SARASOTA — To the public, she is the nameless, faceless girl who was brutally raped at the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library as she returned books at a drop box one night.
But to her family and friends, she is so much more.
She is the epitome of her inner circle, a group of girlfriends at East Bay High School voted by their classmates as senior notables: most attractive, best smile, most intelligent, best all-around.
On Saturday, those who knew her best — and the firefighters who came to her aid — came together to pray for her at the rehabilitation center where she is undergoing physical therapy to relearn everything.
The girl, who was blinded in the attack, can only smile when she is happy and cry in a deep, heartbreaking moan.
She can't talk or swallow. Her most recent accomplishment was holding her head up for about 10 seconds. The Times is not identifying her due to the nature of the crime.
Her girlfriends, dressed in stylish tops and bejeweled flip-flops, all squealed when she was rolled into the rehabilitation center's cafeteria. Her dark ponytail hung over the back of the wheelchair. She sat limply and stared blankly but smiled at the sound of their voices.
David Kniss, pastor of the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church of Sarasota, tried to heal her friends' hearts.
"At a time like this, all of us have questions," Kniss said. "God is a God who can make order out of chaos, a blessing out of tragedy."
Then Kniss asked everyone to put their hands on the girl while he prayed. They crowded around her, their arms stretched out, their fingers gripping her soft skin.
"There's a lot of love for you right now," Kniss said to the quiet, still room.
At that sentence, she began to cry loudly, the moans drowning out the pastor's words. The entire room cried with her. The firefighters, the first ones on the scene that night, hung their heads and brushed away tears.
Cheryl Zemina, the mother of one of her girlfriends, said all of their lives have been changed.
"The crime that shattered the innocence for this one family has also shattered the innocence of all these girls," she said.
That night, April 24, the girl headed to the library after getting off work at the Brandon Mall. When she got there, she told one of her girlfriends over her cell phone that there was a "weird looking guy" sitting on the bench. Her friend heard a scream and the line went dead.
The friend called the girls' family and they rushed to the library. In a series of frantic 911 calls, her uncle can be heard screaming in Vietnamese to call the girl's mother, that there was blood. During the chaotic scene, her stepfather searched the library's grounds and found her battered body in the back of the library near the woods.
The first firefighters on the scene were a group of volunteers from Bloomingdale Fire Station No. 27. They were preparing to eat a late dinner when they got the call.
The girl, who was weeks away from graduation and had a full scholarship to the University of Florida, was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where she spent six weeks in the neuro-intensive care unit. She had suffered strokes from being strangled and her skull had been crushed.
Authorities say she was attacked by Kendrick Morris, a Clair-Mel 16-year-old charged as an adult in connection with two rapes — the one at the library and another of a 61-year-old woman at a day care near his home in June, 2007. He remains in jail without bail on nine felony charges.
Today, her family is nearly bankrupt. They used up all of their insurance and had to apply for Medicaid. They were notified recently that Medicaid would no longer pay for her care at the rehab center because she is not making sufficient progress.
Zemina is handling the appeal for the family, who wants to keep her at the rehabilitation center. They are hopeful for her recovery and are thrilled with her care there, though the stay alone is $30,000 a month, Zemina said.
On Saturday, the firefighters brought her a bouquet of colorful flowers and a brown teddy bear. They were taken aback by the photos of the girl that cover the wall in her room. She's a typical teenager, smiling brightly, cheek-to-cheek with her friends.
"She is the embodiment of happiness, goodness and innocence," Zemina said. "I don't think she believed there was this type of evil in this world."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)269-5312 or [email protected]