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A Degree in Survival : Cheryl Bess, Victim of a 1984 Acid Attack, Becomes a Saddleback College Alumna

May 30, 1997|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was mummified in bandages from the chest up, nearly skinless, when I met Cheryl Bess 13 years ago.

Blinded and burned by sulfuric acid and left for dead by her attacker, Cheryl survived. She had wandered five or six hours through the San Bernardino County desert before she got help. She was 15.

Standing at her bedside in the intensive care unit of the UC Irvine Burn Center, knowing her face would need to be surgically rebuilt over dozens of operations, it was hard not to wonder: Was she up to the difficult life ahead?

As we came to know each other, her luminous grace and goodness made her impossible not to love and admire.

It always seemed she focused on her strengths. Early on she decided to try for a career using her voice--on radio and singing--but I worried. Would the world accept her?

On Friday, the answer seemed a resounding yes.

With high honors, Cheryl graduated from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo with an associate degree and certificate in radio broadcasting and the hope of becoming a professional disc jockey.

At the student-run station at Saddleback College, Cheryl has several years experience spinning tunes and hosting an open-forum talk show. She added Braille to radio station equipment for her weekly programs. She has demo tapes. She now will seek a paying job.

Though her face and sight were stolen before her first date, Cheryl has never lost her dignity.

*

As darkness lifted the morning of Oct. 24, 1984, Cheryl walked toward San Bernardino High School, where she was a sophomore. Passing by a McDonald's, she recognized a maintenance worker from her public housing building.

Jack Oscar King, slightly built, age 65, offered her a ride to school. When she asked why he was headed the wrong direction, he claimed he needed to stop by his house to shut off the lights.

At the house, he put a screwdriver to her neck to get her out of his truck, but she fought off going inside.

So he drove to a remote part of the Mojave Desert off Interstate 15, threatening to douse her with drain cleaner if she bolted.

It was painful hearing the details spelled out in court testimony. I remember some jurors crying. Sexual assault and attempted rape, then a failed try at choking the life out of her. Cheryl fought back, trying to bash him with a rock. King poured a liter of the corrosive chemical over her head, kicked her into some bushes and drove off.

As the drain cleaner burned away her skin, Cheryl walked for hours in excruciating pain before an aqueduct worker came upon her. He placed her in his truck and drove her to a convenience store to summon help. I will never forget his words: She was like a walking skeleton.

The sulfuric acid was so caustic that when paramedics rinsed Cheryl's face with saline solution, the runoff blistered the paint on the aqueduct worker's truck.

It was uncertain whether she would live. Cheryl was transferred to the intensive care unit of the burn center at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

I remember meeting Cheryl's mother, Norma, at the hospital and thinking, what on earth does one say at a time like this? All I could think of was to offer to go buy her more cigarettes. We sat for hours in the cafeteria, her hair in a scarf, her face stoic, her voice never breaking. Smoking and smoking. Memories of mother-daughter fun. Small joys of buying used paperbacks, dime ice cream cones. I did not question why she had not teared up. I sensed if she momentarily released her grip on composure, that would be it.

It was also apparent that if Cheryl was as strong as her mother, she stood a shot.

A trust fund for Cheryl had been established by the Safety Employees Benefit Assn. of San Bernardino, which represents sheriff's deputies, marshal's deputies and district attorney investigators. It needed some publicity, and that was something I could help bring it.

*

Cheryl and her mother had no money, and burn care is outrageously expensive. Initially, Medi-Cal rejected paying for replacement of Cheryl's eyelids, which was required in order that she might one day see again. Such a surgery was deemed "cosmetic."

Over time, Cheryl underwent numerous surgeries to give her back her face.

Her doctor, Bruce Achauer, director of the UCI Burn Center, said at the time that he had not seen a patient with a more deeply burned head. He set about creating eyelids built upon a filmy tissue taken from the stomach area. Layer upon layer of skin grafts to build eyelids. This so that eventually a transplanted cornea could be protected and she might one day see.

A new nose was constructed out of skin and tissue shaped something like a carrot. The larger end was grafted onto the center of her face but required life support of living tissue while the skin grafts took. The smaller end was attached to her chest. Tuck your chin into your chest. Now imagine yourself unable to move from that position for weeks. Such discomforts were standard as lips and ears were created. For years, her face was a work in progress.

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