January-February 2012

A new way to face the world

After she was shot in the face, a Burnet woman was left with disfiguring scars. A miracle from God (via the Discovery Channel) restored her appearance and helped heal the trauma of the awful crime.

Kathy Dixon

Victim Assistance ­Coordinator in the ­District Attorney’s Office in Burnet County

On May 1, 2004, Mary Cirilli’s life changed forever. It was her weekend for visitation with her son, Zeke, who was 11. They had plans to watch a movie with a neighbor and were laying on her bed waiting for their friend, so the door to the house was unlocked. When they heard the door open, they were expecting their friend, but instead it was Mary’s estranged husband, Andrew Hankins, with a gun.  He had been released from a Dallas jail for a DWI just the week before, and Mary had a protective order in place. She can only assume he followed her home from her job at Wal-Mart because she had relocated to Burnet using Crime Victims Compensation (CVC) funds to get away from him. (Their relationship had been violent in the past.)

    That day in May, Hankins entered the house and began to kick and beat Mary as Zeke watched. The boy was scared and managed to hide. Then Hankins fired the gun, shooting Mary in the face before running out the door. Zeke managed to call 9-1-1, and help arrived. Mary was Star-flighted to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin in serious condition. She had a severe head injury, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, fractured bones in her face, and broken teeth.

    To repair some of the damage, she had plastic and oral surgery May 5, which left her jaw wired shut. Mary was able to return to work in early June, but she didn’t look like the same woman. The scars on her face reminded her daily of the assault.

Our office’s involvement

Victim Services became involved with Mary while she was in the hospital when a social worker called our office. Mary was very concerned about Zeke and how witnessing this attack would affect him, and Zeke’s father (not the shooter, obviously) completed a CVC application so that the boy could start counseling. We worked with the Attorney General’s Office to move Mary to another apartment in the complex and have her old apartment cleaned. She needed lost wages, travel reimbursement to doctor appointments, and new eyeglasses, and Mary continued to have dental procedures to repair the damage to her teeth.

    It was not long before she reached her $50,000 maximum with CVC. She wanted to have plastic surgery on her face but needed additional funding. The AG’s Office required a letter from a plastic surgeon stating that Mary had a permanent disfigurement that would not improve in her lifetime without surgery and that she is at a disadvantage in the workforce because of her disfigurement. Mary never got the letter.

    Andrew Hankins was indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon enhanced with two prior convictions and faced a minimum of 25 years to life. At a pre-trial meeting, prosecutor Tom Cloudt and investigator Henry Nolan (who has since passed away) learned that Mary did not remember any details of the assault other than seeing the defendant come in the door. Mary did not want Zeke to testify, and his counselor advised against it. But thankfully, Hankins entered a guilty plea before Judge Gil Jones and his sentencing hearing happened in May 2005, about a year after the attack. The State was able to put on excellent punishment evidence, and Judge Jones sentenced him to life in prison. After that, Mary stopped by the office occasionally to drop off travel forms for me to mail to the AG’s Office, but as with most cases, her life went on without needing our help.

A miraculous phone call

One afternoon I was checking my work messages when I heard one from the Discovery Channel. Someone there was calling victim coordinators around the United States looking for victims who had suffered face trauma. If selected, the victim would have plastic surgery pro bono. I immediately thought of Mary and her desire for plastic surgery! I knew she was the perfect candidate.

    Amazingly, Mary has remained in the same apartment and has had the same phone number all these years so I called her. She did not hesitate to say that she was interested! I called the Discovery Channel back, offered Mary’s name and phone number, and it went from there. Mary was selected to fly to New York City and a plastic surgeon named Dr. Andrew Jacono would perform her reconstructive surgery.

    A little while later, Mary called and said the Discovery Channel was coming to Burnet to meet her, and she asked if I would come out for a family dinner, which the TV network would film for the show. I accepted, and my husband and I drove out to the lake to meet Mary’s family. They were as gracious as Mary and could not thank me enough for giving the Discovery Channel her name. I remember Mary’s boyfriend Leo asking me if I had thought it was a legitimate call and I said I didn’t even think about it, I was too excited! It did not take long to know this was a strong Christian family who believed in miracles and I was only the tool God used to make it happen. My boss, Sam Oatman, has said many times we are doing God’s work. It is times like this that we can see Him moving.

    Mary underwent a two-hour surgery to repair her face. She stopped by the office after the surgery, and I could not believe how good she looked. She still had some healing to do, but I could see the change. Mary’s story was filmed and the show, called Facing Trauma, aired on the Discovery Fit and Health Channel. I was at the Key Personnel and Victim Assistance Coordinators Seminar in Houston when it aired so I recorded it on my DVR, and I could not wait to get home to see it. (A short clip of Mary is on the website at this location: http://health.discovery.com/ videos/facing-trauma-season-1-im-wounded-but-not-down .html.) When I heard Zeke tell about how the scarring on his mother’s face reminded him daily of the assault, I just cried. Not only Mary but also Zeke and her family had been living with this constant reminder. I could not believe how beautiful she looked when they showed her picture.

    I have worked as the Victim Coordinator in our office for 10 years, and I have seen many people injured from violent crime. Many cases move through the system, yet how many of the victims never have the opportunity to get rid of their scars, both mental and physical? I know from Mary’s story that it is very important for victims to be completely restored. Maybe one day the CVC fund will see plastic surgery as necessary for a victim’s complete healing, and maybe more surgeons like Dr. Jacono will offer their services on their behalf. As people who deal with victims everyday, let us not forget what it would feel like to see a person you don’t recognize in the mirror and know that face is not going away during your lifetime.