"All the revenge in the world wasn't going to change things. I decided to let the criminal justice system work."
Nearly eight months later, Gail Masters can remember everything about August 31, 2004, the day her hard-knock life took a turn for the worse. It was around 4:30 p.m. and she was returning from a convenience store near Sierra Vista and Cambridge when Erin Young, a known troublemaker with a lengthy rap sheet including armed robbery with a knife, decided to play baseball with her face. Angry over being maced by Masters days earlier, the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Young hit Masters, who is 5'3, in the face with a metal pipe.
Perhaps to keep from crying, perhaps to heighten her sense of recall, Masters closes her eyes and narrates the attack: He blindsided her; she heard the bones in her face shatter and saw the crushed fragments of her jaw scattered, puzzle-like, on the ground. She swallowed what seemed like gallons of her own blood. Everyone around her—passersby, two men she'd asked to escort her, folks in the parking lot—recoiled in fear, looks of incredulousness and helplessness painting their faces.
Running her hand along the grooves of her surgically repaired chin, she can feel the spots where her teeth rocketed through her gums, out of her mouth and onto the sidewalk. She's crying now. The memory of that day lingers like a scab. Her gut told her that Young was serious, that he would indeed kill her and not think twice about it. Had she not turned her head at the last second—getting hit in the mouth instead of the base of the skull—she'd probably be dead, and he'd be on trial for murder and not attempted murder.
What she most remembers about the attack on August 31, 2004 is feeling that he was about to make good on his threat and that she wasn't going to go down without a fight. She recalls the pep talk she gave herself while kneeling on the ground in her own blood. "Stay awake, stay awake," she says she told herself. "Don't lose consciousness. If you lose consciousness, you're dead."
Masters is trying to remain composed. On the phone, she's relaying a Cliffs Notes version of the attack and of what's become of her life—a pharmacy's worth of medications she'll be on the rest of her life; the endless array of doctors' appointments; a continually growing pile of medical bills she can't hope to pay; dogfighting with Medicare and Medicaid to pay for some treatments; disappointment about the state office for Nevada crime victims only reimbursing victims for bills already paid; nightmares about Young sending someone to get her, or worse, coming to finish what he started. She and her fiancé, Randall Peters, had to use the $2,000 she'd saved for her wedding dress to move after friends and acquaintances of Young kept coming by and peeking through their window.
Every now and again, Masters pauses to collect herself, saying "sorry" each time. The silence is disconcerting. There are no sniffles, but one can surmise that tears are flowing.
"I'm sorry," says Masters, who is 34. This is really hard for me."
This is the only time I'll inject myself in the story.
Weeks later, I'm headed to Masters' home for an interview. I arrive early and park in front of the wrong house—hers is a few units back. Since I'm 20 minutes early, I read to pass the time.
A man in front of whose house I'm parked walks out, heads for his car and notices me. We lock eyes. I continue reading. He continues staring. Fifteen minutes go by and he's still staring, hands now propped on the top of the car. He's waiting. With his sunglasses on, I can't tell if he's still staring, but my guess is yes.
I pull into Masters' driveway, get out and glance at Protective Neighbor Guy before approaching the door. After I assure her who I am, Masters welcomes me in. "You have to forgive me," she says, "I'm a nervous wreck."
A minute later, Protective Neighbor Guy knocks.
"Gail, are you alright?" he asks, eyes locked on me, his fists balled.
"You sure? I see this guy parked in front of my house. Then he drives to your house, gets out and looks at me. I want to make sure everything is OK."
While talking to her, he never takes his eyes off me.
"He's from Las Vegas Weekly," she says, "here to do a story on what happened to me. He's definitely a good guy."
Only somewhat satisfied, Protective Neighbor Guy shoots a nothing-better-happen-to-her glance. Masters apologizes.
"Everybody around me is so protective now," she says. "They're not taking any chances."
Masters certainly didn't need any more setbacks in life.
Ten years in a verbally and physically abusive marriage left her emotionally crippled. Clinical depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Agoraphobia. She quit her job—Masters won't reveal her line of work in California—and began receiving disability. She's the first to admit that the couple's neighborhood wasn't the best. According to Metropolitan Police Department officials, the area bordered by Desert Inn to the north, Flamingo to the south, Maryland Parkway to east and Paradise to the west is probably the most dangerous sector of town, plagued by drugs, prostitution, gangs and subsidized housing. They lived in Hawaiian Villas, a gated complex with 60 or so units inhabited mostly by the elderly, because it was close to Peters' job and rent was cheap, $535 monthly.
"We never had any trouble," Peters says. "We knew about all the drug deals, prostitution, robberies and shootings, but we couldn't afford to live in a good neighborhood. Plus, we were saving up for marriage. All the trouble outside the complex never made it to our doorstep."
On August 25, trouble found Masters in the form of Erin Cornell Young.
At 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 25, Masters claims she was walking her dog when she spotted Young trying to break into one of the gates to the complex. Masters says Young began cursing and threatening after she declined to open one of the gates for him.
"He kept coming closer to me," she says. "My dog was squatting, so I couldn't leave. I warned him to stay away, but he kept coming closer. When he grabbed my dog's harness, I sprayed him with mace. He was so big and so high that it took five seconds of spraying him to get him to back off. He told me, 'You're f--king dead, bitch, you're f--king dead.'"
Masters says she called police but no one came; she says cops later told her that since there was no longer a threat—she'd gotten into her apartment unharmed, Young had fled—they didn't need to respond.
Walking back from the convenience store on Saturday, August 28—"Since I don't have a job, this is what I do, walk my dog and walk to the store"—Masters says Young threatened to kill her, then ordered a scantily clad woman to harass her. Her dog scared the woman off. Undeterred, Young began screaming threats. Hearing the commotion, Peters called the cops. But since there was no crime, only verbal threats, he says cops told him there was little they could do.
Masters begins massaging her neck as she recounts the events of Tuesday, August 31, 2004. "It's 4:30 p.m.," she says. Tears start to fall.
This isn't a normal cry. Her entire body coils with each whimper, like her soul is also shedding tears.
On the way to the convenience store that afternoon, she recalls, Young threatened her life. She told the cashier but didn't get much of a response. "Everybody knew him," she says, "and was afraid of him."
She asked two men she didn't know to escort her home. They agreed. The next moments were a violent blur. She doesn't know how she didn't see Young sneaking from behind or how she instinctually turned her head just seconds before the pipe connected with her face. She recalls her escorts backing away from her, hands in the air, as if to say, "please don't hurt us."
"I heard my face shatter," she says. "Teeth and pieces of my jaw came shooting out of my face."
Kneeling in her own blood, Masters says she desperately gathered scattered fragments of her mouth. At this, she retrieves a bottle from a shelf and takes out what look like misshapen and off-white pieces of ceramic. Pieces of her jaw bone. Next, she opens her mouth to reveal five teeth missing from the bottom row of her mouth. On the ground, she struggled to remain conscious.
Young fled and was arrested later that day on attempted murder charges and drug possession—he'd crushed Tylenol into powder, bagged it and tried to sell it as cocaine. Stumbling around, Masters asked for help, for someone to call the cops. No one did. People she'd seen many times before watched as she struggled to walk. Finally, a lady who'd pulled into the convenience store, her children in backseat, helped her up and called the cops.
Says Masters, "She was my angel."
The living room table in Masters' home could easily double for a Walgreens Pharmacy. Zoloft. Trazadone. Neurotin. Lexapro. Hydrocone. Gemfribozil. Hydroxyine. "I'll be taking these for the rest of my life because of what he did to me," she says.
Next to the bottles are the bills, piles of them, some with astronomical figures—$21,721.10 from Sunrise Hospital for surgery. Some smaller—$1,133 from Dr. Carlos Letelier, who has done more work than Medicare, Medicaid and the state's Victims of Crime Office will likely cover. She estimates her treatment will top $80,000, a sum she has no idea how she'll repay.
After the attack, Masters' jaw was wired for five weeks. She pulls out X-rays of her fractured lower jaw and notes the areas showing fractures, nearly a dozen, many of them clean breaks. Much like kids who puzzle Legos together to build something, doctors had to reconstruct her jaw with what was left. Shortly after initial surgery was complete, friends and family walking in the room would look at her and gasp. Unable to speak, she couldn't ask what was wrong.
"I wondered if my face was destroyed," she says. "I even scribbled on a note asking people to tell me how I looked."
Up close, you can see that Masters' mouth has two starting points, the right side of her mouth a smidgen lower than the left. A handful of her bottom-row teeth are missing. Masters pulls at the sides of her mouth with each forefinger, revealing two teeth that look like daggers. She'll need braces to reset her remaining teeth and doctors plan to use bone from her hip to rebuild the part of the jaw that isn't there anymore.
"This attack has made my life a living hell," she says.
Things got worse as the trial neared. With police unable to corral witnesses, Masters and Peters took on the task themselves. "Nobody wanted to talk," Peters says. "They were scared."
What this meant is that the trial could easily devolve into a she-said/ he-said and Young could end up with probation. Everything unfolded just the way Masters had feared. No witnesses stepped forward during the first two days of the trial. On Day 3, the trial's final day, a witness emerged, a woman she doesn't know, who testified against Young, sealing his fate. Convicted on attempted murder charges.
Though behind bars, Young wasn't through tormenting Masters.
"Due to the fact that Young corroborated Masters' story and admitted to having battered Masters in retaliation for her macing him and that Masters now is missing teeth and has a broken jaw, Young is charged with battery with a deadly weapon and substantial bodily harm."
There are more inmates than citizens in District Court Judge Sally Loehrer's courtroom on March 14. The first two pews on the left side are filled with male inmates in blue jail jumpsuits, CCDC (Clark County Detention Center) emblazoned of the back of the shirts. Inmates occupy only the first row on the left side of the courtroom; men and women are shackled together.
Given Masters' description of him—hulking, now bald, brooding eyes—Young is easily recognizable. Prior to Loehrer's entrance, a bailiff recites inmates' rules of decorum—eyes front, no talking to the public—which every inmate dutifully violates, Young blatantly so. He leers at every woman that passes by, including his public defender, Virginia Eichacker.
He constantly scans the courtroom, locking eyes with people and seeing who blinks first. His feet are in the aisle and he's leaning over the small railing, like he could just get up and walk out at anytime.
Seeing Masters, he smiles.
She whispers to me: "He thinks it's funny still ... I just thank God he's chained to as many people as he is."
Loehrer calls Young's name. He rises. Masters, visibly shaking by this time, also stands.
Eichacker tells the judge she hasn't had time to review some documents and would have to continue the hearing until Wednesday. Masters lets out a barely audible "no" and, when asked if this is OK, tells the judge that she'll be at every court hearing until he's put away.
Young explodes: "You shouldn't have maced me. Shit."
He ignores a bailiff's order to calm down.
"I wouldn't be in this seat if you wouldn't have maced me."
Two bailiffs surround Young. Masters is crying. Eichacker can't calm Young. "She messed my life up."
Even outside the courtroom, with Young safely detained inside, Masters is afraid.
"This stuff scares me to death," she says.
On Wednesday, March 16, the tension in Loehrer's courtroom probably couldn't be cut with a Ginsu. The inmates are segregated much as they were on Monday. And there's Young, still flouting the rules.
Everyone seems tense. There are five armed bailiffs, two more than Monday. Loehrer seems a bit agitated. Word has it she's worried about how Young will react once the sentence is handed down. Scuttlebutt outside the courtroom is that she plans to move his case to the end. She does.
The free flow of entrants to the courtroom—lawyers and defendants awaiting decisions on whether probation will be extended, charges dropped, when they'll have to report to prison, and what to bring to lockup (toothbrush and $85)—is restricted by wary bailiffs.
As the hearings wend on, the tension dissipates slightly. Lawyers parade in and out. Inmates listen to charges against them—robbery, possession of drugs with the intent to sell, probation violation, etc. Some accept the consequences happily. A man who's already served 15 years for a litany of crimes, including possession of stolen property, gloats when Loehrer sets him free prematurely because of a legal glitch. Another inmate argues rather eloquently that he's been "rendered ineffective counsel" because his public defender hasn't met with him in months. Loehrer is dismissive.
Hearings would go on for several hours. Nearly every time the courtroom door opened, Young peeked outside.
Two hours in, Peters is looking every bit as worn as his fiancée. The medical bills, the trial, helping Masters cope with the attack's aftermath—he calls twice a day from work—it's taken a toll. He'd like counseling for depression and anxiety, but says the state won't pay for it. And his absenteeism is causing problems at work. "My boss can't keep covering for me," he says.
Immediately after Young attacked his fiancée, Peters thought about grabbing a shotgun and getting some payback. "But what good would it do? I'd be in jail, too," he says. "All the revenge in the world wasn't going to change things. I decided to let the criminal justice system work."
How it works, he discovered, can be frustrating. As he saw it, the police didn't heed calls about Young's menacing and didn't do as much as they could to find witnesses. Outside the court, Susan Pate, the Clark County District Attorney who prosecuted Young, defends the cops, saying their hands were initially tied because Young didn't commit a crime in the first two instances.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Loehrer calls Young's name.
Pate describes a habitual criminal with felony convictions—in 1988 for armed robbery with a knife and 1998 for possession of a controlled substance—and numerous felonies that were reduced to misdemeanors. "Cops in the South Central Area Command know he is a troublemaker," Pate tells Loehrer.
Young's turn. As he rises, more armed bailiffs enter. He apologizes for Monday's outburst and gives his side: Angered about being maced, he saw Masters and slapped her. She tripped over her dog's leash and hit her face on a brick, that's how she got hurt. He says someone like him, who's been in the penal system for years, would never "admit" hitting anyone with a metal pipe. Says that with his size, if he'd battered Masters with a pipe, she'd be dead.
Loehrer tries to interrupt, but Young is too loud, too wound up, his chains crackling with every movement.
Young says Masters should be the one in chains for unnecessarily macing him.
Asked why he didn't file charges, Young says police don't help people like him. "When I was stabbed last year, I called the cops and no one came."
Eichacker says her client isn't a habitual criminal and recommends a sentence of four to 12 years.
Masters is called to speak. Three bailiffs surround Young, who's close enough to take a swipe. On the stand, she places eight medications side by side and talks about all the medication she takes, the recurrent nightmares, the fact that plastic fills the space where bone was.
Loehrer, somewhat coldly, laments the hell Masters' life has become and says there are worse cases than this. She issues the sentence with uncommon matter-of-factness. "Sixty-six months to 150 months, two consecutive terms."
Eichacker says she'll appeal the ruling. Young yells, causing four bailiffs to surround him. A bailiff orders everyone out of the courtroom. Now! The last image is that of Young surrounded.
Outside the courtroom, Masters is already looking better. The slight slope in her back is gone, a smile in place of the droop on her face. Ron Peters, Randall's father, says everyone can now get on with the rest of their lives. Flanked by other DAs who took an interest in the case, Pate offers words of encouragement. At one point, she was going to be reassigned to another case. "That's typical," she says. "But I wanted to argue this case. I knew the case and I knew about the victim and the perpetrator."
Even the prospect of two more years of surgery that'll likely add tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills couldn't dampen Masters' spirits. For the time being, she can free her mind from all the court dates and doctor's appointments and focus on something that makes her happy. On May 20, she will become Mrs. Randall Peters.