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Trial begins for two accused of beating Hernando County walker John Kelly

WEEKI WACHEE — One day last year, John Kelly walked to a convenience store near his home to buy a soda.

He didn't like the price, so he went to another store — in Brooksville, nearly 30 miles away. On foot. To save a few pennies.

"That's just how he thinks," said his brother, George.

For nearly a decade, John Kelly, 50, has trekked the streets and highways of Hernando County.

An eccentric, mentally challenged man with a bushy gray beard, Kelly talks to himself as he goes. He walks during the day. He walks at night. Sometimes, he walks in the middle of the road. More than once, passing cars have struck him. Highway crews give him orange and yellow reflective vests, replacing them periodically when they become tattered.

Most bemused locals who see him trudging along don't know his name. He is simply "the walker."

His routine has endeared him to many. But it also made him a target.

• • •

The night of Sept. 19, 2007, Kelly took a familiar route. About 11 p.m., he walked along State Road 50 to his rusty silver trailer in Weeki Wachee.

He apparently didn't notice the three young men carrying metal bars and wearing black ski masks who were following him on bicycles.

The trio approached Kelly and asked him for money. When he said no, they threw him in a ditch, beat him in the head and face with pieces of metal rebar and fled with his backpack and the $100 in his wallet.

They left Kelly unconscious, bleeding and near death.

He stumbled to the nearest building, the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative office. He grabbed the door and shook the locked handles, leaving smears of blood. He pressed his face to the glass. No one in sight.

Still staggering, he found a Hernando County Fire Rescue station. From the captain's office, Sean Moulton saw him come in the front door. Moulton remembers him saying, "Help me, I have just been jumped. They took my wallet."

His injuries were so severe authorities flew him by helicopter to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

An investigation led to the arrests of Michael Vann, 23, and two 17-year-olds, Jamie Lynn Tyson and Anthony Steven Hawkins.

Tyson and Vann will stand trial starting today in Lake County. Hawkins, who allegedly acted as the lookout, took a plea deal that gave him a juvenile sentence in exchange for his testimony.

A judge moved the trials for Tyson and Vann outside Hernando because of extensive pretrial publicity. More than half the jury pool for the initial trial in February said they wouldn't be able to render an unbiased verdict.

Kelly isn't expected to testify. The prosecutor says his memory of the attack is hazy and he gets easily confused.

• • •

John Kelly tells people he walks because he hates cars. He refuses rides from those who offer.

His brother, George, describes him as a cross between movie characters like Forrest Gump and the Rain Man.

"He could tell you how long it takes to ride a bicycle to the moon," George said. "But then he won't know how to make change at the store."

The youngest of three boys, John spent his childhood and most of his life on Long Island. His father died of a heart attack when he was about 9, so it fell to his mother and brothers to care for him.

His family feared the state would declare him incompetent and put him in an institution. "We always told him, 'Just blend in, don't stick out, or else you'll end up in the loony bin,' " his brother said. "It was our way of protecting him."

The brothers also appeared occasionally in the schoolyard to confront bullies. Once, John was beaten so badly that he lost some hearing in his left ear.

John graduated from high school through a special education program and worked at a mom-and-pop business. The owners let him sweep floors and helped guide him after his mother died on Christmas Eve in 1996.

A couple of years later, a car hit him as he rode his bicycle, crushing his legs. But John said he needed to get to work. He tried to walk with one of his feet dragging backward behind him.

"The ambulance guy couldn't believe it," George said.

After the accident, George and his wife became his caretakers. They moved John to Weeki Wachee, where they lived, and bought him a trailer. George paid the utility bills, and John covered the rest of his expenses with his Social Security disability checks.

Doctors told John to exercise to strengthen his weak legs. So he started walking.

• • •

The 2007 attack shattered most of the bones in John's face, knocked out his teeth and crushed his skull. He spent weeks in critical condition in the hospital and seven more weeks at a rehabilitation facility recovering from surgeries.

At times, his condition deteriorated, and at least once family flew into town to say final good-byes.

The community came together to support him. People sent cards to his hospital room addressed to "The Walker at St. Joseph's Hospital." They held fundraisers throughout Hernando, collecting $5,400 to help his recovery. On Jan. 2, 2008, he walked on his own from the Brooksville rehabilitation facility.

Much to his brother's alarm, he is walking the roads again. But now, as he experiences the early signs of dementia, a lingering effect of the attack, he is getting lost.

George is talking to the state Department of Children and Families about finding a facility to care for his brother. He doesn't want him to get hurt again.

In February, John disappeared for nearly 24 hours. Authorities said he walked to the trailer where he lived before the attack but then vanished.

When they found him, he was carrying a case of Ensure, a nutritional drink, under his arm. He said he had walked 30 miles north to Crystal River overnight.

Relieved but frustrated, George said he would give his brother a stern lecture. And then, he said, "I'll tuck him into bed."

Times staff writer Chandra Broadwater contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Trial begins for two accused of beating Hernando County walker John Kelly 04/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 12:54am]
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