Tragic Case Left Its Scar on Everybody
As a reporter, you’re afforded a window seat to many of the bizarre, sad, uplifting and unusual stories that make up our society. But I have found few as strange as the tragic Amber Jefferson case, which I have covered for this newspaper.
It all began seven months ago with a morning telephone call to The Times from a black woman named Katie Jefferson in Los Angeles. She said her 15-year-old niece was in an Anaheim hospital, recuperating from near-fatal injuries she suffered during a racially motivated attack. Jefferson accused the Sheriff’s Department of trying to cover up the incident because, although it had occurred four days earlier, no one had been arrested.
Police were telling a different story.
According to Orange County Sheriff’s Department investigators, Amber, 15, of Garden Grove was slashed in the face Aug. 6 during a late-night brawl that erupted after an argument between two girls over a boy’s affections. Up to a dozen people were involved, investigators said, some arming themselves with bats and boards. During the melee, one of the men threw a piece of glass, cutting the left side of Amber’s face from the temple to the neck and leaving a horribly disfiguring scar.
I got involved in the story a few days later.
The Jeffersons insisted that the Sheriff’s Department version was all lies. They said that Amber, whose mother is white and whose father is black, was with an interracial group of friends when they suddenly were attacked by a gang of whites. They claimed that she was singled out solely because of her race and that there had never been a fight between two girls.
They said that Earl Wimberly, a 42-year-old Stanton man, and his 17-year-old son, Kurt, had led the attack against Amber while hurling racial slurs.
For a long time, I was the only black reporter covering the case, which immediately brought cries of foul from the Wimberly camp. I think it also may have given the Jeffersons some false impression that, because of my race, I would accept everything they said as gospel.
As it turned out, it wasn’t long before I began to doubt parts of Jefferson’s story. For one thing, I had interviewed Earl Wimberly, who claimed that when his son refused to date one of Amber’s friends, the jilted girl brought some gang members over to beat him up.
The elder Wimberly said he picked up a bat to protect his son but never used it to strike Amber, similar to the investigators’ account.
After a public outcry, four people, including one on Amber’s side, would eventually be charged with crimes ranging from fighting in public to felony assault.
The case caused a local furor when the Jeffersons pressed the racial aspects of the case. Hollywood celebrities and civil rights activists from throughout the area flocked to the family’s support, holding candlelight vigils and demanding justice. Many charged that the Sheriff’s Department’s delay in arresting anyone was just another example of the racism prevalent in Orange County.
But Amber’s story began to fall apart during the preliminary hearings for Kurt Wimberly. When it was her turn to take the stand, Amber gave confusing, conflicting testimony about what happened. Then, one of her companions the night of the incident testified that she had offered him $1,000 to lie and say the attack was racially motivated, a charge she denies but which helped to tarnish her image.
It also came out that Amber and her friends had been drinking alcohol and partying at a motel, not returning from a trip to the store for sodas like Amber had said in the beginning.
At every turn, there was some new revelation that cast doubt on Amber’s story.
Take Lewis Jones, the 19-year-old man credited with holding Amber’s face together to lessen the flow of blood when she was injured. Lewis, it turned out, was actually a woman named Louilla, or maybe Teresa, a discovery made by surprised sheriff’s deputies during a strip search at the Orange County Jail.
I had interviewed her once or twice and she had me fooled. But I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad since her own lawyer didn’t know that he was really a she.
Revelations such as these began to lend a circus atmosphere to the case. Suddenly, the Amber Jefferson case appeared to be something other than a simple racial assault.
Last week the case came to a close when an 18-year-old man agreed to plead guilty to felony assault for throwing the piece of glass that disfigured her. Kurt Wimberly, who had been in jail since shortly after the incident, got three years’ probation and went home.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that this is a tragic case with no real winners. What it wasn’t was a purely racially motivated incident as depicted by Amber and her family.
The petite, auburn-haired ex-cheerleader, who once dreamed of becoming a model, has a scar that runs along the entire left side of her face. It may never go away.
Her self-esteem has been shattered. Meanwhile, Wimberly has wasted the last seven months of his young life in jail among hardened criminals, and he too is certain to be left with some bitter, lasting memories.
And besides recovering from her emotional trauma, Amber Jefferson now faces another milestone in her life. In three months, the ninth-grader will become a mother.
I fought to keep my personal skepticism out of my stories by constantly reminding myself that what mattered most was the scar on that young girl’s face. No one could question the severity of Amber Jefferson’s injuries. And regardless of what anyone now believes really happened, the fact that she will be reminded of that August night every time she looks in the mirror--that, to me, is the tragedy.