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Nature Coast Technical High senior beats odds after gun accident

BROOKSVILLE

As he strides across the courtyard, Tommy Kidder is easy to spot amid a sea of students on the campus of Nature Coast Technical High.

A lanky 6-foot-3, Kidder is a head taller than most of his peers. The black and white stud protruding from his lower lip distinguishes him, too.

Otherwise, the 19-year-old senior, dubbed "Miracle Boy" by his family, blends in with other students just fine.

The dimple near Kidder's right temple where a .38-caliber bullet pierced his skull last summer is tough to see.

His downy blond hair has grown back over the serpentine scar left after brain surgery.

Unless you ask, Kidder probably won't mention that he's mostly blind in his right eye.

But each school day is another step in a long recovery that began last July, when a teenage acquaintance shot him in the head with a stolen Smith & Wesson revolver.

By all accounts, the shooting was an accident. But 18-year-old Douglas Madsen Hughes of Spring Hill is in jail facing attempted first-degree murder charges, after the State Attorney's Office decided his actions were criminal.

Kidder, meanwhile, is trying to move forward, toward graduation and beyond.

"I don't like to think about it," Kidder said last week as he munched on a hamburger, sitting with friends at a corner table in the cafeteria. "It's scary to think about how close to dying I came."

Kidder and his family won't talk much about the actual shooting, citing the pending legal case, but court records help tell the story.

Kidder rode his bike over to Hughes' home on Radford Street the afternoon of July 31 to meet a friend, another Nature Coast senior named Troy Zorn. Kidder knew Hughes a little after riding the school bus with him. When Kidder arrived, Hughes and Zorn were in a bedroom, playing an Xbox game called Assassin's Creed.

Kidder was sitting in a chair, watching them play and sipping a glass of water, when Zorn mentioned that Hughes had stolen a gun, according to a sheriff's report. Hughes stopped playing and walked to a desk near Kidder's chair.

He turned around, pointed a gun at Kidder and said, "Freeze, mother------!" A single shot rang out.

Kidder remained conscious. He remembers yelling, "What just happened?" He remembers warning a Bayflite medic that he was about to vomit on him.

During a September interview with a Hernando sheriff's detective, Kidder said he remembered Hughes saying to Zorn, "Let's tell them he showed up like this." But neither teen offered that false account when authorities arrived.

"Thomas was adamant that this shooting was an accident and that there was no argument or threats prior to him being shot," the detective wrote.

But the shot added to Hughes' legal troubles and left Kidder fighting for his life.

Hughes had a felony burglary conviction from 2009. That meant he had committed a felony just by possessing the gun. He was arrested and has been in jail since the shooting.

A few weeks later, Hughes was charged with another burglary — the revolver, authorities said, had been stolen from an unlocked Jeep parked in front of a house about a block away. The Jeep belonged to a Pasco sheriff's deputy; the gun was his personal weapon.

Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee reviewed the case and in October decided Hughes should be charged with attempted first-degree murder.

Ask Barbee why and he talks about the three kinds of criminal intent: general, specific and recklessness, also called criminal negligence.

Hughes was a felon in possession of a stolen handgun who acted recklessly and almost killed Kidder, he said. That satisfies the criminal negligence requirement of the attempted murder statute, Barbee said.

That's a stretch, said Devon Sharkey, Hughes' public defender.

"I think the state's overcharging," Sharkey said. He declined to say what an appropriate charge, if any, might be.

Hughes rejected a plea deal that would have required him to serve 10 years in prison. He now faces a maximum of 30 years. More depositions in the case are scheduled, and a pretrial hearing is slated for next month.

If the case goes to trial, Sharkey indicated the defense will be straightforward: Hughes was careless, but he certainly didn't mean to harm Kidder.

"Trial is not going to be easy," Barbee said. "But if the jury follows the law, then the young man's actions fit the statute."

Reached last week, Kristen Hughes declined to comment on her son's case.

"He's a young man," Sharkey said of Hughes. "He's understandably concerned and scared."

• • •

The night they got the call from authorities, Susan and Michael Kidder had begun to worry that they hadn't heard from Tommy.

Their son had been shot in the head, a detective said. He had been flown to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, and they needed to get there. The Kidders made the 90-minute drive not knowing if they would find Tommy alive or dead.

The bullet, fired from close range at a downward angle, severed Kidder's optic nerve, fractured his face in multiple places and shredded his sinus cavity. The bullet left metal fragments along the way before lodging in his neck, a millimeter or so from the carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain.

"The doctors told us, 'If you look at his CT scan, you should be looking at a dead person,' " Susan Kidder recalled.

Removing the bullet would be riskier than leaving it, doctors said. Kidder spent four days in intensive care, and his progress surprised family members and doctors alike. He left the hospital five days after he arrived.

"There were so many reliefs," Susan Kidder said. "He wasn't paralyzed. He wasn't brain damaged. He wasn't dead."

But Kidder would ultimately have to endure surgery. A month later, suffering nosebleeds and crushing headaches, he was back at Bayfront. Spinal fluid was leaking through a tear in the lining of his brain, allowing air to seep in and painful pressure to build.

Surgeons cut a chunk of fat and tissue from his thigh, made a 6-inch incision in his scalp, removed a piece of skull and used the tissue to repair the tear.

He went to the hospital a third time when his heart started racing. Doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs, and he's been on blood-thinning medication ever since.

He suffered severe anxiety for months after the shooting, often asking his parents, "Am I going to die?"

Susan Kidder spent 10 or 12 hours at a stretch by her son's bedside while Michael Kidder forced himself to go to his job as a software designer. She would eventually pull herself away each day.

"I knew I had to de-stress, force myself to eat, and rest so that I could face another day," she recalled.

The youngest of three siblings, Kidder said his friends and family helped him through the worst. His brother, Army Sgt. Jack Kidder, called just about every day from Fort Bragg, N.C. His sister, Sarah, attends the University of South Florida.

Kidder's girlfriend, who lives in North Carolina, would tell jokes over the phone to cheer him up.

Eventually, Kidder dug into schoolwork sent home through the district's hospital homebound program. It wasn't easy, he said, but he focused on a singular goal: graduating on time.

Friends and teachers were astonished to see Kidder back at Nature Coast on the first day after winter break.

David Novak met Kidder two years ago when they played in the marching band drum line together. Novak described his friend as a jokester who had a knack for drumstick tricks and cheering people up. He seemed a little more subdued when he returned, but not much, Novak said.

"I was just flabbergasted," Novak said. "I expected him to be in a wheelchair, barely even talking, if he was back at all. It was very uplifting."

Kidder's drive has kept him on track to earn a diploma, said Nature Coast teacher Chris Clifford.

"He has a purpose," Clifford said. "He expects, as he should, to overcome and reach whatever dreams he had before."

Kidder had to make sacrifices. He had to give up marching band, unable to handle the physical exertion. He has to be more careful than the average teen because a blow to the head could be fatal — the family is selling a trampoline Kidder loved. He can only see shadows and shapes with his right eye, and doctors say that won't improve.

Kidder plans to attend Pasco-Hernando Community College. He's not sure about a career path.

The family has decent insurance through Michael Kidder's employer, but out-of-pocket expenses associated with Kidder's care have reached about $20,000. The state's victim compensation program has reimbursed the family for about one-fifth of that.

Kidder said he is not really angry at Hughes.

"I'm more afraid of him than mad," he said.

But trying ordeals have a way of transforming people for the better, too, and Kidder says he can see that in his case.

"I think I've grown up a lot," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Nature Coast Technical High senior beats odds after gun accident 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 12:14pm]
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