Twenty-five years ago, a kind and lovely young woman took a kick to the head. A sneaker print remained on her face 10 hours later when a neighbor found her lying on a concrete floor. That cold-blooded kick changed Kelly Davis forever.
Who knows what motivated three young men to go on a crime spree that ended with Kelly’s beating on July 20, 1992, in her Arlington garage. Trial testimony revealed the attackers weren’t drunk or tripping on drugs or hellbent on revenge for some perceived slight. They were just bored and broke. Kelly, 32 at the time, was a non-threatening easy mark driving a decent car in a middle-class neighborhood. The pack of thugs swarmed her before her automatic garage door closed. They made off with $150 and left her for dead, blood leaking from her ears and puddling around her.
It seems like the purest among us get handed the worst tragedies. It’s not true. Everyone is fair game when heartache doles out bust cards. Still, Kelly represented humanity’s best. She deserved better than being beaten by strangers. Or maybe, like Clint Eastwood’s character says in Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Kelly was the most popular girl at school. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. There she is pictured on page 127 as “senior class favorite” in my 1978 Arlington High School yearbook. There she is again in 1976 – sophomore favorite. I’ve lost my 1977 annual but would be shocked if she weren’t junior favorite, too.
We loved Kelly.
She was comatose for about 18 months following the attack and suffered permanent brain damage and debilitating injuries. One of our classmates sends out email reminders of Kelly’s birthday and encourages people to send her cards. She receives about half a dozen each year.
“She gets all excited when I tell her she got a card from so-and-so from high school,” said her father, Jack Davis.
But Kelly gets few visitors.
“I think they’re nervous about going,” Kelly’s older sister Jody Pickering said recently. Many “don’t even know if she is still alive or not.”
For most of us, Kelly became a sad, distant memory as we forged ahead and dealt with our own trials and tragedies that accompany crawling out of bed every day for half a century.
In May, people were discussing Kelly on our graduating class’ Facebook page. Some classmates were uncertain whether she was mentally cognizant or even living. The babble upset one of Kelly’s close friends, Susan Dunnagan, who worried that Kelly’s family might read the comments. She sent me a private message expressing her concerns.
Dunnagan had helped care for Kelly during those early, difficult years of rehabilitation. Helping an incapacitated, oblivious patient whom you had known as a bright friend was tough, she said. That and the deaths of Dunnagan’s mother and two siblings exacerbated her drinking. In the mid-2000s she was knee-deep in personal troubles and unable to visit Kelly. A dozen years had slipped by. Dunnagan was missing her friend.
“It weighs on my heart,” Dunnagan wrote. “She was one of my best childhood friends, and I just need to see her. I’m planning to go visit her.”
“Let me know when you go,” I responded. “Maybe I’ll tag along.”
Dunnagan scheduled a visit in late May. I was unsure what to expect other than a depressing mixture of nostalgia and sadness.
Boy, was I wrong.
“That was life affirming,” I said two weeks later as we were leaving the Clifton group home where Kelly will probably reside for the rest of her life, confined to a bed and wheelchair. Her body may be damaged, but her soul is a whole other something.
Kelly, Dunnagan, and I were part of a tight clique of kids growing up in Arlington in the 1970s. Bailey Junior High and Arlington High provided the backdrop for our wonder years before everyone scattered out into adulthood. Dunnagan was the perky girl with the nice mom who didn’t mind letting a bunch of kids hang out at her house, swim in the family pool, jump on the trampoline, and raid the refrigerator.
Kelly was the perpetual cheerleader. Petite. Long brown hair. Big smile. Eyes that crinkled when she laughed, which was often. Squeaky voice. Cute, sloping nose. She had a habit of slapping her leg when something amused her. Caring, feisty, opinionated, funny. Kelly stood out. You knew she was going to make an impact during her time on Earth.
She was smiley by nature, so it shocked us one day when she came to school looking depressed. Her dad had yelled at her that morning for accidentally overfilling the upstairs bathtub until it ran over the sides and leaked through the ceiling. Disappointing her father had overwhelmed her, and she was still crying about it hours later. Nothing upset Kelly more than disappointing people, especially her parents. Jody remembered a long-ago car trip when, as a prank, a young Kelly reached up from the backseat and covered her dad’s eyes while he was driving the family across the Mississippi River in the rain.
“Guess who?” she said.
She didn’t get a laugh as expected.
“Dad’s about to go off the bridge, and Mom is screaming, and Kelly is crying in the backseat because Dad was yelling,” Jody said, smiling at the thought. “She would do those kinds of things.”
After high school, Kelly worked as a secretary and church youth counselor before landing a full-time job as a flight attendant for American Airlines in 1988. She was also working toward a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Texas-Arlington. She moved into a home near Vandergriff Park.
Stationed out of D/FW International Airport, Kelly was in her fourth year on the job, driving home around midnight after a late shift on that July night, when she stopped to buy cat food. Police reports, news stories, and trial testimony would later describe how three guys driving a stolen car noticed Kelly coming out of a grocery store and followed her home. She drove into her garage unaware that she was about to become the last victim in a series of random assaults and robberies stretching from Fort Worth to Arlington. The muggers had already run out of bullets in the .32-caliber pistol one of them carried. They hit and kicked Kelly even though she had given them the cash she was carrying.
Kelly’s car engine ran all night while she lay on the concrete floor nearby. She’d been left with a fractured skull, her head cracked like a hard-boiled egg all around. Her attackers had tried without success to close the automatic garage door that was stuck partially open, about a foot wide, allowing enough fresh air inside to keep Kelly alive until morning.
Police arrived to find Kelly’s cat, Callie, and a stray German Shepherd standing watch over her. The dog was so protective that police called animal control to have it removed. Kelly had adopted the cat not long before, and it was still fairly wild. The cat and dog sitting together and watching over Kelly was one of several odd occurrences.
“This cat would not have jibed with a German Shepherd,” Jody said.
Days later, Jody went to the shelter.
“I wanted to tell the dog, ‘I loved that you laid by her,’ ” Jody said.
The shelter had no record of the dog.
Kelly’s heart stopped in the CareFlite helicopter on the way to a hospital. Paramedics revived her. Police notified her father. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” played on a cassette tape as Jack sped in his car to the hospital. Days later, the cassette remained in the stereo, and Jack played it again. The song wasn’t on the tape.
“I felt like God was with us from the beginning, just in simple ways,” he said.
A long coma lay ahead, followed by physical therapy and round-the-clock care. Twenty-five years later, Kelly lacks control of her limbs and can’t do basic things such as brush her teeth. Her body movements resemble someone with cerebral palsy. Her short-term memory is gone. She has difficulty speaking, although she’s easy to understand and retains some of that squeaky tenor from grade school. She also had a double mastectomy five years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Helpless for more than 9,000 days now, she isn’t expected to improve much physically. What remains is a different version of the old Kelly, still positive and smiling but physically crumpled and kept alive by science and a severely tested but rock-solid faith.
Jody said Kelly is about 40 percent of what she used to be. That’s still a formidable amount. The class favorite is now a popular patient in a facility where employees and patients gravitate to her.
“That 40 percent of Kelly makes 100 percent of those people feel good,” Jody said. “She can’t walk or feed herself or anything, but she brings a lot of joy to people. She still is the charismatic person she was, even in this state.”
Kelly’s mother, Ruth Davis, provided much of her care during those early years, first at Dallas Rehabilitation Institute and then in a bedroom at the family home. Kelly stayed on the floor on a large mattress with padded rails to keep her from getting hurt as she thrashed about involuntarily. Tending to Kelly required getting down on the ground and back up, and down, and up again and again. The stress, the family says, contributed to Ruth’s death in 1995 at 60. All that getting up and down wore out her knee. She died of an embolism during routine surgery.
Ruth rarely left the house after Kelly was hurt, spending most of her waking hours lying beside her youngest daughter.
“Mom just could not get over it,” Jody said. “It tore her apart. Her surgery and embolism were just results of her broken heart. She didn’t get out of the house much after that.”
Sorrow was all around.
“I was just divorced, and Dad didn’t have a wife, and we didn’t have Kelly, and no mom, and I had three little kids,” Jody said. “We were just trying to figure out what had happened to all of us. Our little family had gone topsy-turvy.”
Jody and Jack worked to keep Kelly comfortable, year after year, with help from in-home professionals until Kelly entered the group home about 12 years ago.
When Dunnagan mentioned she wanted to visit Kelly, I went along, partly out of guilt, I suppose. I had never visited or even sent a card. I assumed Kelly was still located in Arlington. Nope. Clifton is about a four-hour round trip. And Dunnagan wanted to go on a Saturday – my favorite day for de-stressing after a long workweek. For a moment, part of me wished I hadn’t opened my mouth. But I pushed that notion aside. Dunnagan had been a tenderhearted (if slightly wacky) girl back in school. I decided to enjoy our windshield time and make the most of the trip.
On the appointed Saturday, I arrived at Dunnagan’s home in eastern Fort Worth mid-morning. She bounded out of the house with a big grin and a squeal – same ol’ Dunnagan – and we hit I-35 South. I tried to get a feel for what lay ahead.
Would Kelly remember us? Could she talk?
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Dunnagan said.
The drive allowed Dunnagan and I to become reacquainted, and we arrived in good spirits around noon. We became more apprehensive after we parked the car and approached the facility’s front door. A receptionist pointed us down a hall. We rounded a corner, and there she was, a graying, serene Kelly sitting in a wheelchair turned toward a TV a few feet away. The screen was blank.
“Kelly, it’s Susan,” Dunnagan said.
“Hi, Susan!” Kelly said.
“Jeff Prince is here, too – do you remember Jeff?”
“Fo’ sho’,” Kelly said. “Hi, Jeff.”
Kelly spoke without looking at me, which was confusing. I was unaware she had lost much of her vision after the accident.
Dunnagan and Kelly chirped about old times in the most natural way, as if they’d never been apart. Kelly can’t remember the attack that left her brain damaged. But she remembers everything prior to the assault, including our long ago summers spent coming of age, playing games, roaming streets, and rolling around in circles at the skate rink listening to Three Dog Night, Cat Stevens, The Carpenters, and Stevie Wonder.
After half an hour, the conversation finally lulled. In that brief silence, I realized the TV was tuned to a music station with the volume turned down low. I heard a faint but familiar melody. Kelly began to sing along.
Que sera sera / What ever will be will be / The future’s not ours to see / Que sera sera
It was the Doris Day ditty from the 1950s, a sappy but pretty song that girls loved and boys pretended to hate.
When I was just a little girl / I asked my mother what would I be / Would I be pretty? / Will I be rich? / Here’s what she said to me
Dunnagan and I joined in the singing. Of the three of us, Kelly remembered the most words and sang with the most confidence.
When I was young / I fell in love / I asked my sweetheart what lies ahead / Will we have rainbows day after day? Here’s what my sweetheart said
Halfway through the song my voice trembled. I stopped singing, looked away, and saw two nurses watching us with beatific expressions. I envisioned Kelly as a young girl singing that song and dreaming about all the sweethearts and rainbows that lay ahead.
After the song ended, Dunnagan reminded Kelly how they wore out a vinyl copy of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The album came out in 1973 just as our little gang was coming together in junior high. Kelly and Dunnagan broke out into an impromptu and gleeful rendition of “Bennie and the Jets.” Kelly recalled every one of those crazy lyrics that I had never been able to comprehend.
Say, Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet / Oh, but they’re so spaced out / B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets
In junior high, Kelly owned a pet named Candy and dated a boy named Ronnie.
“You always said that song was written for you,” Dunnagan said.
Kelly leaned back her head and laughed.
We sang more songs, then rolled Kelly’s wheelchair onto a patio and sat outside. A thick blanket covered her, and the afternoon weather was warm.
“Aren’t you hot as hell?” Dunnagan said.
“Yes, I’m hot as hell,” Kelly said. “It is hot as hell out here.”
Oh, boy. One visit from us, and our Earthbound angel was cussing like the devil.
An elderly man who worked at the facility stopped to talk, and his appreciation of Kelly was obvious. The facility’s head social worker, Suzi Bottlinger, characterized Kelly as an upbeat influence on patients and staff.
“She loves singing,” Bottlinger said. “She is always positive to whoever is around – children, adults, elders. Very respectful. Giggles. Laughs. Very charming.”
For Dunnagan and I, the visit with Kelly conjured a potent mixture of joy, melancholy, nostalgia, and spiritual awareness.
After an hour, Kelly grew tired.
“My eyes hurt,” she said, still smiling.
She needed a nap. We made our goodbyes and promised to return.
When she would awake later that afternoon, Kelly would have no memory of our visit.
Dunnagan and I will never forget.
Scoliosis, back problems, and other ailments have bent and twisted Jack Davis’ body in a painful looking way. He strides slowly with the help of a walker toward the large brick building where his youngest daughter stays. Walking beside him is Jody, still trim and pretty at 59. They make the drive every week or so to sit and talk with Kelly.
The news reports that followed the case in 1992 have long since faded. So have the fundraisers that generated tens of thousands of dollars to help pay for medical treatment. American Airlines’ health benefits paid for much of the care but were capped at $500,000. Jack, an Air Force veteran and former real estate agent and investor, estimates he’s spent close to a half-million dollars out of pocket on her care.
He and Ruth were willing to spend every penny, he said. Willing to spoon-feed and diaper Kelly. Read to her. Talk to her for hours without getting any replies. Love her unconditionally and forever.
“You do anything possible to make her life better and with less pain,” Jack said simply.
Kelly wasn’t just a sister to Jody. They were best friends. Two years apart in age, they shared a room while growing up. They slept in the same bed many nights even after the family moved to a bigger house and the girls were given their own rooms. They shared secret codes. If one said, “Matthew 5,” it meant, “Let’s talk in private.” They were so close that even after Jody married and moved out on her own, Kelly would sometimes visit her at night and lie beside her in bed talking while Jody’s husband snoozed away on the other side.
“She would talk in my ear until I would fall asleep,” Jody said. “She was more girly-girl than I was – I was kind of a tomboy – but she was still so much fun.”
Kelly dated several men over the years and was engaged once, but she never married or had children. She was dating a man Jody described as “the love of her life” at the time of the attack. That boyfriend went on to get married and have a family of his own but has remained close to Kelly and her family.
Kelly “wasn’t going to be dating or marrying anybody,” Jody said.
The week following my visit with Dunnagan, I returned with Jack and Jody. We found Kelly in her room lying on her back in bed at noon. She wore a cotton gown and colorful striped socks.
“Hi, Kelly,” Jody said.
“Jody!” Kelly replied, recognizing her sister’s voice.
“How are you feeling?”
“Real good and fine,” Kelly said. “Thanks for asking.”
“What have you been up to?”
Jody asked whether Kelly had eaten lunch.
“Yes, and it was delicious and nutritious,” she said, giggling because she had no memory of eating.
Jody described how the pine tree that their dad had planted in the front yard when they were kids had grown 70 feet tall.
“Isn’t that something?” Kelly said. “We’re still ticking.”
“Kelly, do you know how old I’m going to be on my birthday?” Jody asked. “Remember, it’s in October?”
Kelly grew serious. She pondered.
“Take a guess.”
Finally, she said, “18?”
“I wish 18,” Jody said, laughing. “No, I’m going to be 60.”
“Whoa!” Kelly said with wide eyes.
During our drive down that morning, Jody and Jack had shared their highs and lows from the past 25 years. More than 3,000 people sent cards to Kelly in the weeks after her assault. Neighbors held garage and bake sales to help pay for her medical care. School buddy Steve Mills arranged for pop singer B.J. Thomas to perform a fundraising concert at Caravan of Dreams that raised $20,000.
A Fort Worth Star-Telegram article on Oct. 28, 1992, quoted Ruth describing the outpouring of help.
The attack “was so violent and so random that almost anyone who has a family member can relate to it because they know it could have been anyone’s sister or mother,” she said.
The article quoted Jack expressing hope that his daughter would “recover all the way.” He softened that hope by adding, “But if she doesn’t, we’re prepared for that, too.”
An editorial described how the horrific act had struck “a chord within the heads and hearts of thousands” because Kelly had “touched so many people by her compassion and kindness.”
TV reports showed news anchors from yesteryear such as Midge Hill and Mike Snyder describing a mob of bandits on the prowl. Arlington police spokesperson Dee Anderson was interviewed, looking young, thin, and dark-headed, still eight years away from being elected sheriff.
“It appears to be violence for the sake of violence,” he told the cameras back then.
The first attack occurred at 10:30 p.m. in East Fort Worth when a man was shot multiple times after refusing to give up his car. Another man was beaten a short time later in the same area. The attackers beat a man and his wife in front of their child in southwest Arlington and stole their car before driving farther east and stumbling onto Kelly.
Two cousins – a 20-year-old and a teenager from the Stop Six neighborhood – and a third teen were arrested weeks later.
American Airlines allowed Kelly’s fellow flight attendants to work her shifts and donate sick leave. This kept Kelly’s full paychecks coming to the family for about a year and ensured she reached her five-year tenure and became vested, making her eligible for extended insurance coverage.
Jack and Jody say they will never forget all the kindnesses.
They were with Kelly in the hospital a couple of weeks after the beating when a news program described the suspects being arrested.
“I’m looking at the three guys and thinking, ‘How could you be so mad that you would beat her like that?’ ” Jody recalled. “We looked at the TV screen in shock.”
Jack hasn’t sought media attention over the years. He allowed this story because I had been close to his daughter during our adolescence. But he issued a caveat. He didn’t want the attackers mentioned by name or contacted. The men were sent to prison, but one has been released, and the others come up for parole regularly. Jack, at 87 and in precarious health, fears making them angry. He worries they might come back and do more harm to someone else he loves.
“We’re putting the bad behind us,” he said.
During the trials, the men showed no remorse, he said. They offered no motive. The crimes made no sense.
“She didn’t even look like Kelly,” Jody said. “You would have never been able to recognize her from the massive bruising and swelling.”
Head trauma patients often deal with depression. Kelly was no different in those early days while trying to process her new reality. She became agitated when more than one person at a time was speaking. But as her brain slowly healed, so did her outlook.
Jack has been a religious man his whole life and passed the Holy Spirit on to his daughters. That faith has kept her alive and blissful, Jack said.
“How she could be happy seems impossible,” he said. “She is Christian from top to bottom.”
He wondered if the men who harmed his daughter are sorry. God will forgive them if they ask, he said.
Has Jack forgiven them?
He thought a moment. He wants to forgive. But that was his daughter. So sweet. So good. Beaten to near death out of pure meanness.
“I’ve tried to find forgiveness,” he said. “It’s durn near impossible. I look at Kelly, and she has spent 25 years paying for their crime. I’ve always thought I was a good Christian, but …God says forgive and you shall be forgiven. But it’s truly hard.”
Jody did most of the talking during our drive. Her voice cracked frequently. Jack sat in the passenger seat. Tears ran down his face the entire time, but he never made a sound.
“I feel bad for her and sometimes I feel sorry for us,” Jody said. “But the best thing is, she is happy.”
Few old friends have visited Kelly over the years, perhaps because, like me, they didn’t know where she stayed or whether she could remember and talk.
Inside the group home, Jody asked Kelly if she recalled the visit from Dunnagan and me the week before. She couldn’t but became excited by the fact that we had.
I reminded her that we sang Elton John songs. On cue, Kelly broke into “Bennie and the Jets.”
After an hour, we readied ourselves to leave. Kelly tires quickly and takes frequent naps. Jack gave Kelly two of her favorite things – KitKat candy bars and Diet Coke – and hugged her and told her how much he loved her. So did Jody.
“You’re a sweet girl,” Jody said. “You’re the best sister in the world.”
“That’s so nice,” Kelly said.
Jody said she was going to pray for Kelly and asked what her sister wanted her to pray for.
“Pray that I have a good heart and make others happy,” Kelly said.
On the drive home, Jody said, “For her to say, ‘To have a good heart and to make people happy’ – who says that? That’s a survivor, surviving in the most positive of ways.”
Our lives don’t always turn out the way we might expect, Jody said.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad and horrible,” she said. “If you would have told me when she first got hurt that it would turn out like this, I would have been so devastated I couldn’t swallow. But as time has gone on, God has been completely wonderful. Kelly is happy. I get to go see my sister. I can have a bad day and get to go somewhere where somebody is so excited to see me. It’s so good for my spirit to know that.
“Dad and I get to experience true absolute wonderful joy with Kelly, and we really laugh and have a good time,” she continued. “I want people who know her to know she is OK, but I especially want folks that have some traumatic horrible thing happen to their family to know that God is good. It just takes time. You have to allow yourself to feel all your feelings.”
Contact Jeff Prince at firstname.lastname@example.org.