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Shattered Dreams : 'Night Stalker' Victim Fights to Regain His Memory, Rebuild Life a Year After Attack

August 25, 1986|KRISTINA LINDGREN | Times Staff Writer

His tear ducts haven't worked since the "Night Stalker" shot him through the forehead a year ago.

But Sunday, as William R. Carns Jr. and his fiancee, Inez Erickson, 30, sat in the pew of a Mission Viejo church, it was plain that he was crying. The pastor of St. Kilian Church had just dedicated that midday Mass to them.

Head down, shoulders trembling, Carns said little until he returned home that afternoon.

"It was very spiritual," he said, his dry eyes reddening.

It was the eve of the anniversary of the attack and, Carns said, the realization of the enormous changes in his life was becoming overwhelming.

"Inez and I have spent countless hours trying to come back from what has happened to us," Carns said Sunday.

For Carns, it meant an arduous process of trying to recover his memory and the use of his paralyzed left arm and leg. So far he has partial use of those limbs, but his memory of life after the shooting still is unreliable.

"I still think the hardest thing for me is to accept the fact that I am hurt," he said. "I still wish it was just a big, bad dream and I'll wake up and it will be over, and I can go on with my life."

One year ago Sunday, an intruder broke into the couple's house through a living room window apparently left open on that sweltering night. The darkly dressed man stole up to the sleeping couple and from the foot of their bed fired three shots at Carns' face, then assaulted Erickson.

Initial bulletins from the Los Angeles Police Department reported Carns' condition as "brain-dead."

But in the trauma unit of Mission Community Hospital, Erickson recalls, Carns was able in the first hours after the shooting to respond to a doctor's query with a hand signifying "OK."

"I don't remember any hurt," he said simply.

One of the bullets remains lodged inside his skull. Erickson said it will be left where it sits between the brain and brain casing unless it moves and begins to threaten other brain functions.

Another of the bullets tore across a frontal area of the brain Carns calls the "motor strip," causing partial paralysis and impairing his short-term memory. It took with it a 1-inch chunk of bone on his forehead that has grown over with skin.

Carns pointed to the depression at his hairline. "This really is not designed to hold a golf ball," her said ". . . But I tease people and tell them that I'm a professional tee."

He says it is humor that has partly carried him through the difficult times of struggling to recall--and accept--the events of the last year.

For the first 2 1/2 months, Erickson said, Carns didn't know he had been shot in the head, nor did he question his antiseptic hospital surroundings. But one day while being helped to a bathroom, he saw the reflection of his bandaged, red, swollen forehead.

"I said, 'What the hell happened to me?' " Then, he said, he cracked a joke: "I guess I'll have to be Frankenstein at Halloween."

Erickson said she has had to reassure doctors and nurses on many occasions that Carns' outbursts of black humor are normal for him.

Initially, doctors doubted that Carns would ever walk again. Now, with the aid of a plastic leg brace and a cane, he can move around on his impaired left leg and ankle. Physical therapy has helped to restore some of the strength in his muscles, which were well developed from years of competitive volleyball, water skiing and other strenuous activities.

His left hand and forearm remain paralyzed. "It hangs like a 2-by-4 at his side," said his father, William R. Carns Sr., in an interview from his North Dakota home. But he is gaining some control in the upper arm, enough to lift the forearm at the elbow.

His flawed short-term memory is still his greatest handicap. "For example, he won't remember you were here," Erickson said to a reporter Sunday.

Although Erickson said she told him once more as they drove home from church Sunday that the attack occurred in their house, later he asked her incredulously, "Was it this house? It happened at this house?"

"That really offends me," he said. "There are special things I really want to remember that I can't. And that really hurts a lot."

A large part of his therapy at a Long Beach rehabilitation facility, where he lives Mondays through Fridays, is exercising his memory.

At home on weekends Erickson continues the therapy.

"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" she quizzed him. Carns linked his eyebrows in consternation and asked, "Did I have little links?"

"Good job," she said, beaming a quick smile at him.

"What month is it?" she asked, adding quickly, "Now don't cheat and look at your watch."

"December?" he asked. "No, August," he said triumphantly. "My God, it's nice to be able to know something for sure."

Doctors know very little about the recuperative powers of the brain in injuries as severe as those Carns suffered. He already has exceeded many of his doctors' expectations and plans to go further.

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