Shattered Dreams : ‘Night Stalker’ Victim Fights to Regain His Memory, Rebuild Life a Year After Attack

Times Staff Writer

His tear ducts haven’t worked since the “Night Stalker” shot him through the forehead a year ago.

But Sunday, as William R. Carns Jr. and his fiancee, Inez Erickson, 30, sat in the pew of a Mission Viejo church, it was plain that he was crying. The pastor of St. Kilian Church had just dedicated that midday Mass to them.

Head down, shoulders trembling, Carns said little until he returned home that afternoon.

“It was very spiritual,” he said, his dry eyes reddening.


It was the eve of the anniversary of the attack and, Carns said, the realization of the enormous changes in his life was becoming overwhelming.

“Inez and I have spent countless hours trying to come back from what has happened to us,” Carns said Sunday.

For Carns, it meant an arduous process of trying to recover his memory and the use of his paralyzed left arm and leg. So far he has partial use of those limbs, but his memory of life after the shooting still is unreliable.

“I still think the hardest thing for me is to accept the fact that I am hurt,” he said. “I still wish it was just a big, bad dream and I’ll wake up and it will be over, and I can go on with my life.”

One year ago Sunday, an intruder broke into the couple’s house through a living room window apparently left open on that sweltering night. The darkly dressed man stole up to the sleeping couple and from the foot of their bed fired three shots at Carns’ face, then assaulted Erickson.

Initial bulletins from the Los Angeles Police Department reported Carns’ condition as “brain-dead.”

But in the trauma unit of Mission Community Hospital, Erickson recalls, Carns was able in the first hours after the shooting to respond to a doctor’s query with a hand signifying “OK.”

“I don’t remember any hurt,” he said simply.

One of the bullets remains lodged inside his skull. Erickson said it will be left where it sits between the brain and brain casing unless it moves and begins to threaten other brain functions.

Another of the bullets tore across a frontal area of the brain Carns calls the “motor strip,” causing partial paralysis and impairing his short-term memory. It took with it a 1-inch chunk of bone on his forehead that has grown over with skin.

Carns pointed to the depression at his hairline. “This really is not designed to hold a golf ball,” her said ". . . But I tease people and tell them that I’m a professional tee.”

He says it is humor that has partly carried him through the difficult times of struggling to recall--and accept--the events of the last year.

For the first 2 1/2 months, Erickson said, Carns didn’t know he had been shot in the head, nor did he question his antiseptic hospital surroundings. But one day while being helped to a bathroom, he saw the reflection of his bandaged, red, swollen forehead.

“I said, ‘What the hell happened to me?’ ” Then, he said, he cracked a joke: “I guess I’ll have to be Frankenstein at Halloween.”

Erickson said she has had to reassure doctors and nurses on many occasions that Carns’ outbursts of black humor are normal for him.

Initially, doctors doubted that Carns would ever walk again. Now, with the aid of a plastic leg brace and a cane, he can move around on his impaired left leg and ankle. Physical therapy has helped to restore some of the strength in his muscles, which were well developed from years of competitive volleyball, water skiing and other strenuous activities.

His left hand and forearm remain paralyzed. “It hangs like a 2-by-4 at his side,” said his father, William R. Carns Sr., in an interview from his North Dakota home. But he is gaining some control in the upper arm, enough to lift the forearm at the elbow.

His flawed short-term memory is still his greatest handicap. “For example, he won’t remember you were here,” Erickson said to a reporter Sunday.

Although Erickson said she told him once more as they drove home from church Sunday that the attack occurred in their house, later he asked her incredulously, “Was it this house? It happened at this house?”

“That really offends me,” he said. “There are special things I really want to remember that I can’t. And that really hurts a lot.”

A large part of his therapy at a Long Beach rehabilitation facility, where he lives Mondays through Fridays, is exercising his memory.

At home on weekends Erickson continues the therapy.

“What did you have for breakfast this morning?” she quizzed him. Carns linked his eyebrows in consternation and asked, “Did I have little links?”

“Good job,” she said, beaming a quick smile at him.

“What month is it?” she asked, adding quickly, “Now don’t cheat and look at your watch.”

“December?” he asked. “No, August,” he said triumphantly. “My God, it’s nice to be able to know something for sure.”

Doctors know very little about the recuperative powers of the brain in injuries as severe as those Carns suffered. He already has exceeded many of his doctors’ expectations and plans to go further.

But with his physical abilities and stamina returning, Carns is entering the most critical phase of his therapy, Erickson said.

His memory seems to be improving, and he can remember the life he had before the attack, she said. It is very difficult for intelligent, strong-willed people like her fiance, who worked as a computer troubleshooter, to reconcile their disabilities with their past capabilities, she said. Because their expectations often far exceed their abilities, they become frustrated and quit. Some, she said, withdraw into depression.

“I get frustrated very easily,” he admitted. “I try to overcome it; sometimes I’m successful.”

But, he conceded, sometimes he is bitter and angry.

“It’s there all the time,” Carns said. “Every time I walk or have to use my silly cane, I am reminded. And I find myself angry that I have trouble walking or thinking that I will never water-ski again.”

Carns asks himself the same question over and over again: “Why me? I still ask it. Why did he pick our house?” he said, with a look of pain. “I thought, ‘Why do it to me?’ What did I do to him?

“For the longest time, I thought it was revenge. Like I pissed him off one day or pulled in front of him. Anything that would explain it. Now I realize the man is mentally deranged.”

Sometimes, he will speak about what he would like to do to Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” suspect who has been charged with trying to murder Carns.

“I’d like to give the guy a knuckle sandwich, that’s what,” he said, laughing. “That’s one of the nicest things I’ve said about him.”

“It’s so unfair; no one should have to go through this. . . . But I’m glad it happened to us instead of to some elderly people who couldn’t handle it,” he said, hugging Erickson with his good right arm as he leaned on her for balance.

His desire for retribution is more on behalf of Erickson than himself, he said.

“I feel so hurt about what happened to little Inez. I feel some kind of responsibility. I wish I could do something so it wouldn’t have happened to her,” he said.

“How rude of a person to do that. It’s just not fair. You can’t punish a person enough for doing what he has done to us.”

Yet Carns said he doesn’t advocate the death penalty for Ramirez.

Erickson, sitting in the circle of his good arm, interjected softly: “I do.”

“Well, I would like him to get a dose of his own medicine, to get a feeling of what he has done to other people,” he said.

Neither looks forward to a trial. “I can imagine there’s going to be a lot of tears shed,” Carns said, looking down, his eyes reddening again.

“If it has to be done, it has to be done,” Erickson said. “The big thing is, we try not to look backwards.”

Had it not been for the shooting, she said, they probably would have married this summer. Now they wait until more of his memory returns.

“My goal is for Bill to remember our wedding and he can’t do that right now,” she said. His lips quivered again.

Erickson and Carns say they try not to worry about money. He is receiving long-term disability payments, and so far his company insurance has covered most of the enormous medical bills. His parents estimated that the rehabilitation center costs are running about $30,000 a month.

Donations sent to a fund established for Carns have helped them meet house payments, bring his relatives for occasional visits and pay for unexpected expenses. The donations have mostly stopped, though there are occasional cards and letters.

Carns is still overwhelmed that complete strangers cared about him.

“I’m deeply grateful toward them,” he said. “I wish I could meet them all and thank them. My parents can’t believe all the people who have contacted us. These are people we don’t even know. . . . Wow, how wonderful!”

Carns said his goals are to “prove those doctors wrong” who said he will never be able to work again--and to “be able to function as the Bill Carns I was before the accident.

“I don’t want my little nieces to remember Bill as a guy in a wheelchair. I want to be like the wild and crazy guy they knew. I want to be independent and real mobile, like I used to be.”

Is that expecting too much? “I’m overly optimistic. . . . I always feel there is light at the end of the tunnel. Now that tunnel may be a block or two longer than I thought, but I feel I will reach the end of it someday.”