As if becoming homeless several weeks ago wasn't scary enough, Grace Gassett now has two additional fears: bus stops and street gangs.
Seriously, and nearly dead-seriously. In the early morning of Aug. 13, Gassett and boyfriend Roy Bingle sat on a bus bench at the corner of 17th and I streets in downtown Modesto, catty-corner from the Ralston Tower park frequented by street people.
"We were waiting to catch the (route) 32," Bingle said. "We heard a screech, and by the time we turned around, we knew it was going to hit us."
"It" being a speeding and stolen SUV whose driver failed to negotiate the turn and careened right into the bench. The impact "launched" Bingle, said Fred White, who, had he been standing 3 feet closer to Gassett and Bingle, would have been a third victim instead of an eyewitness.
"I ricocheted off the top of the building (a legal office) and landed down there," Bingle told me, pointing to landscaping along the side of the building. He suffered fractures to his spine and right leg. He now wears a "turtle" brace around his torso to protect his back. He has a cast on his right leg and needs a cane to walk.
Gassett tried to run and by far got the worst of it. "It ran her down," Bingle said.
The sport utility vehicle knocked her into the sign in front of Red Dragon Tattoos, about 30 feet from where the bus bench used to be.
"I was awake the whole time," she said. "I looked up and my left leg was by my shoulder. I could see the bottom of my shoe."
Both legs shattered, she also suffered broken ribs, a dislocated thumb and other injuries. Modesto police Sgt. Brian Findlen said officers at the scene didn't expect her to survive. If she did, they figured, she'd lose one or both of her legs to amputation.
Three surgeries later including one Thursday she's still alive, though a long way from kicking. Doctors have been able to save her legs, though she faces many months of recovery and rehab.
And when she can walk again, she plans to avoid bus stops with a vengeance.
"I don't feel safe," she said. Perhaps that's the painkillers talking, though. The bus stop had nothing to do with her injuries.
Gang members did, police said. In fact, they had everything to do with it.
At 4:30 that morning, a resident called 911 to report suspicious activity in a neighborhood off Morris Avenue, about a mile north of the 17th and I intersection.
Officers responded and questioned three males two 21-year-olds and a 16-year-old who were carrying electronic equipment, Findlen said. They weren't arrested at the time because officers couldn't prove the property they toted was, indeed, stolen. Officers did, however, confiscate it as potential evidence, getting no complaints from the trio. And the officers got vital information about their identities that soon came in handy, Findlen said.
Why? Because less than two hours later, the suspects returned to the same neighborhood and spotted the person they figured had reported them to the cops. Driving a blue, stolen Chevy Suburban, one of the three took a bat to the man's car, doing some damage.
The man gave chase. The stolen SUV sped toward downtown and onto I Street. Its driver, 21-year-old Antonio Ramirez-Flores, tried to turn left onto 17th, where White stood on the corner while Bingle and Gassett sat on the bus bench.
"At that one particular moment, I thought I was a dead man," said White, who, like Gassett and Bingle, is 40-something and homeless. "It wasn't able to make the turn and it was coming right for me. Then, the (tires) started to grip, and I thought, 'Thank God!' But then, it went right into them."
White ran over to Gassett and saw her mangled legs.
"Unless she's a professional gymnast," he said, "it's all bad. Horrible."
And then he noticed all three occupants of the SUV bolting on foot. Not one bit of concern for the people they hurt. They didn't even look back. Cowards would be an apt term.
Paramedics and ambulances arrived quickly, taking Gassett and Bingle to separate hospitals. Gassett went into surgery immediately. Bingle received treatment but was released without painkillers because, he said, the hospital doesn't accept indigent care plans.
A senior living at the Ralston Tower senior complex told me that some residents wanted to offer Bingle their own prescription painkillers, but others warned them not to because it is illegal to do so.
The police, meanwhile, determined that the three who fled the scene were the same three they questioned a couple of hours earlier along Morris Avenue. "We found some of their personal belongings (in the abandoned SUV)," Findlen said.
They arrested the 16-year-old and Ramirez- Flores shortly thereafter, charging them with auto theft, vandalism and hit-and-run causing injury. The charges include gang enhancements that, if they are convicted, would add additional time behind bars.
Investigators still are looking for the third suspect, 21-year-old Jonathan Luis Figueroa, whose mug shot remained on file from a previous booking.
Gassett? She'll be in the hospital for several weeks. She said doctors told her it will be at least nine months before she can walk again.
She now fears bus stops. But when the meds wear off, I suspect she'll understand that it really wasn't the bus stop's fault at all.
Police ask anyone with information about the shooting to call Crime Stoppers at 521-4636. Tipsters can e-mail Crimestoppers, or text tips to CRIMES (274637) by typing "Tip704" plus the message. Tipsters can remain anonymous and are eligible for a reward.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.