John Johannessen

You Think It Can't Happen To You . . . Think Again!

July 18th, 1997 started out as another beautiful normal day in Southern California as a hazy morning gave way to sunshine and warm temperatures. I passed by my daughter's bedroom that morning, taking note of her empty bed because she had stayed the night at her friend's house. A solemn thought went threw my mind thinking that Shanelle should have stayed at home, as I missed tucking her in bed the night before.

Later that morning on my way to work, I was listening to KFWB News. My attention was drawn to a news story about the shootings in LA County on how over 1500 people are killed each year by gunfire. I remember wondering how the relatives and friends of all these shooting victims must contend with all these tragedies. I on went to work and confirmed lunch with my cousin Robert, telling him that I would be a little late as the job was taking more time than expected. Then, at about 1:00 PM, I received a page "Call home, Shanelle is in the hospital".

Knowing how involved Shanelle was with gymnastics, my thoughts were that she might have sprained an ankle or something from using a trampoline. I tried to call home, but no answer so I immediately started to call the hospital. After contacting the hospital’s emergency room, I was put on hold for about five minutes. As I tried a second time I was paged again with an extension at the hospital. I was then connected to a phone with my wife. In a broken voice she uttered, "John, Shanelle's been shot!" I shouted, "WHAT!" She replied, Shanelle's been shot!" Instantly thinking that it’s not serious, (like maybe the leg) I asked, "Where was she shot?" She replied "Shanelle's been shot in the neck".

As the meaning of that phrase pierced through my heart like a knife, chills riveted up and down my spine and a beautiful day turned to a dark-gray nightmarish dream. In total disbelief, I asked "Is she still alive?" My wife’s stuttering distraught voice said, "Yes, she's on life support, hurry to the hospital".

Shanelle had been shot on the left side of her neck with a 9mm semiautomatic gun. The 9mm bullet exited her head leaving a 1" diameter hole in front of her right ear…

As I raced through red lights, speeding down streets and freeways, questions kept appearing out of nowhere, "HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED? WILL I BE ABLE TO TALK TO HER AGAIN? WHERE DID THE GUN COME FROM? COULD IT HAVE BEEN A DRIVE-BY?" What seemed to be the longest ride of my life only took about 30 minutes, speeding to the hospital. When I arrived, I met my wife in the hallway of the emergency room entrance. As I approached her, I saw a shameful devastated look on her face, unlike anything I had ever seen before. We were so speechless that all we could do is stare at each other in disbelief and shock as though we were being punished for some mysterious crime. Soon, friends and relatives arrived and all we could is hug each other, trying to hold back tears, speechless with disbelief. We were all waiting and wondering if someone was going to up come to us with the bad news as Shanelle was undergoing emergency lifesaving procedures in the emergency room.

After waiting nearly three excruciating hours in a small room, a nurse came in and said that my wife and I could go and see her as the doctors were transporting her out of the trauma emergency room into the operating room. Very anxious to see her, we proceeded into a long darkened hallway of the hospital to an area where the halls were cool and quiet. About 5 minutes later, a double door slowly opened close by where we were standing. A stretcher slowly entered into the hall, completely surrounded with doctors and nurses. As the stretcher slowly approached, a small figure of a child covered under a blood splattered white sheet lay helpless with I.V. lines, monitoring machines with a breather mask partially covering her swollen face. With emotions running high I knew that I had to keep strong for her, as we feared she was going to die. Choking back the tears, I kneeled down beside her and held her cold motionless hand. With my wife standing behind me, I looked into Shanelle’s face as her eye’s slowly peeked open and turned slightly to her left side where I was kneeling. We made eye contact. I was so devastated to see her in this condition and so scared of losing her that I almost went speechless. Then I cried out "Baby, you hang in there, I love you…. You be strong and hang in there… I love you baby, I love you, you be strong!". With tubes and lines everywhere, she replied with a gentle and very slight squeeze on my hand. A tear rolled out of her eye as she realized that this was very serious and life threatening. Suddenly, the nurse remarked "We need to go now." I kissed her hand and said again, "You be strong and hang in there… I love you baby, I love you!" As the doctors took Shanelle away to the operating room, we kept eye contact as long as we could as tears slowly rolled down both our faces. I stood in the cold darkened hall, crying in disbelief… God, how could something like this ever happen? Please don’t let her die, God please…"

Several hours later after Shanelle’s first operation, she was taken to the ICU on the top floor of the hospital where we were able to see her again. There the nurses were doing final cleansing and preparations for a long stay. As prayers and hope for survival of this senseless shooting filled the room, where a shattered child's life relied on breathers and computerized monitors to stay alive, she lay sleeping painless under morphine and life support systems. Soon, a doctor came to me and said "The operation that Shanelle had today was successful, mainly to try to control bleeding and sew tissue back together." He also stated "We were cutting away completely shattered and destroyed tissue to find something that we could sew together to control the bleeding. Tomorrow, she will have another operation to pull bone fragments together to re-build her shattered jawbones. Shanelle is stable for now, however, we will keep a close watch. We will also have to perform a tracheotomy in her neck so she will be able to breathe. The swelling might cut off her breathing."

I was given a chair to be able to sit by her side as the late evening approached, to watch every breath she made, monitor every heart beat, monitor every motion. From time to time she would jump as though she relived being shot. The brightly-lit colored lines on the monitor screens would jump off the viewer as though it was happening again and again. Reaching for the nurse's button each time, I would then wait a moment making sure that everything was OK. Soon the screen would stabilize and she would relax again, looking peaceful, calm and quiet.

At about 3:00 AM the following morning, I walked over to a window and looked out to the street below. Suddenly I recalled driving by about two weeks earlier on that street looking up seeing the sign 'CHILDRENS HOSPITAL'. I remember thinking how great it is to have a hospital close by for my children just in case… now I'm on the inside looking out, asking why? Then, I looked up to the heavens, as prayers for Shanelle cried out, "God, please don’t let her die, God, please don’t let her die".

Later that morning, the doctors came and got Shanelle for another operation to reconnect the shattered jawbone pieces. They explained to me that they were hopeful that the work could be done from the inside of her mouth to minimize scaring, as she had enough scaring already to deal with. When she came out of surgery, the doctor stated that it was successful, except that there was a large hole of bone missing where the bullet passed through. He felt that it might close up on it’s own as this sometimes happens when the body repairs itself.

For three days and nights as Shanelle’s head kept swelling, I sat by her side wondering if she would lapse into a coma or die. When I would drift off to sleep, I would envision seeing Shanelle getting shot over and over again. Unable to sleep, I would just sit there and keep watch over her. By the fourth day, Shanelle started showing signs of improvement as the swelling started to subside and her vitals stabilized. The doctors confirmed with me that Shanelle was going to survive as she showed significant signs of improving. By the fifth day, I would trade off going home to get a shower and some clean clothing. Totally exhausted, I started to eat again and gain back much lost strength.

Soon, I started to get little bits and pieces of what happened, never really knowing how Shanelle was shot. An Orange County Sheriff came by and just stated that it was under investigation with no real firm details and left me his business card.

Day seven, Shanelle unable to speak, desperately wanted to say something. With a tracheotomy in her neck, her jaw wired shut and feeding tubes in her nose I asked, "Shanelle, are you strong enough to write?" She nodded yes. Immediately, I was offered a writing tablet and pen from a nurse for Shanelle.

She anxiously started writing on plain pieces of paper her thoughts and feelings, asking; "What happened? Why did she do this to me? Are you staying here tonight?" During the remainder of her hospital stay, page after page of questions and feelings poured onto the plain white sheets of paper from time to time. During these days her tracheotomy needed cleaning several times a day with a vacuum tube that we would push into her lungs. This was very painful for her but we needed to help her keep her airway open and clear.

After about a week she was able to go for little walks, increasing them with time. We would hold hands to stabilize her as she walked, and all the time I was thanking God she's alive! Shanelle asked that at least one of us always be with her. We promised that we would be there for her through this horrible ordeal and not to worry. Then, one morning when I was home, my wife looked over at Shanelle and saw her sleeping. Not wanting to wake her, she went out of the room to get a cup of coffee. When she returned about ten minutes later, a nurse was calming Shanelle. She was in hysterics, crying, "Where did you go!" Shanelle had ripped out all of the feeding tubes, I.V. lines and monitoring wires. She was in a panic, scared of being alone and almost out of her bed hoping to find her mom when the nurse arrived.

After about two weeks, with her jaw still wired shut and a feeder tube in her nose, Shanelle was able to come home. When we drove up to our house, Shanelle started crying with joy as she saw the hundreds of little paper hearts all over the walkways and walls of the house, with a "WELCOME HOME SHANELLE" banner across the garage door! The Beehive Girls from the local church had gathered together to cut hundreds of paper hearts of all sizes and shapes in a variety of colors. As Shanelle, my wife and I walked up to the front door, we cried in joy, our Shanelle had come home, alive!

Because Shanelle’s jaw was wired shut, we had to re-create her eating habits. This included taking a normal entire dinner and running it through a blender mixed with a liquid so she could drink it with a straw. After sucking it through the straw, she had to suck it between her teeth to get the food to her mouth. Swallowing was a whole different experience as food or drinks would sometimes come out her nose. The roof of her mouth was so badly damaged that a large section was missing, with a direct opening to the nasal passage. Shanelle was now learning how to try to control an unnatural way of eating. Taking her to a restaurant was a real challenge.

My construction business was shut down the day Shanelle was shot so that I would be able to stay with Shanelle at the hospital and take care of this situation. With no health insurance or savings, another worry began to surface as medical bills and expenses began to surface. Then on August 6, 1997 (two weeks after the shooting) I received a call from the Orange County Register asking me how I felt about the decision from the Orange County DA's office. Not knowing anything about a decision I remarked "What decision?" The reporter replied, "The DA is dropping all charges against the owner of the gun!" A speechless silence came over me with an insulting disbelief at how someone could get away with leaving a gun accessible to children that was used in a crime like this. Not knowing the results of the investigation, I strongly felt that there was something very wrong with the decision.

I decided to call Judd McIlvain of CBS2, "The Troubleshooter" who investigates situations like this to get to the bottom of the problem. His investigation was not only in-depth, but also very shocking! That's when we finally started learning about what really happened.

We were shocked to learn that the owner of the gun was a Criminal Investigator who worked for the Department of Defense. He had left the loaded gun in an unlocked briefcase with the combination set at "007" in the open position. Some of the details were still very sketchy and unclear. He and his fiancée (the mother of Shanelle’s friend) maintained they were not sure who left the briefcase on the floor in an unoccupied room off the kitchen with the door open. This made it impossible to prosecute someone. The DA claimed that they (the parents) had exercised some precautions by telling the 13-year-old girl who shot Shanelle not to touch the gun.

When the story was aired a few days later on CBS, we were shocked to hear for the first time a portion of the 911 tape. We heard Shanelle in the background of the 911 screaming to her friend "What did you do to me?" over and over again. When Shanelle’s friend was asked by the Sheriff’s department "What were you doing with the gun?" she answered, "I just picked it up because I liked to look at it and…"

Judd had exposed what appeared to us to be a cover up because the story from the DA's office was too vague. A couple of days later, Hard Copy did a story trying to get the DA to come clean on his decision, and prosecute the owner of the gun. The following day, Maury Povich called to inquire about the situation and also did a show on the shooting. A story was aired by EXTRA and they also came to the same conclusion.

Letters were sent to Mike Capazzi, the DA of Orange County, California, from the Orange County Citizens Against Gun Violence stating "the decision not to prosecute was wrong!" This is when I learned about the law in California called The Children’s Firearm Prevention Act 12035. Basically, it states: Anyone who leaves a gun accessible to a minor is liable for prosecution if anything happens as a result of a minor gaining access to that gun. The law elaborates that a person is especially accountable if they have had training in firearm usage and safety. The District Attorney, however, just called it "a tragic accident" with no justification, and no responsibility to the owners of the gun. With all the news media, nothing was reconsidered about the case. It seemed clear -- we were not going to get justice.

Feeling despondent and betrayed by this lack of justice, I wrote a letter to the Grand Jury asking them to do an investigation into this matter. About a week later I received a letter from the Grand Jury simply stating that they would not be investigating the matter. There was no qualification or explanation why. Here I was, a successful, dedicated family man one day, and the next thing I knew I had medical bills of over $100,000, a devastated family, and a closed door in my face by the perpetrator of a crime against a child. American justice had not only let me down but also left me devastated. The only thing that I could do was file a civil law suit, and while it paid the medical bills, it did not address the core of the issue. That is another story and it involves tens of thousands of children who get shot every year in America alone as a result of this same negligence and ignorance. What I thought was my problem, turned out to be a problem that the entire world needs to address, keeping guns out of the hands of children and criminals.

Two years later my wife and I divorced as a result of the shooting after being married for 20 years. I took custody of Shanelle and my two sons. Psychological problems followed not only Shanelle, who went from being the gymnast with a modeling contract and straight A’s to "that girl who was shot," but also her two brothers, who began to envy the attention Shanelle was given. This was a battle in its own as we tried to deal with emotions and feelings, not having the proper counseling for the family. As much as you turn a negative into a positive, there is that "Why me, God?" question lurking in their young minds. Oh yes, we went to counseling, and one counselor even said "Wow, this must be very difficult. I have no idea how to help you."

As for me, I'm simply grateful that I still have my beautiful daughter. I helped her recently through some more reconstructive surgery done by Dr. Harry Glassman in Beverly Hills; she is expected to possibly have more surgery in the future and still suffers with nerve damage and scarring. Discovery Health filmed the operation, it aired in July of 2003. It was fascinating to watch Shanelle’s view of everything with her "grown up" 16-year-old viewpoints. She was thrilled, but more inwardly exposed than a young girl should have to be.

A beautiful young girl is shot, loses her dreams and almost her life, a family falls apart… I feel strongly that many problems that our family went through could have been averted if better laws came to our defense and if we knew where to go for help. A gun properly secured would have prevented this shooting. It is my prayer that this organization will help other families that are victims of shootings in need, be an influence to gun owners to properly secure their guns and, most importantly, Stop Our Shootings!

Sincerely, A Dad

« Back