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Strength, confidence carry her through trauma

Published Sep. 10, 2005

When Ana Arrambide says she doesn't fear death anymore, you have to believe her.

She had a .22-caliber handgun aimed at her face during a robbery. She saw the trigger pull back, and yet heard only an impotent click. No shot. No bullet.

It happened on Mother's Day last year at the Loop Pizza Grill. She and her manager, Mike Robie, had just opened the store when two gunmen came in and shot Robie 11 times before one of them turned his gun on her.

Defying the odds, Robie survived the shooting and has recovered. Now he and Arrambide, 17, are back at work counting the days until Sept. 10, when they will testify against the two men accused of trying to kill them.

"They need to stay away from anybody and everybody for the rest of their lives," she said. "How can they not be guilty?"

Earl Hinson and Harold Wolf are charged with the murder of Eduardo Natal and the attempted murder of Arrambide and Robie. Natal, a Windy City Pizza driver, was robbed during a bogus pizza delivery the night before Arrambide and Robie were attacked.

Hinson, 22, and Wolf, 28, initially gave incriminating statements, according to police reports. However, both men have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys, Mark Hershock and Matthew Farmer, declined to comment on the case.

For Arrambide, dealing with the aftermath of being held at gunpoint did not involve psychiatric sessions, although she said she did go once, at the insistence of family and friends. Nor did the healing process involve anger or fear.

She considers her life a gift, and the thought of almost dying has reaffirmed her Christian faith.

"I definitely believe that God was a big part of this ... Things happen _ you have a certain plan in your life," she said. "I feel that what happened, happened to me because it was something I had to go through in order for me to be stronger."

Her faith, combined with Robie's enthusiasm and his miraculous recovery, explains why Arrambide does not feel rage toward the two men.

In her mind, that day unfolded like a movie scene. While she will never forget what happened to her, it seems more like an out-of-body experience.

"To tell you the truth, when the guy pulled the trigger, I can tell you that I was not there," she said. "It was as if somebody took my place for that split second."

According to police, Hinson and Wolf entered the restaurant through a side door that was typically left unlocked. Both had worked at the restaurant, but neither Arrambide nor Robie knew the men.

First, the gunmen locked Arrambide inside a walk-in cooler. Then they shot Robie 11 times and left him for dead. Minutes later, they came back to kill Arrambide. But when the gun did not fire, they ran off.

Arrambide believes she went into shock. She walked to Robie's office and through the glass window saw him on the floor on the telephone. Realizing what had happened, she picked up another phone and called home. Her twin brother, Luis, answered.

Luis said: "I don't think I even had my license then, but I just grabbed the keys and told my mom, "Get in the car.' " The two arrived at the Loop within minutes.

For the traumatized young woman, the sense of surrealism _ that the event hadn't really happened _ would last awhile. Although she went back to Blake High School the next day and returned to work a couple of weeks later, Arrambide said the gravity of nearly dying did not register until much later.

"I really got over it by going to see Mike at the hospital every day," she said. "I just had to keep on moving. I went back to school a day later, but six months later is when I really started to deal with it."

Robie said he recalls seeing her every day during his recovery. Both Robie and Arrambide felt that going back to work at the Loop was an important step.

"She's a very strong, independent young lady," Robie said. "She has got a very strong work ethic ... We've had a lot of conversations about it. What I always say is, this could have happened anywhere."

Although the trial's completion will help bring closure to the experience, Arrambide is not obsessed with revenge. Instead, she focuses on school activities _ she is active in a dance team at Blake High School, plays soccer, is a member of the National Honor Society and volunteers with the Key Club _ in addition to her part-time job at the Loop.

"I have fun keeping busy," she said.

The robbery did not draw much attention to Arrambide at school.

She said that many teachers and fellow students did not know she was the 16-year-old victim who was making headlines in the press and television news.

Once, as Arrambide was walking through a classroom, she heard a teacher discussing the shooting. As she left the room, Arrambide said she told the teacher, "By the way, "that girl' was me."

Lately, Arrambide, who is entering her senior year at Blake, has concentrated on searching for the right college. She hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she is attending a six-week summer program that includes two college-level courses, one in international politics and one in a language.

She's not sure yet what she will study in college, but Arrambide said she is interested in public relations or a diplomatic job.

Born in Venezuela, Arrambide moved to Florida with her mother and her twin brother, Luis, when she was 5. She and Luis officially became U.S. citizens only about a year ago.

She said she wants to go away to college not to escape memories of the shooting but to have a chance to live on her own. Luis said he is confident his sister will achieve her goals.

"Even though she has been through a lot, she's strong. Her personality is very strong," he said. "She's not going to stop her life because it happened to her."

The memory of almost dying will stay with Arrambide forever. Sometimes at work, Arrambide said she has sudden flashbacks to that Mother's Day morning. During those moments, she said she stops, takes deep breaths and tries to let the feeling pass.

Despite the horror of the memories, Arrambide has no time for self-pity.

"She's very, very strong-headed. She doesn't like to show that she's bothered or hurt by anything," said Robin Taylor, 22, a friend and co-worker at the Loop. "But there are times when she lets it sink in.

"We'll talk about it, but I've never seen her cry about it _ ever. She'll just get a sad face and talk about it and say, "This is what happened.' "

Knowing that others are thinking and praying for them comforts her and Robie.

"I still talk to people who are praying for both of us. Not just the physical but the mental part of the ordeal," Robie said.

Since the shooting, customers who don't even know Robie or Arrambide have come into the Loop offering their prayers and support as the trial approaches.

"She's thick-headed and stubborn, but she's a sweetheart and everybody loves her," Taylor said. "Customers love her. They come in and ask specifically for her."

In many ways, Arrambide said Robie's recovery has helped her to continue living without fear.

"If Mike would have not made it, I would be a wreck right now. His keeping going and being exactly how he was before really helped me to keep on going," she said. "It's a friendship that will always be there no matter what."

Arrambide usually wears a bracelet engraved with one word: Strength. Robie's family gave it to her during the long hours in the hospital after the shooting. Her fingers circle her right wrist, searching for the familiar feeling, but she's not wearing it this day because it's broken.

Arrambide's confidence is intact, though.

"I've become not afraid of death," she says calmly. And you believe her.

Marian Jarlenski is a fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg.