds have called you an animal; that may be too high a status. No species is so heartless, so vile, so absent of basic instinctual feelings, so cold or so dead in the heart, the brain and the soul. Your vicious and cruel acts are those of a creature devoid of humanity, a monster beyond definition but not beyond our scorn. When you left Bridget to die in her own blood, you lost our pity and our mercy. May God have mercy on your soul, because I have none.

Your honor, I would like to thank this court and the good people of Texas, especially Frank James, who opened his door to Bridget in her time of need; the Killeen Police Department; the Fire Department rescuers; Dr. Clinton Beverly and the other doctors, nurses, soldiers and brass at Fort Hood; Bridget's school colleagues; the district attorney's office, and people in many states, of all denominations, who have prayed for her. In the face of so much love, evil withers. We rejoice in her survival and celebrate her life.

This beast who coldly told my daughter to turn around now goes off to prison and out of our lives. I can say only one thing to him: I don't ever want to see your face again. . . .Turn around!

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An extra reason to give thanks

November 28, 2002

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I called a man to give thanks.

Our family, like most, has much to be grateful for on this day set aside for that purpose. But for us, it's a most special Thanksgiving - because our daughter is alive.

And one of the reasons she survived horrible violence is a kind man, a husband, a father and an Army veteran named Frank James.

"I'm just glad," he said Wednesday, "that a life was saved, not taken."

In the middle of the night on the first day of summer, he opened his door to Bridget and protected her until help came.

In Killeen, Texas, where she teaches first grade, she had been abducted by a stranger who raped her, shot her three times and left her for dead.

Bridget somehow made it 200 yards from a field to the door of the James home. As I slept unaware hundreds of miles away in Omaha, Frank covered her and comforted her.

On the 911 tape, he says a woman on his doorstep was raped and shot and is "bleeding all over the place."

Bridget, now 25, had many heroes that night, including police officers, rescue squadsmen, nurses, doctors and others. And many in the days and weeks afterward, such as fellow teachers, therapists and relatives.

But that first hour made all the difference.

Dr. Jon Bruce, then a surgeon at Fort Hood and now in private practice in Georgia, said that in the emergency room Bridget's blood pressure plummeted. If she had arrived at the Army hospital five to 10 minutes later, he said, it would have been too late.

He opened her up and saw intestinal contamination and massive internal bleeding, which required replacing five units of blood.

He said he thought: "If this girl has a chance to live, I need to call in another surgeon."

Dr. Clinton Beverly arrived, and in 6 1/2 hours of surgery, the pair saved our daughter's life.

I've written about Bridget's ordeal and recovery, and her decision to stand up for rape survivors and reject the so-called stigma and shame. Her attacker, in swift Texas justice, was sentenced to life plus 40 years, ineligible for parole until 2052.

Bridget had a colostomy removed in August. She has received psychological counseling. And she now deals with juvenile diabetes, which two physicians have said was brought on by the stress of her attack.

She returned to teaching at her school in Texas on Sept. 30 - by coincidence, Frank James' 44th birthday.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, she and a friend made an unannounced visit to the site of her attack - her first since that awful night.

They drove past Frank James' house and parked. Bridget said she returned to the site to conquer any lingering fear, to see for herself that there was no longer anything there to be afraid of. She stood at the edge of the field and quietly wept.

Months earlier, bleeding and bent over in pain, she had screamed for help where no one could hear. Feeling as though she was lifted up by God, she improbably made her way the length of two football fields to seek help, ending up on Frank's doorstep.

The field, once jagged and sharp and mean, now looked so different. Construction equipment had graded it, smoothing it over in preparation for new houses, new life - a perfect metaphor for Bridget's own life.

A neighbor saw her and asked, "Can I help you?"

"No, thanks," Bridget replied. "We're just looking."

The neighbor figured out who she was and called Frank, who stepped outside. Bridget saw him, called his name and ran to him. They hugged.

She and her friend visited with Frank and his wife, Denette, for an hour. Frank says he and Bridget have "a lifetime bond."

The Jameses have two children, Dont'e, 13, and Nikkiya, 12, and Bridget told them their dad was her hero.

Even heroes endure tough times. Frank, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and Somalia who retired from the Army five years ago, has lost his job. The Oakwood Homes manufacturing plant was shut down two weeks ago, laying off almost 300 workers.

It was especially bad timing, right before the holidays. But there's never a good time to lose your job. A mechanic, Frank has applied at numerous places and attended a job fair.

Brighter days will come, but Thanksgiving will be tinged with a bit of sadness at Frank's house. Our family, Bridget included, will pray for him and remember that he responded in her time of greatest need.

We give thanks for Frank and for all who helped her survive.

Stories copyright 2002 Omaha World-Herald. Reprinted with permission.

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