LAS VEGAS — The young girl grabs her lifeless legs and rocks back and forth in her wheelchair. The pain, both real and imagined, consumes her as if she were being stabbed all over again.
For 13-year-old Brittney Bergeron, the memories, like the scars that cover her body, never disappear.
The blood was dripping from the small trailer when police arrived at the CasaBlanca RV Park on a cold January night in 2003.
A few blocks away, a teenager stepped into the shower to wash the blood off a 12-inch butcher knife. Afterward, he told his sister not to worry, he would take all the blame.
As the sun began to rise, the nightmare of the night before left many wondering why. Why were two girls home alone in the middle of the night? And why would someone stab them so many times?
The answers, such as they were, unfolded this month in a Las Vegas courtroom.
"We've presented evidence of probably the most heinous, despicable crime a human being can commit on another," Dist. Atty. David Roger said. "When you look at this case, there are not enough adjectives to describe, truly, what this killer did."
Brittney, a sweet girl with brown hair and a shy smile, learned early on to survive.
The daughter of parents battling drugs, alcohol and each other, Brittney bounced between her mom and dad as part of a four-year custody dispute filled with accusations of violence and child neglect.
By the time her half-sister, Kristyanna Cowan, was born, Brittney seemed older than her 7 years.
"She was more the mother than the big sister," said Dorenda Phillips, a former neighbor at the RV park. "If Kristyanna fell, Brittney brushed it away, kissed away the hurt.... They never yelled, 'Mom.' "
Life with their mother, Tamara Bergeron, and her boyfriend, Bobby Schmidt, was less than stable. In a matter of weeks, the family moved from California to Utah and then to Mesquite, Nev., a small gambling town about 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Within a month, the couple had been cited for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Friends and neighbors said Bergeron and Schmidt often left the children alone when they went to buy methamphetamine or to gamble at a nearby casino.
Brittney missed three weeks of school in less than three months to care for Kristyanna, by then a precocious blond, blue-eyed 3-year-old she called "Kissy."
"These babies were by themselves all the time," said Phillips, who lived across the street.
As darkness fell the night of Jan. 21, 2003, Bergeron and Schmidt were once again at the casinos.
The knock came after midnight.
A teenager stood outside the door, asking Brittney to come with him. But minding her mother's warning about strangers, she refused and he left. Brittney, in her pink pajamas, tried to go back to sleep.
Minutes later, the teenager was back, and a girl was with him.
"Your mother's been hurt," she told Brittney. "Your mother's been hurt and she needs you."
Brittney let them in and went to find her shoes. She told the visitors to wake Kristyanna.
As Brittney bent down, the young man grabbed her from behind. Screaming, Brittney felt a hand cover her mouth.
"We could do this easy, or we could do this hard," he whispered, reaching for a knife.
The pair began punching Brittney. Fighting back, the girl kicked and bit her attackers. Then a knife plunged into her chest, back, arms and legs. Brittney tried desperately to reach her little sister.
Eight long minutes later, Brittney and Kristyanna lay in pools of blood, and the intruders were gone.
Brittney screamed for her mom; no one heard. Then silence descended on the trailer.
Returning from the casino, Bergeron and Schmidt found the girls and called for help at 1:55 a.m.
When police arrived, Brittney's mom was desperately trying to stop her bleeding. Kristyanna, unconscious and covered in blood, was in the arms of Schmidt's mother, who had been staying nearby.
"I don't want to die," Brittney whispered to Officer Brad Swanson, who comforted the girl until paramedics arrived.
At the hospital, the children lay side by side in the trauma unit. Crying, Brittney repeatedly asked about Kristyanna.
Stabbed 20 times, Brittney was rushed to surgery. The long knife used in the attack passed less than a centimeter from her heart, piercing her stomach and liver. A knife wound to the back severed her spinal cord. She would never walk again.
Kristyanna died in surgery. The long knife had pierced her skull and brain. Her jugular vein was slashed, and a knife wound to the face sliced through her cheek and cut her tongue. Multiple wounds marked her small body.
"All these horrific stab wounds on a 3-year-old that weighed all of 32 pounds," said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Schwartz, who prosecuted the case with Roger.
Miles away, a Utah state trooper pulled over a Honda sedan driven by 19-year-old Beau Maestas. Inside were his 16-year-old sister, Monique, and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sabrina Bantam.
Police took the three teens into custody, and a story began to emerge of drugs, revenge and rage.