In November 2014, I was the victim of a violent home invasion robbery committed by a former IHSS home caregiver and her boyfriend. The attack and subsequent death threats forced me to move, and destroyed my life. This is my story.
November 28, 2014 started out badly. I’d had a quiet Thanksgiving the day before, but woke up early on Black Friday feeling unwell. I’ve been disabled since birth due to cerebral palsy, and use a power wheelchair. Although I’m fiercely independent, I need help from caregivers partially funded through the state In-Home Support Services (IHSS) program to get out of bed, shower, dress, and do just about every other basic task most people take for granted. Despite my challenges, I had a great life in sunny San Diego, California, in a beautiful house with my six beloved dogs… until that fateful day.
I called “C” (name withheld for her privacy), my loyal assistant and good friend of five years, to see if she could come in early to help me. She was already up, and came over just after 7 AM. She helped me get up and take a shower, and I felt much better. We decided to go out to breakfast, and were discussing where to go when our world was torn apart forever. At that moment, we heard the electronic keypad lock on my front door open.
So many things ran through my head in those few seconds. Did one of my assistants get their schedule mixed up? Did someone forget their purse and hadn’t called before stopping by to get it? I turned away from my desk, and rolled into the living room to see who was there. Standing just inside my door, wearing a mask, hoodie, and holding a bag of dog food, was a man with a gun.
I saw him before he saw me. I watched as he tore open the bag and dumped it onto the floor, kibble scattering across the tile. I could hear my protective Labrador, Elphaba, barking furiously, and realized she was still in her crate, as she had just eaten breakfast. Two of my small dogs started eating the food, indifferent to his presence. I couldn’t see my service dog, Aria. The gunman was looking down the hall, and didn’t seem to hear C yelling at him, “What do you want? Get out of here!” But after a few seconds, he turned and saw us.
He seemed startled for a moment, as if he didn’t expect us to be where we were. He pointed the gun at me, and said “Give me your phones!” I had no idea where mine was; I thought I had left it in the office. I lowered my head, terrified to look at him. “I don’t have it,” I said softly, “please don’t hurt us.”
He didn’t respond to what I said, just demanded my phone again. I said again that I didn’t have it, and started to flee towards my bedroom, thinking I could barricade myself in there and let him steal my computers and TV, if that was what he wanted. He moved behind me and grabbed my wheelchair, trying to pull me back using my headrest, which bent in his hands. I felt the cold barrel of the gun against my neck, and heard him cock the hammer.
I’m going to die now, I thought. The faces of my father, my friends flashed before me, the people I loved and would never get to say goodbye to. I prayed that it wouldn’t hurt. But he didn’t fire. Instead, he reached around and unfastened my seatbelt. Then he pulled me out of the wheelchair and threw me onto the floor. As I fell, I waited to feel my bones break, but I landed on my side, almost gently, as if an invisible force had cushioned my fall. I waited again for him to shoot me, or pull off my clothes and rape me, but instead I saw him pushing C down the hall at gunpoint. Then they were out of sight, and I was helpless on the floor.
I lay there, listening for any sound, praying I wouldn’t hear a gunshot. Then I heard the sound of bare feet, and saw C running for her life out the front door. I heard him too, running past. Again I waited for a gunshot, waited for him to return and end my life too, but there was only an eerie silence.
I lay there for what felt like forever, terrified to move. So many thoughts ran through my head. Had he kidnapped her? Had she found help? I realized that no one might find me for hours if he had taken her. I had to try to crawl out the front door and scream for help. I started to roll onto my stomach when my beloved Aria came to me, her body hunched and her eyes full of fear. She sniffed me and licked my hand, trying to help me. I knew the front door was open, and I was afraid she would run out into the street. “Get back,” I cried, and she fled out the back door into the fenced yard.
I was starting to crawl when a tall bald man appeared in the doorway. “Are you ok?” He asked. “Do you need help?” I didn’t recognize him and cried out, “You’re not with him, are you? Please don’t hurt me!”
He said he was my neighbor, and I decided to believe him. Just then another neighbor, a young man whom I knew, ran up to the door. “Please help me!” I cried. They both came in, and I quickly told them what had happened. I asked if they had seen C, or if the gunman had taken her. The young neighbor reassured me that she was safe at his parents’ house, and they were calling the police. They helped me back into my wheelchair, and closed the bag of dog food. Just as they got me secure in my wheelchair, the police arrived.
I rolled outside and into a flurry of activity. Within minutes there were several police cars on the street, fire department paramedics, and my beautiful front garden was surrounded in crime scene tape. I let the paramedics check my vital signs, but refused to go to the hospital. I could tell that aside from a few bumps and bruises, I was physically uninjured. The moment I saw C, still barefoot and in shorts, she ran to hug me. Everything felt unreal; I couldn’t believe she was alive. I couldn’t believe I was either.
I called my father, and then two of my best friends. I needed to hear their voices, and as they spoke to me, staying calm and strong despite the shock and fear they surely felt, the tears finally broke through. I will always be grateful to them for being there for me at that moment.
I must’ve told my story to five different police officers. One was a friend of the couple who own Aria’s parents. When I told her that I thought a former caregiver was behind the attack, she said she wasn’t surprised. She told me she had been called out on many cases where IHSS caregivers committed crimes. That was the first moment when it clicked in my head: this happened because of IHSS. The program itself made me a target.
As the morning wore on, Detective A took the lead on my case. He was no nonsense and levelheaded, exactly the kind of man you imagine when you think of a good cop. He said he was confident they could catch the people behind the attack, but warned me that it might take some time. He assured me that I was safe and that robbers rarely come back to the same house again.
Sitting in a home that suddenly felt alien to me, surrounded by strangers searching every room and corner of my life, I racked my brain trying to figure out, Who would do this? Although a former assistant whom I’d fired for driving me with a suspended license seemed like the obvious suspect at first, I felt in my heart that she was not an evil person, and wouldn’t have wanted something like this to happen. It had to be someone else, perhaps J, whom I’d let go three days before.
J was a young woman whom I had hired reluctantly a couple of weeks previously. I was having difficulty getting new employees registered with IHSS in time (more on that later), and was facing having to return part of my funding to the state if I couldn’t find someone who was already registered. I was finding exceptionally poor candidates among the already registered applicants – unskilled, uneducated, and in many cases downright weird people. J was registered, seemed nice enough, and had a good reference from a group home where she’d worked. Despite that, I didn’t really want to hire her, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. But I had little choice, and it was only for a few hours a week, so I decided to give her a chance. I had no idea I was setting in motion a chain of events that would ultimately destroy my life and take away everything I had worked so hard to build.
J seemed sweet, but quiet. She could have been pretty, but dressed in loose and unflattering urban clothes that didn’t seem to suit her. She tended to mumble when she spoke, and could be difficult to understand. I didn’t learn much about her, except that she had a young son, and his father was deaf. They had split up, but were back together again, and she said she often stayed at his home which was near mine. During J’s first week of work, a credit card I had left on my desk went missing. I asked her and all my other assistants about it, but she said she hadn’t seen it. Everyone seemed sincere and truthful, and there weren’t any charges on the card, so I decided it must’ve gotten lost behind furniture or been chewed up by the dogs. I canceled the card and pretty much forgot about the whole thing.
J didn’t seem to work very efficiently; she wasn’t able to finish anywhere close to the full list of daily duties. She had difficulty transferring me from my wheelchair to the bed and shower, and after a couple of weeks, it still hadn’t improved. She was small and thin, so I felt she simply wasn’t strong enough to safely help me. I decided to let her go, but felt bad about it, and was very kind and apologetic when I called. I even offered to give her a good reference. She seemed to take it graciously, and even emailed me the day before Thanksgiving offering to bring me some extra food. I already had plans, and didn’t get a chance to respond.
I thought of what I knew about J, and how the attacker behaved. He didn’t seem to hear C call out when he first entered my home. He didn’t respond when I said I didn’t have my phone. He spoke with a strange mumble and lisp. Then it hit me: he was deaf. I immediately told Detective A, and then went to C. She had reached the same conclusion. We told the detective to investigate both J and the woman with the suspended license, but at that moment, we knew.
Not long after the police descended on my quiet neighborhood, the media arrived. There were a few news trucks, and they tried to reach me for interviews. Mentally I was a jumbled mess, but I wanted to speak out. I wanted the world to know what happened, and hoped it would prompt a witness to come forward, but Detective A discouraged me. He said it could make me a target for others, and that details should be kept out of the news until they found the perpetrator. Late that night, I decided to do one interview in which my name and face would not be revealed. I left out many details, but shared enough that people would know what a terrible violation had occurred in my life. You can watch the interview here.
As the hours passed, the number of police cars on the street dwindled. The crime scene tape was taken away, and by early evening, it was just C and I and her friend, who came to help protect us. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, so we went out to a quiet Chinese restaurant nearby. They had the news on two big TVs, and I saw myself and my home swarming with police as I ate my shrimp and rice. I could feel people looking at me, but I didn’t care.
That night, C and her friend stayed at my house. They were armed with pepper spray and a registered handgun, and I felt I was as safe as I could be under the circumstances. I took an Ativan, and exhausted, slept. As I drifted off, I felt surprisingly hopeful. I’ll install extra security, they’ll catch these creeps, and we’ll be ok. I had no way of knowing that the nightmare was just beginning.