A long, dangerous road home

When Ed Thornell met a pair of fellow travelers in Nebraska, they seemed like decent people.

Their promise to pay for gas and small expenses overrode any suspicions the cash-strapped driver had during his trip back to Orange County after visiting his brother in Kentucky.

Their road trip started out cordial enough, but after a few days, Roy Scott Fritts and Jessica Lorraine Fritts exhibited strange behavior that made Thornell feel uneasy.

His first thought was that he should leave them on the side of the road, but his conscience got the best of him. Thornell decided he just couldn't just leave the two hitchhikers stranded in the remote West.

To this day, he wishes he had listened to his gut.

On Aug. 14 — four days after Frittses joined Thornell — the group was packing up camp in Wyoming, and Thornell said Roy wanted to show him a spectacular view.

The view turned out to be an ordinary gully, but as Thornell turned around he said he saw a .45-caliber pistol before Roy told him, "Sorry, Ed. I need your van."

Thornell said Roy shot him in the side, abdomen, elbow and neck, then left him to die.

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'Go find that road'

Thornell told his maker that he was coming.

"I'm on my way, God. I hope you have a bed for me," he prayed.

But Thornell said he believed God had other plans for him.

"Get up off your butt and go find that road," a voice inside him said.

Thornell tried to walk, but a bullet had passed through the sciatic nerve of his left leg, temporarily rendering it useless.

"I don't know why they chose that spot and that location," he recalled. "I guess they thought that was where no one would find me."

He crawled a quarter mile before finally finding help on a small road.

A caravan carrying two families found Thornell in a fetal position. They asked him questions about his alleged attackers, in part to keep him awake, and covered him in a blanket to reduce the shock.

When paramedics arrived, they asked Thornell where he was from. He gave them the address of his sister, Anita Hallock, 53, who lives in Costa Mesa.

After being loaded into the ambulance, the next thing he remembers is Hallock by his bedside.

"I said, 'Anita, how did you get here so fast?'" Thornell recalled. "She said, 'So fast? You've been under two weeks.'"

Thornell described her as instrumental to his recovery.

Thornell looked like a science experiment, with tubes coming out of every bullet wound. He was given a tracheotomy — a scar that today is a visible reminder of the attack.

Roy and Jessica Fritts were eventually arrested in Utah after a high-speed, interstate pursuit, according to sheriff's and newspaper reports at the time. Their criminal cases are pending.

At the time of his arrest, Roy Fritts, 33, had been out on parole for two months after serving 10 years in an Oregon prison for two counts of aggravated attempted murder.

Jessica Fritts, 35, also served time in prison for a botched bank robbery. The two were facing potential charges in Wyoming, Nebraska, Oregon and Utah at the time of their arrest.

When the two met up with Thornell, they had recently abandoned a pickup truck and were eluding Nebraska state troopers, according to authorities.

Federal court proceedings against Roy Fritts are pending a mental evaluation. He pleaded not guilty in September to charges of carjacking, using a firearm in a violent crime, being a felon in possession of a firearm and interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.

If convicted, he faces imprisonment of 10 years to life and $1 million in fines, according to federal court documents.

Jessica Fritts pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting a carjacking, aiding and abetting use of a firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm and aiding and abetting interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle. She faces 10 years to life in prison, if convicted, according to court documents.

Court proceedings for her are also on hold, pending a mental evaluation.

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'An unbelievable scenario'

In October, Thornell's 22-year-old nephew flew out to Utah to drive his recovering uncle back to California in the same van used to pick up the Frittses.

Two days later, Thornell was back in Orange County after a 2.5-month recovery — half the time doctors expected. A month later, the man once near death ate Thanksgiving dinner in Hallock's Costa Mesa home.

Hallock, his other sister and his mother were alongside him.

Although he lost about a foot from his large intestine after the shooting, Thornell can eat normally. Thanksgiving was the first time his appetite returned.

"It's just an unbelievable scenario that we went through," Hallock said. "We're just thankful he's alive and home, and that the couple was caught and they're awaiting trial."

Not all is well. Thornell is alive but homeless, living in his van that's parked in Huntington Beach, but the Navy veteran is hopeful that veterans' housing will come through.

The road is no longer calling.

"I always end up coming back," he said. "There's no place quite like this."

lauren.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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