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A Degree in Survival : Cheryl Bess, Victim of a 1984 Acid Attack, Becomes a Saddleback College Alumna

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was mummified in bandages from the chest up, nearly skinless, when I met Cheryl Bess 13 years ago.

Blinded and burned by sulfuric acid and left for dead by her attacker, Cheryl survived. She had wandered five or six hours through the San Bernardino County desert before she got help. She was 15.

Standing at her bedside in the intensive care unit of the UC Irvine Burn Center, knowing her face would need to be surgically rebuilt over dozens of operations, it was hard not to wonder: Was she up to the difficult life ahead?

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As we came to know each other, her luminous grace and goodness made her impossible not to love and admire.

It always seemed she focused on her strengths. Early on she decided to try for a career using her voice--on radio and singing--but I worried. Would the world accept her?

On Friday, the answer seemed a resounding yes.

With high honors, Cheryl graduated from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo with an associate degree and certificate in radio broadcasting and the hope of becoming a professional disc jockey.

At the student-run station at Saddleback College, Cheryl has several years experience spinning tunes and hosting an open-forum talk show. She added Braille to radio station equipment for her weekly programs. She has demo tapes. She now will seek a paying job.

Though her face and sight were stolen before her first date, Cheryl has never lost her dignity.

*

As darkness lifted the morning of Oct. 24, 1984, Cheryl walked toward San Bernardino High School, where she was a sophomore. Passing by a McDonald’s, she recognized a maintenance worker from her public housing building.

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Jack Oscar King, slightly built, age 65, offered her a ride to school. When she asked why he was headed the wrong direction, he claimed he needed to stop by his house to shut off the lights.

At the house, he put a screwdriver to her neck to get her out of his truck, but she fought off going inside.

So he drove to a remote part of the Mojave Desert off Interstate 15, threatening to douse her with drain cleaner if she bolted.

It was painful hearing the details spelled out in court testimony. I remember some jurors crying. Sexual assault and attempted rape, then a failed try at choking the life out of her. Cheryl fought back, trying to bash him with a rock. King poured a liter of the corrosive chemical over her head, kicked her into some bushes and drove off.

As the drain cleaner burned away her skin, Cheryl walked for hours in excruciating pain before an aqueduct worker came upon her. He placed her in his truck and drove her to a convenience store to summon help. I will never forget his words: She was like a walking skeleton.

The sulfuric acid was so caustic that when paramedics rinsed Cheryl’s face with saline solution, the runoff blistered the paint on the aqueduct worker’s truck.

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It was uncertain whether she would live. Cheryl was transferred to the intensive care unit of the burn center at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

I remember meeting Cheryl’s mother, Norma, at the hospital and thinking, what on earth does one say at a time like this? All I could think of was to offer to go buy her more cigarettes. We sat for hours in the cafeteria, her hair in a scarf, her face stoic, her voice never breaking. Smoking and smoking. Memories of mother-daughter fun. Small joys of buying used paperbacks, dime ice cream cones. I did not question why she had not teared up. I sensed if she momentarily released her grip on composure, that would be it.

It was also apparent that if Cheryl was as strong as her mother, she stood a shot.

A trust fund for Cheryl had been established by the Safety Employees Benefit Assn. of San Bernardino, which represents sheriff’s deputies, marshal’s deputies and district attorney investigators. It needed some publicity, and that was something I could help bring it.

*

Cheryl and her mother had no money, and burn care is outrageously expensive. Initially, Medi-Cal rejected paying for replacement of Cheryl’s eyelids, which was required in order that she might one day see again. Such a surgery was deemed “cosmetic.”

Over time, Cheryl underwent numerous surgeries to give her back her face.

Her doctor, Bruce Achauer, director of the UCI Burn Center, said at the time that he had not seen a patient with a more deeply burned head. He set about creating eyelids built upon a filmy tissue taken from the stomach area. Layer upon layer of skin grafts to build eyelids. This so that eventually a transplanted cornea could be protected and she might one day see.

A new nose was constructed out of skin and tissue shaped something like a carrot. The larger end was grafted onto the center of her face but required life support of living tissue while the skin grafts took. The smaller end was attached to her chest. Tuck your chin into your chest. Now imagine yourself unable to move from that position for weeks. Such discomforts were standard as lips and ears were created. For years, her face was a work in progress.

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As her head and arms and hands were being rehabilitated, she resumed high school studies. Eventually Norma provided home schooling and Cheryl earned her high school diploma.

Based on Cheryl’s physical description of her assailant, his van and his employment with her apartment project’s maintenance office, sheriff’s deputies arrested King. He had previously served a 16-year prison sentence for a 1961 rape attempt on a 3-year-old Irvine girl.

Cheryl testified against King before a jury that would convict him in two hours. King was sentenced to a maximum of 34 years for attempted murder, kidnapping, assault with a caustic chemical, assault with a deadly weapon (sulfuric acid) and other charges. The assault with a deadly weapon conviction was thrown out on appeal because the law did not then define the chemical as a deadly weapon.

King died about two years ago in prison.

*

In the years after the attack, I wrote many stories about Cheryl and her progress.

The onslaught of cards and letters and checks and gifts--a Florida retiree crocheted her a string bikini--restored my faith in humanity. Donations to the trust fund rose to about $400,000.

The outpouring moved mother and daughter immensely. They are still in touch with many, many people they met in the darkness of that time.

Despite their own challenges, Norma and Cheryl have always been among the first to offer others a hand or the comfort of a shoulder to cry on.

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Norma never learned to drive, but she would ride a bus across the state if she even thought you needed her, says Nancy Cole, the Victim Witness Assistance Program support member assigned to Cheryl and Norma’s case 13 years ago.

It became natural to share life’s upbeat moments too.

The year they came to my wedding, mother and daughter danced with every male in my family, probably some females too.

The memory of one of their Christmas presents to me lingers: homemade English pudding and a single crystal charm, in a color they thought would flatter. For good luck.

*

Friday, with her mother at one side and her guide dog, Tina, on the other, Cheryl accepted her diploma during general graduation ceremonies on the track of the community college.

As she moved slowly across the platform, sunglasses catching the light, applause gradually built into a standing ovation among the sea of burgundy caps and gowns.

It spread to the faculty and spectators in the bleachers, where a clutch of friends hollered and woo-wooed over her achievement. Many of us cried.

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As I stood to clap, it struck me how much Cheryl has accomplished despite all the barriers. Her bravery humbles me. That thought echoes when one is around Cheryl.

Sharing her joy in graduating were:

* Dwight Moore, the San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Cheryl’s assailant.

* Cole, the caseworker for the Victim Witness Assistance Program in San Bernardino County, who is now a probation officer.

* Martha Anaya, who helped Cheryl regain use of her hands via occupational therapy.

* Alexis Gaddess of Philadelphia, a property manager who a dozen years ago read of Cheryl’s story in a local paper and has followed her progress. She rallied a radio talk show host who asked listeners to send cards and call-in for Cheryl’s 16th birthday. She continues lobbying for Cheryl and Norma, arriving with a bundle of new congratulation cards from Philadelphians and others who chart Cheryl’s progress from afar.

* Anne Delgadillo, president of the Orange County Burn Assn. and administrator for Cheryl’s physician.

* Dr. George Holgate, a former college administrator and dentist who is now executive director of the Burn Assn. and a burn survivor.

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* Tina, the yellow Labrador retriever, sporting a tassel like Cheryl’s from her leather harness.

After the pomp and circumstance, Cheryl has fruit punch and cookies; a stream of friends hug and congratulate her as they leave the ceremony.

Our crew then repairs--with cocktail franks, potato chips and sodas--to the patio of the Methodist Church in San Clemente. More friends arrive. Karen, a member of Cheryl’s gospel choir at Saddleback College, is accompanied by her son and daughter, who play while their mother harmonizes with Cheryl to songs by Patsy Cline and others on a karaoke-style CD player.

As Cheryl softly sings Selena’s “Tu Solo Tu” (You Only You), Anaya marvels at the way Cheryl has been able to embrace life.

“She always saw things in the positive. Especially when the doctor told her [early on that] she probably wouldn’t sing again because her throat was burned. And listen to her now! She has an angel’s voice,” Anaya says. “She has a pure heart, a child’s outlook that’s kept her going. And amazingly enough, after all that’s happened, she trusts people. She still assumes people are good.”

*

Nearby, Holgate sits with his scarred hands in his lap, smiling at Cheryl belting out another song. He was burned five years ago in a boat explosion. “I basically lost my face,” he explains. “My burns are similar to Cheryl’s . . . but not as deep or as intense.”

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Having become involved in running the Burn Assn., a nonprofit group that supports survivors and their families, Holgate knows the big picture too.

Burns are the third, maybe second, most frequent type of injury in the country, he says. Two million people were burned last year, 18,000 of them fatally, 100,000 to a degree requiring hospitalization. Many carry deep scars.

“Where are these people? Hiding. They’re prisoners of themselves. Stop and think: You have a pimple or a hickey, you don’t want to go to work. Magnify that how many times over and that’s what it’s like to have been burned,” Holgate says.

“The main thing is, you know Cheryl can be . . . an important inspiration on the widest scale. She has the personality. If we have someone who’s been there before who thrives, it’s not so frightening.”

I find myself remembering the words of an old Hollywood agent named Sal who long ago thought Cheryl’s story would make a good television movie “. . . if only it had a happy ending.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Graduation Wishes Are Welcome

The Orange County Burn Assn. is accepting graduation cards and donations on behalf of Cheryl Bess. Donations, which are tax deductible, will go toward purchasing her a Braille printer.

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Cheryl Bess Special Fund: Orange County Burn Assn. c/o UC Irvine Medical Center, 101 City Drive South, Building 2, Room 110, Orange, CA 92868. (714) 456-8938.

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