Some Wounds Heal Slowly For Crime Victims

Posted: November 05, 1987

Oct. 12 is a date that Bill and Norma White will never forget.

The couple locked the doors of their Plymouth house about 5 p.m. and drove to a nearby restaurant for dinner. When they returned about an hour later, the security chain on the back door had been torn out and many of their treasured possessions had been stolen.

A storage chest containing a silver dinnerware service for 12 was missing

from the spot it had occupied in the dining room for 30 years. Norma's mother had given the chest to her daughter as a wedding present in 1953.

Bill's expensive watch had disappeared, along with numerous pieces of Norma's jewelry. The velvet-lined drawers in the jewelry boxes on her dresser had been emptied. Gold and pearl earrings, necklaces and rings, many of which were souvenirs from vacations abroad, were gone. Even a box of gold-filled teeth, which Norma intended to have made into a gold nugget, had been taken.

Norma, 64, remembers the feeling she had when she and her husband discovered the burglary.

"You feel like you have been kicked in the stomach," she said.

"You feel violated," she added. "Some perfect stranger has been prowling through your personal things."

She said she was reminded of the burglary every time she walked by the empty spot in the dining room where the chest once stood.

"I try to put it out of my mind," she said, "but every time I pass there, I think, 'I hope whoever took that gets the shingles from head to

toe.' "

The Whites are not alone. Behind every police report and courtroom trial is a victim, a person whose life might have been changed forever as a result of a crime.

In Montgomery County, there is an older adult who is afraid to go shopping alone after a robbery, a rape victim who no longer trusts men, a businesswoman haunted by nightmares of her assault, a young man whose scars remind him of the attack.

Although many crime victims come to terms with the experience through the encouragement and support of family and friends, others need professional help, according to social workers and health-care professionals. There is a growing awareness of the problems faced by crime victims, and programs have been established to provide counseling, compensation and support during courtroom appearances.

Last year, more than 11 million Americans were the victims of a property crime, and almost 1.5 million were the victims of a violent crime, according to the Uniform Crime Report published by the FBI in July.

A violent crime occurs every 21 seconds and a property crime is committed every 2 seconds in the United States.

"It just turns your world upside down," said Cynthia Gilhool, executive director of the Victim Services Center of Montgomery County, where 630 new clients were counseled at the Norristown office between July 1986 and June of this year.

"Even though we read about crime, you don't believe it will happen to you."


Many crime victims suffer from a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Dr. Barbara Olasov, who is coordinating a study of crime victims at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. Olasov said the condition, first identified among Vietnam veterans, includes such symptoms as fear, anxiety, nightmares, sleeping problems, irritability, outbursts of anger and avoidance of activities and places that remind a victim of the crime.

Gilhool also said that victims usually replayed the crime repeatedly in their minds, and that most "find a way to blame themselves."

Often, they have flashbacks that are triggered by reminders of the incident.

For example, she said, if the assailant ran from the scene, the sound of running footsteps might remind the victim of the attack.

Stephen O'Donnell, 21, of Blue Bell, was assaulted in the parking lot of the Carr Stop tavern on Route 202 in Center Square just before midnight on Oct. 6. Nine stitches were required to close a cut under his left eye, which swelled and was shut for three days.

"I guess I panicked at the time," he recalled. "My eye had filled with blood. . . . When I took out my contact lens, I felt I might lose the eye."

His upper lip was "mangled" and also required several stitches.

O'Donnell, who was treated at Sacred Heart Hospital in Norristown, said he spent the next few days in bed, sipping soup or milkshakes through a straw.

"I kept replaying (the assault) in my mind, trying to figure out what happened," he said.

O'Donnell had left the tavern with his brother, Robert, 25, when two strangers approached them and picked a fight.

Two men have been charged by Whitpain police with aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person and related charges stemming from the incident.

O'Donnell's scars are fading, and he has resumed his job as a busboy at a Blue Bell restaurant. Although he has not been back to the Carr Stop, O'Donnell said he been to other bars. He said he was able to discuss his experience with his family and friends, and he appears to have recovered from the trauma.

"It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was bad luck, I guess," O'Donnell said.

Gilhool and Olasov said it was important for victims to talk about the crime in the weeks after it occurred. They said crime victims who received strong support from their families and friends appeared to make the best recoveries.

"If you don't deal with your anger and your fear after the event, you don't process it," Gilhool said.

Gilhool said the Victim Services Center offers free counseling to crime victims to help them "vent their feelings."

"It's very hard to be laid back if you have been brutalized," she said.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of crime victims recover from the experience within three months, Gilhool said, but at least 30 percent continue to experience trauma. In the latter situations, she said, "It probably isn't going to go away by itself."

Olasov and her team are working with 60 crime victims as part of the Medical College study, which provides free treatment including stress- management methods such as breathing techniques and muscular relaxation, supportive counseling and counseling to help the victim adjust to the experience by reliving it, all methods that she said had been shown to help victims.

The county Victim Services Center also offers support groups for victims of rape and sexual assault and is planning to establish groups for family members of crime and homicide victims.

Rape, incest and aggravated assult are among the most traumatic crimes, Gilhool said, but she added, "We consider every crime victim's situation to be serious."

Thomas Malishaucki, 47, was shot in the leg during a robbery of his store, the Maple Glen Pharmacy, on May 5, 1980.

He said two men wearing stocking masks entered the pharmacy about 8 p.m. and demanded drugs. The robbers ordered everyone in the store to lie on the floor and asked him for narcotics, called Schedule 2 drugs. The drugs were stored in a safe and hidden in different spots in the store.

Malishaucki said he directed the men to a drawer where a different category of drugs was stored. In anger, one of the robbers fired a pistol and shot Malishaucki in his right leg, shattering a bone. Malishaucki said he moved his leg seconds before another bullet lodged in the floor. The robber then held the gun to Malishaucki's head, but didn't fire.

Malishaucki spent the next six weeks in Abington Memorial Hospital and another six weeks recuperating on his 17-acre property in Hilltown with his leg in a cast. The robbers have never been apprehended.

Malishaucki said his brush with death had humbled him.

"You're rolling along. You're never going to die. You're making a decent living," he said of his attitude before the shooting. But afterward, "A lot of things go round in your mind."

Malishaucki also said he believed he had an unconscious fear of returning to the pharmacy after the incident. He recalled that his wife went with him the first day he went back to work.

Malishaucki has resumed an active life. He continued to operate the pharmacy until he sold it 18 months ago and has run in two marathons since the shooting. "The scar is just a little hole I brag about," he said.

But for others, the fear and pain may linger for years.

"I'm just trying to get it out of my mind; I can't talk," said a 70-year- old Eastern Montgomery County woman, who declined to talk about the crime Two years ago, the woman was terrorized and tied up by a burglar wielding a knife.

"The house is completely barricaded at all times," her husband said. ''She just has this fear. I don't know if she'll ever get over it."

Trauma from the incident is not the only stress that crime victims experience. The criminal justice system can be intimidating. Victims might have to spend hours being interviewed by police, helping identify suspects

from lineups, testifying in court and undergoing cross-examination by defense lawyers.

"You can't leave it until it's done with," Gilhool said. "People get very tense. . . . There are a lot of frustrations built into trying to go through the criminal justice system."

It is also stressful for a victim to face a suspect. "It's very scary to confront your assailant," Gilhool said, but it gives the victims an object for their anger.

At a preliminary hearing before District Justice John S. Murray 3d on Oct. 21, O'Donnell testified against John Michael Dejewski, 20, of Lansdale, who is accused of punching and kicking him in the face.

"Now I had him, like he had me before," O'Donnell said. "I was going to

put him away for five or six months."

Since his arrest, Dejewski has been held in the Montgomery County Prison

because, police said, he had violated the terms of probation.

Murray issued a warrant for the arrest of a second man accused of assulting O'Donnell, David Michael Lee, 22, of Norristown, after Lee failed to attend a preliminary hearing on Oct. 27. Lee turned himself in to Murray yesterrday and waived his right to a preliminary hearing.

Besides offering victim support programs, the county Victim Services Center sponsors educational programs for police officers, lawyuers, health-care professionals and court employees to help make them aware of the needs of victims. For example, the center is among the groups that will sponsor a daylong forum, "Victims and the System," at the Holiday Inn in Kulpsville on Nov. 18.

In addition, staff members from the center and the Senior Victim Assistance Program, a nonprofit group in Bridgeport, accompany victims to lineups and hearings. And Montgomery County has appointed an advocate for crime victims.

Edward Stern, who has held the position since August 1986, said he received between 75 and 95 calls a week in his office in the county courthouse in Norristown. He said he kept victims informed about how their cases were progressing.

"They have no idea how the criminal justice system works," he said. ''Most of them expect instant action."

Stern, the Victim Services Center and the Senior Victim Assistance Program also help people file claims with the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which will pay up to $35,000 for medical expenses, funerals for homicide victims and compensation for loss of earnings, if the crime victim was the family's breadwinner.

But the fund does not pay for items covered by the victim's insurance policy and loss of property, or compensate for the victim's pain and suffering.

Social workers say crime victims feel hurt again if a suspect is acquitted or given a lenient sentence.

"It's a tremendous disappointment," Gilhool said, adding that she and her staff tried to assure the victim that "it's not so much that nobody believed you - it's the way the system had to operate."

Most victims make some changes in their lifestyles as the results of the crimes. They might install security systems in their houses, leave several

lights on at night or avoid going out alone.

"If you've been mugged in the street, you're going to be holding your bag differently," Gilhool said, adding, "Victims are very frightened of being revictimized."

O'Donnell, for example, said he would try to anticipate danger in the future and leave a place quickly at the first sign of trouble.

"I'd never been in a fight before," he said. "I guess I always tended to avoid confrontation. Now, (the assault) will reinforce this."

Bill and Norma White had all their locks replaced. Norma White said she had removed the silver candle holders that once adorned her dining room table.

The burglary "gave me the strangest feeling," she said. "It is just a feeling of insecurity. Total insecurity. . . . I suddenly don't feel safe anymore."

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