When William Jefferson first saw his 15-year-old daughter Amber lying in a hospital bed with blood flowing from an inch-deep gash along the side of her face, he felt nauseated.
A father’s pain buckled his knees, and he stood over his youngest child hoping, praying, that his daughter would be whole again.
“I cried,” he said, “because she looked so pitiful, and there was nothing I could do. I just prayed to God.”
Amber doesn’t remember much about the two baseball bats, the bone-crunching swings to her kneecaps or the blows that turned her face to pulp. But every time she looks in the mirror, she is reminded of the razor-sharp shard of flying glass that came out of nowhere, slicing through her flesh from the top of her head to her neck.
As she recuperates at home, surrounded by flowers and cards from well-wishers, Amber has plenty of time to relive, vividly at times, the savage attack on Aug. 6 that nearly killed her.
Amber, who is black, was with a white girl and three boys, a Latino and two blacks, in the parking lot of a condominium complex in an unincorporated area of Anaheim when violence erupted. Amber’s girlfriend got into an argument with another white girl, who was soon joined by two young men with baseball bats. Amber said she and her friends tried to run, but she was knocked to the ground. She was the only one injured seriously enough to be hospitalized.
One of the youths armed with a bat has since said that things only got out of hand when one of the black youths made the first move. But Amber and her friends say it was the two with the bats who started the violence by swinging the bats and yelling racial slurs. It is difficult for Amber to remember details of the attack itself, but it is clear that she will bear the physical, emotional and psychological scars for years to come.
The outgoing ninth-grader, who had attended summer school to improve her grades so she could join this year’s cheerleading squad, now can’t stay on her feet long without fainting. She is forced to sip food through a feeding tube for the next month because her jaws are wired shut. When she tries to smile, the left side of her mouth stays frozen in place. Doctors say it could be years before she can control the muscles in the side of her face.
She lies awake for hours at night, her body racked with pain. When she does fall asleep, Amber said, she often sees the face of one of her attackers, who has come back to finish her off. Now, instead of going to modeling interviews that had been scheduled for today, she will be making a trip to a Hollywood plastic surgeon who has offered to reconstruct her face free.
“I can’t go outside without some kind of protection on my face,” Amber said in an interview at her Stanton home. “I can’t go to the movies with my friends. We had so many plans for school, and now everything is blown.”
The teen-ager can’t stand the site of the wound running down her face. One day last week, Amber watched a television episode of Star Trek that featured creatures whose faces were half human, half monster. “That’s my face,” Amber said in a heart-wrenching voice.
But what angers her family most is that two weeks after the assault, no one has been charged. Amber’s parents believe it is because Amber is black and her assailants are white. Two men have admitted that they took part in the assault, but maintain that they acted in self-defense.
“I want to think that they’re going to charge someone and put them in jail, but I just don’t think anyone is going to be charged,” said Jefferson, a supermarket manager in Fountain Valley. “If this had been a white 15-year-old girl who had been attacked by two black guys, someone would be in jail.”
Others within the black community have expressed the same sentiments, saying the incident re-enforces an image of Orange County as a bastion of white conservatism where non-whites are unwelcome.
“It’s the same old thing. (Whites) are not going to prosecute themselves,” said the Rev. James Carrington, pastor of the largest black church in Orange County. “They say, ‘We’ll let this thing go, we’ll cover it up and we’ll go on.”
The Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the case, bristles at the suggestion that the case is being handled differently because Amber is black.
“The case is being handled the same way it would be in any situation,” department spokesman Lt. Richard Olson said. “We’re trying to make sure we identify everyone who is involved, and when the investigation is complete, we will sit down with the (district attorney) and whatever charges are appropriate will be filed.”
Yet Amber’s family is suspicious about why investigators did not publicly discuss the incident until Amber’s aunt contacted local newspapers four days after the attack.
“They were trying to hush it up,” said Katie Jefferson, Amber’s aunt. “That child was almost killed, and it wasn’t even in the newspaper.”
Her brother, Amber’s father, is struggling to calm a silent rage that has been building within him since he concluded that his daughter’s attackers will likely go free unless he takes some action.
“I don’t want anyone to go and hurt those people,” he said. “I want the law to take care of that.” But Jefferson said he isn’t holding out much hope that he will get justice from the legal system, so he plans to hire a lawyer.
Meanwhile, officials at the Orange County Urban League said they are considering whether to ask the U.S Justice Department to step in and conduct an independent federal inquiry into the case--a course often pursued by civil-rights activists when they believe local law enforcement is not aggressively investigating a hate crime.
There has been an outpouring of support for Amber from family, friends and strangers. Singer Irene Cara dropped by with an aloe vera plant, showing Amber how to apply the soothing ointment to her scar. There have been calls from talk show host Arsenio Hall and other celebrities. There is a card from a UC Irvine law student who writes that after reading about the incident, he wants to practice civil-rights law.
While Jefferson welcomes the outpouring of support for his daughter, it does not make it any easier to accept the facts that someone almost her, that the Sheriff’s Department has identified at least two of the people responsible, and that no one has been arrested. Jefferson said investigators have informed him that the case against Amber’s assailants is weak because she and her friends have told different stories about what precipitated the incident.
That just makes him angrier.
“I don’t care if there are conflicting stories about what happened,” he said. “How could a 15-year-old girl with no weapon pose enough of a threat to somebody to make them do this?”