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Friend and budding filmmaker helps tell story of Bloomingdale attack survivor (w/video)

Derrick Perez, 18, is making a film about his friend Queena Phu, 26, who was raped and beaten outside the Bloomingdale Library nine years ago. Here, Phu and Perez attend her sister’s wedding. Her first prom is Saturday.
Derrick Perez, 18, is making a film about his friend Queena Phu, 26, who was raped and beaten outside the Bloomingdale Library nine years ago. Here, Phu and Perez attend her sister’s wedding. Her first prom is Saturday.
Published Apr. 10, 2017

TAMPA

In his earliest film projects, Derrick Perez would dress as SpiderMan, cast his mother as a villain and record their battles on a cellphone.

"My ultimate dream is to be in a Marvel movie," said Perez, a budding auteur at just 18.

In real life, Perez is more Prince Charming than superhero for one of his subjects.

His newest work features a friend named Queena Phu, who was an East Bay High School student nine years ago when she suffered brain damage from a brutal attack while returning books to the local library.

Figuring in her story will be the Bloomingdale High prom on Saturday — Queena's first, at age 26. Perez, a senior at the school, has invited her as his date.

"She missed out on so much of her life," he said.

The movie will portray Queena, her name on the website set up to tell her story, as a driven woman rather than the victim of a rape and beating. Her injuries put her in a wheelchair and prevent her from speaking or caring for herself.

"As long as Queena tries to get better, she is not a victim," Perez said. "She is a survivor. That's the story of Queena."

He decided a year ago to pursue a film on Queena and later made his "promposal," he said. He might use some images from the event in the ending of the film.

Phu will wear the prom dress she bought just before the April 24, 2008, attack.

"This is so sweet," said her sister, Anna Donato. "She is so happy."

Perez aims to start production on the film next year, knowing that what started as a pipe dream now has a chance to come true — thanks to his own benefactor.

WWE wrestler Thaddeus Bullard, better known by his ring name Titus O'Neil, has agreed to help Perez with the project through his connections in finance, casting, and production.

"I want to invest time in Derrick because he wants to invest in others," said Bullard, who lives in Tampa. "What he has done for Queena is special."

• • •

Perez met Queena two years ago when his mother, Joy Perez, began seeing her as an aromatherapy client.

Derrick Perez tagged along with his mother one week, cracking jokes that made Queena smile, wiggle her hands and utter a few laughs and gleeful groans — her only ways of communicating.

That evening, Perez told his mother he felt they had shared an energy that made them instant friends.

"She never looks happier than when Derrick is there," Donato said. "All day long she is visited by doctors and therapists. He treats her like a normal person and I think that is why she likes him."

Perez visits Queena regularly. On some days, they watch movies. On others, the talkative Perez babbles on for hours. He spends holidays with her family and was Queena's date to her sister's wedding.

"I told her, 'If I go, we are going to dance,' " Perez said.

He glided her wheelchair across the dance floor for much of the reception.

"I warned her it would be a roller coaster ride," he said with a laugh.

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When Queena's attacker, Kendrick Morris, appeared in court last month in hopes of receiving a lesser sentence, Perez was asked to speak to the judge on her behalf.

The hearing arose from recent court rulings requiring that juveniles sentenced to life have their cases reviewed after a specified number of years. Sentenced to 65 years initially, for two attacks he committed when he was 15 and 16, Morris was resentenced March 9 to life — with a chance for review after 20 years.

Morris' attorneys portrayed their client as a victim of sexual and physical abuse as a child.

Perez took the stand to say he was, too — before he was adopted in 2007.

"It was powerful," Donato said. "Derrick said he was someone who came from childhood trauma but he still chooses to do the right thing and refuses to label himself a victim."

That attitude put wrestler Bullard in his corner.

• • •

Bullard was born from a rape that occurred when his mother was 11. As a child herself, she struggled to afford food and clothing for her and her son.

They could have failed and blamed fate, Bullard said. Instead, his mother worked to raise him as best she could. He went on to star in football at the University of Florida and was elected student body vice president.

Today, he uses his and his mom's story to motivate children from tough backgrounds to believe they, too, can succeed.

Dale Gordon, Hillsborough film and digital media commissioner, knew Bullard and his work when she met Derrick Perez. She introduced them March 1.

Within 30 minutes, Bullard agreed to fully fund one of Perez' projects — a documentary on Perez's 15-year-old cousin Noah Kingston, a victim of bullying who overcame his fears to emerge as a confident mixed martial artist.

A few weeks later, when Bullard learned about Queena, he agreed to back Perez's film about her, too.

"From my very first meeting with Derrick, I knew that he was a beautiful soul with great energy and a heart of gold," Bullard said. "What he is doing with this prom makes me know my intuition was right about him."

Perez said the story line in his film about Queena will end well before the prom.

Still, actual footage and photos from the event may be used in an epilogue, he said. But he's not thinking about that now.

"My only plan is to make sure she has the time of her life," he said. "We're going to dance."

This story has been updated to correct the name of the high school Queena Phu attended.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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