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Living with loss: The slow recovery of Gemily West

06/29/2014 12:00 AM

06/30/2014 10:28 AM

Gemily West lay broken in the street, her flesh ripped, her right leg shattered. Somehow, she had survived.

She remembers the night in disconnected sounds and images. The headlights careening toward them. Her boyfriend writhing in the street. Her dogs, silent and unmoving, their bodies strewn across the road. Her mother and sister trying to shield her eyes. Her own voice, screaming in agony.

That warm July night now serves as a dividing line in Gemily’s life: Before they were hit. After they were hit. Life with Hari. Life without him.

“We went out for a walk,” she said. “And everything changed.”

It has been nearly two years since Gemily, 25, and her boyfriend, Harison Long-Randall, were mowed down in an intersection outside her Carmichael home by a heroin addict who plowed through a stop sign in his Nissan Maxima. Her four Australian cattle dogs died on impact. Hari, 21, lost his leg in the crash and would die of his injuries 13 days later.

The addict, Paul William Walden, now 33, fled the scene, but was captured and convicted of second-degree murder and felony hit-and-run. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.

For much of the last two years, through the depositions and court proceedings, the surgeries and physical therapy, Gemily has been largely silent about what she has endured as the sole survivor of the crash. She is shy by nature, she said, and was wary of saying anything that might interfere with the criminal case against Walden. Now that he is on his way to prison, she felt ready to tell her story.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Gemily described her memories of the accident, the many losses she suffered and her struggles to move beyond tragedy. Wearing a light pink top and denim capri pants that did not fully cover the thick scars on her right calf, she spoke in a calm, measured voice. Her mother, Sally, sat with her at the dining table of their family home.

“It’s not over,” Gemily said. “I’m not sure it will ever be over.”

The images of her dead “fur kids” and her maimed companion continue to invade her thoughts; she still mourns them. Even so, she said, she is beginning to find joy again.

“I’m trying,” she said with a faint smile, twisting a rope of her hair. “I’m getting there.”

Gemily’s path toward recovery does not involve counseling or support groups. She has no plans to write a letter or have a conversation with Walden in a quest to find closure. She does not want to become a poster child for surviving trauma, she said, though she recognizes herself in some of the articles she has been reading about the subject.

“I’m one who keeps to my own,” said Gemily, whose wide eyes and open face make her seem younger than her years. “I’ve just got to accept what happened and find a new focus. I can’t let it consume me. I have to find a new normal.”

A familiar intersection

The night that upended her life began at the Carmichael home, decorated with antique furniture and family photos, where Sally West and her daughters Gemily and Lilleah live with a menagerie of pets that includes cats, chickens, guinea pigs and birds.

Hari had come by, and he and the two sisters enjoyed a takeout dinner. When they were done, Hari and Gemily helped Lilleah work on the elaborate costumes that the sisters sell on their website, Beastcub Creations, and wear during anime conventions and festivals. Many of the costumes have functional parts, like moving jaws and folding wings. Often, they are based on mythological creatures. Gemily’s favorite is a white unicorn.

On a recent afternoon, sitting in the home workshop where she and Lilleah create their costumes, Gemily played a video of herself cloaked as a unicorn, with brilliant white fur, sparkly eyes and a spiraling horn, prancing in front of a cheering audience. “I was so nervous at first,” she said. “But you put on a costume, and you lose your inhibitions.”

“Who doesn’t like unicorns?” she said, gazing at the video. “They’re beautiful.”

On the night of July 16, 2012, they had been in this same room, working on a green wolf-like costume for Hari, a “gentle giant” of around 300 pounds whom Gemily called “Care Bear.”

The couple had been dating for about eight months.

“He was easier and more understanding than most other people,” Gemily mused. They had known each other for years, and had a lot in common. Both had struggled with learning disabilities when they were younger. Both were shy around strangers and hated public speaking. Both enjoyed the anonymity of dressing in costumes and “becoming someone else,” Gemily said. Both coveted the unconditional love of animals.

After they tired of working on his costume that night, Gemily and Hari decided to take her exuberant Australian cattle dogs, which she had raised from puppyhood, out of their kennels and to walk a few blocks over to Garfield Elementary School for games of fetch. Gemily’s dogs, named Bindie, Evie, Winry and Zury, were “my life, my dream, my dedication,” she said. She was especially close to Winry, who slept in her bedroom each night and liked to groom the family cats and guinea pigs.

“She had an extra sparkle in her eyes,” Gemily said, fighting tears. “She could see through to your soul.”

They played with “the herd” for nearly an hour, she said, before they headed home to watch a movie with Lilleah. The pups, on leashes and wearing reflective nylon collars, were panting happily as the group entered the crosswalk at Garfield Avenue and Engle Road just before 10 p.m. They were less than a block from home.

As they reached the halfway point of the familiar intersection, Gemily recalled, they spotted headlights headed directly toward them at a frightening speed. A witness later estimated Walden’s speed at 75 to 90 miles per hour.

Gemily remembers Hari shouting at her and trying to shove her out of the way. Moments later the car hurtled through a stop sign and smashed into the group. Gemily briefly lost consciousness as the vehicle sped away.

When she came to, she saw Hari struggling to get to his feet. She saw his dismembered leg in the gutter, 65 feet away. The bodies of her dogs were scattered about.

She wonders if the images are permanently etched into her brain.

“I saw Hari. He told me everything would be OK,” she recalled. “I looked around for the dogs, and I knew they were all dead. At that point, I just wanted to make sure no one ran over them again.”

Lingering guilt

For those first few weeks – as Hari fought for his life in intensive care, and later, as she struggled to absorb his death – Gemily downplayed her own injuries. But they were significant. The crash dismantled her right leg, which surgeons pieced together with a metal rod and bone grafts. The skin and muscles of her calf were torn and burned. She had a football shaped wound on her right hip. Gemily still has the shoe, marred with tire treads, that flew from her foot that night.

It was nine months before she could use her right leg. It still aches at times and drags slightly when she walks, especially when she is tired. She no longer can hike the hills and trails she loved exploring with her dogs.

Other scars run deeper. She refuses to be alone, even in her car or at home during the day. She has had to relive that awful night over and over to police, to lawyers, in court, even at the Walmart and sushi joint when people ask how she is doing.

“It’s hard,” she said. “We are private people. We don’t like the spotlight.”

In the weeks after the crash, Gemily had such vivid flashbacks of the accident scene – the headlights bearing down, Hari’s leg, her dogs – that she took medication to function. She still has trouble sleeping, and occasionally breaks into sobs thinking about what she lost that night.

And she cannot help but feel guilty, she said, about being the only survivor, especially since Hari has been lauded as a hero for his efforts to save her. She does not know, she said, whether Hari might have lived had he not pushed her to the side. “Everything happened so fast,” she said.

“But of course I have asked, ‘Why me? How come I didn’t die? Why was I the only one who lived?’”

“I didn’t wish that upon him,” she said, looking downward. “I didn’t wish him to die for me.”

In the months since the crash, she said, she and her family have become estranged from Hari’s family. Gemily and her mother declined to speak in detail about the fracturing of those relationships. They said only that the tragedy and the media attention, along with the emotional and financial outpouring that followed, put a strain on the families.

“There is no ugly or harsh feelings,” said Jerome Encinas, a spokesman for Hari’s family. “They wish Gemily and her family all the best. But they have no interest in talking about this any longer. They just want to try to move on without their son.”

‘The sadness lifts’

On the day Paul William Waldenwas to be sentenced in Sacramento Superior Court, Gemily and her family sat in the courtroom, a few rows behind and across the aisle from Hari’s relatives.

Her brother Trevor, 45, one of five siblings, has been Gemily’s protector and advocate since their parents divorced when she was about 6. He was scheduled to speak that day, but broke down after a few words. As he stood, head bowed, a prosecutor read his statement about how “deeply traumatized” his family remains, and the ripple effects of grief. Gemily, stoic, asked the deputy district attorney to read her statement as well.

The maximum sentence delivered by Judge Patrick Marlette was an important step toward her emotional healing, she said later.

“I’m very happy he’s going to be put away and won’t hurt anyone else,” Gemily said.

Her mom, who wept through much of the interview at the family home, said she wonders when she will be able to get through a conversation about her daughter without crying.

Her mood brightened only when she talked about the countless people who reached out to the family after Gemily’s story became news. Most of them she’d never met. “So many nice things happened,” she said. “People sent cards and money and presents. We tried to thank them all, but we couldn’t keep up.”

Frames decorated with canine themes and sent by well-wishers perch on tables, holding photos of the four dogs that perished. Whimsical renderings of the pups, sent by local artists, hang on the walls. Custom-made stuffed dogs, whose coats and faces mimic Gemily’s former companions right down to their eye colors and facial markings, pose in her bedroom. A pendant shaped as a dog with angel’s wings occasionally dangles from her neck.

Tens of thousands of donated dollars helped pay medical bills, and allowed the family to take a trip to Southern California for a big dog show, something “we never were able to afford in the past,” Gemily’s mother said.

“I was amazed at how kind people can be.”

The outpouring, said mother and daughter, helped restore their faith and gave Gemily the motivation to take small steps toward reclaiming her life.

While still in a wheelchair, she went to an anime festival dedicated to Hari’s memory. She and her sister are once more fashioning their mythical creatures. She has made new friends among people who reached out to her after hearing about the tragedy.

Once she was able to walk again, Gemily adopted two Australian cattle dogs, which she named Kiry and Navi. She recently got two more, Jazzie and Spicy. She said they have played a key role in her healing.

“When I got them, I had to get up and take care of them,” she said, jousting with the dogs under a shade tree in the family’s front yard. “They didn’t know I was hurting. They just needed me, and they wanted to play.”

She is training the dogs to respond to commands, behave in public and perform tricks including jumping through hoops and leaping into her arms. West also fosters dogs, cats and other creatures in need of temporary homes.

All of these things, she said, “are helping me take back some of what was taken from me.”

“Hari would hate it if I just let myself rot,” she said. “He always hated it when I was feeling bad about myself.”

Hari, she said, would want her to be happy. And she believes he would want her to love again.

In the fragile months after the crash, Gemily wondered if that would ever be possible. And then it happened, like a slow awakening.

David Pierce, a childhood friend who also knew Hari, contacted her after the accident and offered condolences. Condolences turned into long conversations, about the nightmare following the crash, about Hari. Conversations turned into romance. Now the couple are engaged to be married.

On a recent day, David gave Gemily a kiss before leaving to run errands. “Behave yourself!” she said playfully, wrapping him in a hug. He has listened to her describe, over and again, what she saw and heard the night of the tragedy. He rubs her leg when it hurts. He promises her things can only get better.

“Emotionally, some days are better than others for her,” he said. “But I think she’s going to be fine.”

Gemily is starting to believe him. These days, she said, she is focusing not on her overwhelming losses, but on the blessings in front of her.

“Once you do that,” she said, stroking one of her new dogs, “the sadness lifts a little.”

Sacto 911 Staff

Bill Lindelof
blindelof@sacbee.com
@Lindelofnews

Cathy Locke
clocke@sacbee.com

Andy Furillo
Superior Court
afurillo@sacbee.com
@andyfurillo

Denny Walsh
Federal Court
dwalsh@sacbee.com

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