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Profile of Courage : Despite Acid Attack Injuries, Teen-Ager Has Buoyant Spirit

June 30, 1985|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer and

Sunlight streaked into the kitchen where Cheryl Bess sat at a table, her closed eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. A cheery visiting nurse chatted with the 16-year-old about boys and rock music and movies, kneading lotion into the girl's leathery hands, which look like those of an aging woman.

Cheryl does not squint at the light for she is blind, the victim of a man who poured acid on her head eight months ago and left her to die in the desert.

But she feels the warm rays on the foundation of her face-in-progress, and points her bandaged head toward the window while talking about the "new" nose she will eventually get. When her lips are surgically completed, she'll finally be able to crack a "real" grin.

'Sees' in Vivid Color

"Hopefully, they will give me ears, too," Cheryl said. She chortled softly. "I'm starting to become human again."

Though her eyelids are sewn shut, Cheryl still views her life in vivid color. And in the world she has filled with music, singing and the riddles she tells visitors, Cheryl finds joy in small pleasures: a 15-cent ice-cream cone at the drugstore, fresh watermelon for lunch, making her own bed in the morning, pecking out Beethoven's Ode to Joy on her electric organ.

An avid reader whose only luxury, according to her welfare-dependent mother, had been walking to the neighborhood thrift store for used, 15-cent paperbacks, Cheryl is now beginning to learn the Braille alphabet. Meanwhile, she listens to her favorite books on tape, hundreds of which have been sent by well-wishers around the world. Her doctors and nurses at the University of California, Irvine, Burn Center in Orange say she is walking well. She still loves to dance to her favorite pop music groups--Duran Duran, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. And although a plastic tube still penetrates her trachea, Cheryl's conversation is typically punctuated with warm throaty giggles.

"She never says 'what if?' She never mopes," said her mother, Norma Bess, who has recently moved from San Bernardino to Orange. "It would be very easy for her to lose interest in everything and just shut herself in from the world, not to read or play music or tell jokes. But she hasn't. She does all the singing around here. She's the one who tells the jokes. Her attitude is: 'I have to learn Braille? OK, so I learn Braille.' Her attitude is that life must go on. To learn that at 15 is something. . . . She's not feeling sorry for herself, and I can't do it either.

'Anything Is Possible'

"I think being out there (in the desert) for eight hours really helped her get through this," Bess added. "Once you face death, anything is possible."

That Cheryl survived the disfiguring attack that began at dawn Oct. 24 seems a miracle in itself.

As she walked the three miles to San Bernardino High School that morning, a man abducted Cheryl and drove her to a remote region of the Cajon Pass, about 12 miles south of Victorville. He tried to rape her, failed, then kicked and beat her. It was only after Cheryl pretended to be dead that he stopped. Then he poured sulfuric acid over her upper body and drove away.

For the next eight hours, she wandered through the desert, frantically trying to rub away the acid that was eating through to the bone. When someone finally came upon her, an investigator said at the time, "she was like a walking skeleton." Her face was virtually gone.

Still, the high school honor student said recently, she was determined to walk to safety--"my mother would have worried about me"--and described in hushed tones from a hospital bed her assailant and the white van in which she was abducted. "I wanted to live," she said simply.

"He told me that if I didn't do what he told me to, he'd pour this stuff on me that would make my hair fall out," Cheryl said. "It didn't burn; it felt like water. I didn't feel it until I was walking and I put my hand up here," she said, running her palm over an elastic head bandage where her ear used to be. "My hair was coming out in my hands. . . . I miss my hair now. I liked running my hands through it."

Suspect Has Record

Jack Oscar King, a 65-year-old maintenance worker at the San Bernardino housing project where the Besses lived, was arrested the same night. He has been charged with kidnap, attempted murder, assault with a corrosive liquid, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted rape, assault with intent to commit rape and mayhem, forcible oral copulation.

King, who served a 16-year state prison term for the 1961 kidnaping and rape of a 9-year-old Irvine girl, is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail at the San Bernardino County Jail. King's trial has been set for July 29. His attorneys are seeking a change of venue because of publicity surrounding the case.

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