Friendships remain strong a year after attack

 Friends of the victim of the rape and beating at the Bloomingdale Regional Library realize that life for the young woman will never be the same as it was April 24, 2008, when she left her job at Abercrombie Kids at Westfield Brandon mall to head to St. Pete Beach with friends for a belated birthday celebration.

She had just turned 18 two days before and was excited at the prospect of attending the University of Florida in Gainesville on a full scholarship.

Up until then, it had been an ideal senior year for the victim and her close-knit group of 15 friends, all honor students, class officers, members of the homecoming court and school athletes.

Before heading to the condo at St. Pete Beach where the friends planned to stay for the weekend, the young woman detoured to the Bloomingdale library to drop off some library books that were due. Her friends weren't surprised by the errand. They say she was the kind of person who would never tolerate having overdue library books.

As she pulled into the library driveway around 10:40 p.m., the victim called her friend, Rachel, one of the teens attending the weekend party, on her cell phone from her white Toyota RAV4.

She said there was a "weird guy" sitting on a nearby bench. There was something about the guy that made her nervous. She was hesitant to open her car door to deposit the library books in the night drop box.

Rachel cautioned her to stay in her car but the young woman decided to she was safe as long as she was on the phone with her friend. She opened her car door to retrieve the books from the back seat.

That's when Rachel heard her scream. Then the phone cut out.

Rachel summoned her father and they rushed to the library where they found the victim's car with the engine running, lights on, the door open and blood on the floorboard. They called 911 as other friends joined them.

Sheriff's deputies found the victim unconscious beside the library, her face bloody.

The young woman had been choked and beaten in the head and face with an unidentified object. Bones in her face were broken and she had severe brain swelling and trauma. The victim's mother had arrived at the scene and watched in horror as her daughter was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital. Her condition was critical. Doctors later warned family members that the young woman probably would not survive.

The victim's 22-year-old sister recalls those dark days right after the attack as the family wondered whether her baby sister would live or die.

"I think everybody was struggling with their faith," she said. "You can't help but ask questions like, 'Why me? Why her? Why do things like this happen to good people?' It's so confusing. But, as time passes, the tables turn and you realize the only way through this is acceptance and faith in God."

It's a lesson both she and her sister learned from their mother who risked her life to be smuggled out of Vietnam at the age of 19 and, on her own, made her way to the United States.

"My mother's a very strong person," said the sister. "That's the way she was raised and she passed that determination and will on to my sister."

'Friends Forever'
Defying the doctor's predictions, the library attack victim not only survived but improved beyond expectations, although she still cannot walk, speak or see.

It was a heartbreaking time as, one by one, her friends bid her goodbye last fall and began their college careers without her. Those friends keep in contact and abreast of any news of the young woman through a page on a Facebook Web site set up in her honor.

Fernando Javier Jaramuzchett Alvarado created the Web site along with former East Bay High School student Christine McComber.

"I felt the need to make the Facebook site in her honor since she was always a happy person and I want to always remember her as the happy, cheerful and positive person she has always been," said Alvarado.

It was through the Facebook site that many of her friends learned about Saturday's prayer vigil. Those who couldn't attend left messages for the young woman.

Crystal Zipperer was among them. She is attending UF in Gainesville and regretted that she couldn't come home that weekend to join the vigil, though she said she would most certainly join in the prayers.

Ashley Waring was able to make it back from college in Rochester, N.Y. for the event.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said.

The friends came bearing a special birthday gift for the victim, a videotape they made just a week before the attack titled, "Friends Forever."

The young woman, lying in the hospital-issue bed in her pink-painted room, filled with balloons, flowers and birthday cards, grinned as she listened to the voices on the videotape, hers included.

The friends reviewed their favorite moments during their senior year, moments spent playing Guitar Hero, attending the Florida State Fair, homecoming night and a homecoming breakfast at Denny's in Ruskin.

The young woman laughed as one friend described how she stole half an Oreo cookie and the time a spider began crawling inside her shirt. She smiled again when another friend recalled how they all screamed when they were standing in the ocean and fish began biting their legs.

Her sister believes her friendships have played a major role in her healing.

At a prayer vigil at the victim's Tampa home April 18, the house was so crowded, there was standing room-only.

"It wasn't only old friends," said her sister. "It was new friends we've made since this happened, too. So many wonderful people have come forward. It's restored our faith in humanity."

Trial Ahead
She understands that the family eventually will face a trial.

Deputies arrested 16-year-old Bloomingdale High School freshman Kendrick Morris April 26. Morris, who turned 17 Aug. 28, is charged as an adult with nine felonies including the sexual assault at the library and the rape of a 61-year-old woman at the Lighthouse Day Care Center near his Clair-Mel home June 28, 2007. Other charges include armed burglary, armed robbery and kidnapping.

Morris, who has been appointed an attorney from the public defender's office, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and remains in jail without bail. A status hearing is scheduled for June 8 at which time a judge will decide if the case is ready to go to trial.

The sister wasn't aware of the date of the status hearing. The 61-year-old victim has contacted the family and asked to meet with the 19-year-old victim. She said she had been living in fear and is relieved that her attacker finally has been caught. However, the family does not think the young woman is ready. They are not sure if she even remembers what happened the night of April 24, 2008.

"I'm not sure how much involvement we'll have in the trial," said the sister. "I think we'll just leave it in the hands of the court system and God."

Anyone wanting to contribute to the victim's medical needs can go to any SunTrust Bank and indicate they'd like to make a donation to the Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim or mail a check to SunTrust Bank, Special Handling Department, P.O. Box 27572, Richmond, VA 23261-2572.

Friends also are selling "Faith, Hope, Love: Everyone's Friend, Everyone's Daughter" T-shirts for $10. To order a T-shirt, e-mail T-shirts also can be purchased at East Coast Pizza, 11340 Lincoln Road, Riverview.

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