A STRANGER AT THE DOOR
A stranger at the door
Sunday, November 11, 2001
By Alice Hohl
Barbara Ravalee and a friend lingered in a Riverdale gun shop, contemplating revolvers. This would be Barbara's first gun, and she was hesitant about owning one with a teenage daughter, an adolescent son and a baby in the house. But something about the summer rash of garage burglaries troubled her, more than burglaries should. She felt someone was watching her. The burglaries had been no amateur job. Three burglaries, one each month, all summer. First a child's bicycle was taken from the detached garage in June, as the car sat unharmed in the driveway. Then in July, more toys. But this time the burglar took the extra few minutes to clean out the meat freezer, too. Like he had all the time in the world. The burglar came back to Barbara's home a third time in August for more of the new bicycles Santa Claus brought the kids last Christmas.
Looking out the back window one day that summer, she was sure she saw a man in the shadows of a stand of trees separating her backyard and the elementary school playground that backs up to her quiet cul-de-sac in Harvey.
"My intuition told me whoever is doing this is very comfortable, very confident about how we come in and out," Barbara said, looking back. "I said, 'It's time to purchase a firearm.'"
So that was it. Here she was asking about a small revolver, a .38 Rossi Special.
Barbara didn't buy the gun that day in late August because her girlfriend tried to give her money inside the store for the gun. She owed Barbara money and figured she'd pay her back by helping to buy the gun.
The gun shop employees, wary of being busted for what's called a "straw sale," refused to sell Barbara a gun if she used her friend's money to pay.
But the two went back two weeks later, Barbara with cash in hand, and soon she was the proud owner of a five-shooter with blue steel finish. She made sure to buy a trigger lock the plastic kind you brace behind and in front of the trigger so the loaded gun won't fire accidentally.
The trigger lock kept her children from firing the gun, if they found it and played with it, but that lock would end up costing her precious time when she needed it most.
A sleepy morning
It was Nov. 17, 1994. A Thursday morning. Barbara stayed in bed, still battling pain and discomfort from abdominal surgery two weeks before. She had a doctor's appointment in the afternoon, so she had the day off work. Her 15-year-old daughter, Alicia, and her 11-year-old son, Eric, were both used to getting themselves ready for school in the morning, after Barbara left for work, so she left them to themselves.
Alicia made it to school on time that morning, but Eric, being a typical 11-year-old boy, had trouble finding the inspiration to get dressed, pack his books and hit the door.
Barbara's fiance, Kim Wilson, stayed at the home often. But that morning, he clearly wasn't home. His pickup truck was missing from the driveway. He'd gone to take care of his parents, who had fallen ill.
Barbara stayed in her bedroom on the lowest level of the brick split-level. She liked the privacy of the basement, with its fireplace and private bathroom. Next to her in bed rested Kendall, just 2 years old but already able to climb stairs with ease.
Under the mattress, her revolver.
A few minutes after 8 a.m., the doorbell rang, but Barbara didn't hear it downstairs.
"Mama!" Eric called out as he came down the stairs. "There's somebody at the door."
"Who is it?" Barbara asked, rousing herself from sleep.
"It's a man," Eric said. "He said something about some keys."
So Barbara pulled herself up from the bed, adjusted her pink-and-white nightshirt to make sure it fell all the way to her knees, and mounted the stairs. She couldn't straighten up all the way because of the pain in her belly.Barbara was careful and didn't open the door for the man. The front door inside the screen was wooden, with three wood diamonds down the center like giant buttons. The top one held window glass, and Barbara could peer out by standing on her tip-toes.
She saw a large man in jeans and a denim jacket.
"Can I help you?" she asked the man through the door.
"Your daughter has my car keys from my son," the man said, describing some friendship between Alicia and a teenage boy Barbara had never heard of.
"I don't think so," Barbara said. "My daughter is only 15 years old and she's at school right now. I'll inquire about it when she gets home."
The man said, "OK," and Barbara watched him turn to take the single, shallow step off the concrete porch.
She went back downstairs and snuggled into bed. She knew she was feeling awful because when she fell asleep, the television was still on. TV usually kept her awake.
A violent awakening
About 11:15, again the doorbell rang. Again, Barbara didn't hear it.
"Mama," Eric called. "That man is back at the door."
Barbara was a little angry now, tired of being disturbed after telling the man he would have to wait.
"What does he want this time?" she growled.
"I don't know," Eric said.
So Barbara pulled herself out of bed again, and made her way up the stairs again. This time, little Kendall got out of bed, too, and toddled behind his mother like a shadow.
"Yes, sir?" Barbara said through the door, not trying to hide her annoyance at this second disruption.
The strange man in the denim jacket dangled a set of keys in front of the little window.
"We found the keys," he said. "But I think there's something you need to see ..."
The man pulled back the lapel of his jacket and extracted a folded paper from an inner pocket.
"This letter that your daughter wrote to my son," the man said, displaying the folded paper.
Barbara was a single mother, and life was challenging at times. But never let it be said her children ran wild or she was unconcerned about them.
She was a good parent, and she wondered what Alicia had gotten herself into.
So Barbara unlocked the door and opened it just far enough to push the latch on the screen door and take the letter.
She pulled the screen closed again and left the wooden door open just a crack. The crack was enough to let in a chilling November breeze that overpowered her cotton nightshirt, so she stepped back into the doorway of the next room and started reading the letter. By this time, Kendall had wrapped his little body around her leg, gripping it and moving with her like a heavy cast.
Barbara had trained herself in college to block out distractions while she was reading, and it was a habit she kept.
So she didn't hear the click of the screen latch or the creak of the hinges.
By the time she reached the end of the first paragraph, Barbara noticed two things: One, the letter made no sense. And two, this wasn't Alicia's handwriting.
She lifted her head to shout her protests toward the door. She looked up just in time to see the man almost on top of her.
"Uh, this isn't my daughter's ..." was all she could begin to say before this stranger at the door was coming down on her with a broad, rusty blade, jabbing it into her skin.
He was even taller than he appeared outside the door, and Barbara had to crane her neck all the way back even to see his face. She saw the metal tool, now bloody, as he held it over her.
And then she saw his eyes.
Crazed and fiery, she had never seen such a look before in a man's eyes.
And the smell, like a wild animal cornered and primed for attack.
She stood frozen, her youngest child still fixed to her leg, staring at this man as he came down on her again with the blade, pushing it into her hand. The blood began overflowing from the wounds. The pain woke her from the trance.
Barbara raised her arms to deflect the next blow, and like a prize fighter he saw the opportunity and went low, thrusting the blade into her ribs once, then twice.
It was a flurry of blows, like he had somewhere to be in a minute and didn't have time for a protracted battle.
"I'm going to kill you," he breathed at her as he thrust the knife again and again.
Still stabbing her with one hand, he reached the other around the back of her neck, grabbing it and pulling Barbara to the tile floor.
She fell hard. Kendall lost his grip on her leg.
Barbara screamed then, for the first time.
Lying on her back, the man towered over her, still wielding his rusty knife.
He came at her again and she kicked and kicked, a confusing blur of legs. He kept stabbing at her, but he could only get the blade into her legs nothing that would kill her.
Eric heard the screams and bounded upstairs, yelling at the man who stood over his bloodied mother.
The stabbing stopped for a moment long enough for Barbara to sit up halfway and start shuffling back from him. The man paused for a second, sizing up the threat from this skinny 11-year-old boy, not yet 5 feet tall.
It was enough time for Barbara to get to her feet and for Eric to jump on the man's back.
Eric threw his spindly arms around the man's neck, hoping he would choke and stagger backward. Instead, he bit Eric's hand.The boy howled. Three feet away, Kendall stood on his own unsteady feet, screaming a scream more fierce than Barbara had ever heard from the mouth of a child.
Barbara stepped forward to help Eric, and the man plunged his blade into her eye.
She stepped back. The gush of blood that erupted from her eye made her reel. Barbara knew she was hurt now, and she would have to make a decision.
Barbara weighed her options whether to run for help and leave this crazy man in the kitchen to kill her children, or whether to stay and try to fight him off with one good eye and 10 stab wounds.
Suddenly, she remembered. It was all the way downstairs, under the mattress. She looked at Eric, still hanging onto the man's back, and had a strange feeling her boy would be all right for a few minutes.
She raced for the basement door and turned to close it behind her. She took one more look at Eric, bleeding, and Kendall standing helplessly nearby, screaming. She slammed the door and locked it.
Running down the stairs she nearly fell as her bare feet slipped and slid in her own blood. Everything was starting to hurt now, and she could barely see. She made it to the mattress and pushed it up with all her might, grabbing the small revolver from underneath.
Her hands were slimy with blood and she could barely hold onto it as she tried to claw and bite off the trigger lock. Her nails were ripped off and the blood puddled at her feet before she realized she needed the key. She just couldn't think. The key was under the stairstepping exercise machine. She heaved the machine off its legs and grabbed the key, but the blood made it too difficult to turn in the lock.
Finally, the key rotated in the cylinder, popping the plastic lock free. Then the weight of the gun was balanced in her hand, the grip cradled in her palm, the 2-inch barrel pointing out. With the gun came confidence.
Barbara held it steadily and paused for a second, thinking about the man who was upstairs right now, hurting her babies.
"I'm going to stop this mother right now," she said to herself. "I'm going to stop this mother who's going to kill us."
"Lord," she prayed, "Please let my children be OK. Please don't let him kill my kids."
And with that, Barbara mounted the stairs and flung open the door.
'Please don't kill me'
They were in the living room now. She could see the big man bending Eric over the coffee table, crashing a copper plant stand down onto his back. Kendall was standing with them, steadying himself on the same coffee table, screaming.
Barbara took one step into the kitchen and fired a bullet into the ceiling over the man's head.
"Get away from my children," she shouted.
The man looked up.
He saw the gun in her hand and looked shaken.
"She's got a gun!" he shouted to no one in particular.
He turned and ran through the far side of the kitchen, away from Barbara, into the dining room.
Barbara was walking slowly through the house behind him as he rattled the locked knobs on the patio door. As he turned on his heel and sped across the dining room to the picture window, she wiped the blood from her face, clearing her good eye.
The man drew back his elbow to smash through the window and she fired at him. His body spun and she kept firing, emptying the chambers. The big man fell to the floor in a heap.
"Please don't kill me," he said.
But Barbara wasn't listening. She was still pulling the trigger. Nothing was happening. She shot him, and he wasn't dead. He was still talking. Terrified the man would get up and finish them off, believing her gun was jammed, Barbara yelled for Eric to call 911.
He ran to the basement and punched the numbers into the phone. Barbara could hear him talking as she ran frantically through the house, trying to get out. She couldn't get the doorknobs to work.
Outside, she heard a voice.
"Police!" a man yelled.
Barbara fumbled with the front door, her bloody hands finally turning the knob enough to free the latch.
Outside stood Barbara's co-workers, the morning shift of the Harvey Police Department. Barbara had been working there for about three months as a clerk, a civilian employee.
But the officers didn't see Barbara, the clerk. They saw a crazed, bloody woman waving a gun and screaming something they couldn't understand.
They couldn't see the man, now slumped under the window sill in the dining room.
Sgt. Charles Sampson pulled up soon after Barbara came out on the lawn.
He joined the group of officers already pointing their guns at her.
"I almost shot Barb," Sampson said, remembering that day. "Not just me, but a lot of officers did.
"The situation was so confusing. She was out there waving the gun around, and we were all aiming our weapons at her.
"She was cut up and she had blood over her and she just looked a mess. I didn't recognize her at all."
Seeing the woman was hysterical, another sergeant walked up to her and gently took the gun from her hand.
Barbara doesn't remember any of this.
Sampson was the first to go inside, not knowing what he would find.
He and the lieutenant who went in behind him checked the house room by room until they came to the man on the floor.
"He kept begging me not to let him die," Sampson said.
'Did you stab her?'
By then, other officers were helping the family, guiding Eric and Kendall to safety and assisting the paramedics, who were having a hard time getting Barbara into the ambulance. She was fighting with them, unaware her life-and-death battle was won.
Sampson looked down at the man and saw the wet puncture holes in his jeans. He read him his rights quickly, afraid he was going to die, and began an impromptu interrogation.
"Did you stab her?" Sampson asked.
"Yes," the man groaned.
His name was Johnny Jones.
Police would later learn this was not Johnny Jones' first violent act.
Seven years later, a jury would see Jones wasting away on a gurney, but for now he was a hulking mass of muscle, his six-foot-two-inch frame hunched on the floor.
Sampson said Jones was intimidating, though he told the police he couldn't move his legs.
"Don't let me die," Jones moaned again.
Another ambulance was on the way for Jones. An officer rode with him to Christ Hospital when it arrived.
Jones would live. He would never walk again.
And he wasn't the only one who would never be the same.