Cast into the shadows

Scherelle Denice Outland lay in bed, listening to “Inspector Gadget” cartoons. Her fiance, Tyrone Ebb, assembled a breakfast plate of fried bologna, pancakes and scrambled eggs.

Ebb brought in the food. He guided her to each item on the plate. Bologna at 1 o’clock, pancakes at 6. Outland hopes to start cooking again when she’s comfortable negotiating a hot stove. Until then, it’s up to Ebb.

“Am I finished?” she asked. Ebb scraped the last morsels onto a fork and fed her. “Now you’re finished,” he said.

Nearly a year ago, Outland was blinded during a vicious assault. According to D.C. detectives and prosecutors, acquaintance Van Kirk Williams did the unspeakable on a summer evening last year at a friend’s apartment in Southeast Washington: He raped her, attacked her with two screwdrivers and left her for dead.

Williams faces charges of first-degree sexual abuse and assault with intent to kill. After pleading not guilty, he was ordered held at the D.C. jail until his trial next year.

He is not the only one living in confinement as a result of the attack.

Outland steeps in resentment over the freedom taken away that summer night — freedom from fear, freedom to trust even those dearest to her, freedom to move about and take care of herself.

She is still adjusting to life after violent crime, a life sometimes paralyzed by fear, a life of darkness and shadows, a hard life now harder. She is still processing how the attack changed her, who she is today and who she can be. She is not yet ready to accept it all.

Hesitant steps

Outland is learning how to use a cane, but it’s not going well. She calls it her “stick” and lets it hang limply rather than holding it broadly in front of her to alert those around her that she is impaired. She tries to count steps to a nearby corner store. She drags the cane, listening for the contrasting sounds of concrete and grass. She has fallen several times.

On a recent walk, she became disoriented and veered off the sidewalk onto a grassy mound. Her instructor, Rachael Kelly from the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, gently scolded her:

“Orient yourself. Use the cane to determine where you are. But stop walking until you figure out where you are.”

“I feel like people are looking at me,” Outland said.

Outland lived a challenging life long before that brutal night last July. Born in Arlington County to a soldier, she became pregnant at 13 and dropped out of school. At 16, she started smoking crack cocaine.

At 19, Outland spent a year in jail for assaulting a woman in a fight. She received a diagnosis of schizophrenia behind bars.

Now 40, Outland doesn’t always take her medication, but she also doesn’t smoke crack anymore, she said. She has four children, three of them adults and one an 8-year-old, Malique. She has four grandchildren. She left the last of a string of low-wage jobs and went on public assistance, she said, when Malique was born. She lives in a two-story brick house on a tucked-away block in Southwest Washington with Ebb.

Ebb, 57, once jumped out of planes with the Army’s 82nd Airborne. Today, he takes on plumbing jobs for relatives or friends. And he takes care of Outland, cooking for her and serving, in his words, as her Seeing Eye Dog.

A violent encounter

Outland struggles daily with her choice to hang out with Williams last July. She also struggles with her anger at a system that let him free.

Williams had been in and out of jail since he was in his late teens for various crimes, according to D.C. Superior Court records. In 1993, he was convicted of killing a man and was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was paroled in 2010 — and arrested again a year later, pleading guilty to simple assault and violating a restraining order.

The conviction violated the terms of Williams’s parole, but he was never ordered back to prison. He allegedly attacked Outland three months later.

“We should have revoked him,” said Isaac Fulwood Jr., a former D.C. police chief and now the chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission. “They shouldn’t have recommended anything but that.”

Outland met Williams through a mutual friend six months before the attack. They liked to party — drink and smoke crack — sometimes at her house, sometimes elsewhere. She knew he had been in prison but never asked for details: “I didn’t want to pry.”

About 11 that summer evening, Outland and Williams caught a Metrobus to a friend’s home in Southeast Washington, court records show. The friend, who is disabled, was in his bedroom. Williams and Outland thought he was asleep. They settled in the living room, smoked crack and drank beer.

Williams, 52, tried to cajole Outland into sex, according to charging documents, but she refused. He became violent, raped her and reached for two screwdrivers that were lying nearby, the documents allege.

Outland calls the attack the “accident,” but her memories are foggy. She remembers being “punched,” and she remembers the blood. She remembers pretending to be dead so the blows would stop.

Court records fill in the rest: She screamed for help, and her disabled friend emerged from his bedroom. He called police, but Williams had fled by the time they arrived, the records say.

Williams’s attorney, Dana Page of the District’s Public Defender Service, declined to comment on the case.

Seeking a safe haven

After the attack, Outland spent weeks in a hospital, including several days in a psychiatric unit when she was told she would never see again.

Her eyesight is limited to light and dark, figures and shadows. Her hearing and sense of smell have grown more acute. Recently, she heard a friend step onto her front porch seconds before anyone else in the house heard the knock on the door.

Yet there are glimpses of the old “Nicey,” as her friends call her: a tiny woman who loves to laugh and cherishes her Newport cigarettes. On a recent walk near her house, neighbors sitting on front porches shouted out: “Hey Nicey!”

“Hey,” she responded softly — but whispered to a companion: “Who is that?” Then, more loudly: “Oh, HEY.”

The attack has strained her relationship with Ebb, a soft-spoken man she calls “Fat Daddy.”

Ebb has promised to stay with her no matter what. Along with the cooking, he washes the dishes. He fetches her boots when she yells out for them. He takes her to monthly doctor appointments.

But it doesn’t always comfort her. Outland sleeps with a kitchen knife tucked beneath her mattress. At a recent doctor’s visit, Ebb went to the bathroom, and she panicked: “Ty, where are you? Where are you?” she yelled.

Outland’s three adult children stop by occasionally. Her youngest, Malique, is an honor student at a nearby school, but until recently he spent most of his time since the attack across the street at his godmother’s house.

When Malique visits, he is protective of his mother, holding her arm as Ebb does and walking alongside her. At other moments, Malique offers Outland a welcome dose of childlike normalcy. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Malique’s teachers bragged about his A’s and B’s. “I’m so proud of you, baby,” she gushed. “You’re on your way to college.” Malique sat at the table, swinging his legs under his chair because his feet didn’t reach the floor.

Afterward, Outland returned home and headed upstairs to bed.

Bed has become her favorite place since the attack. When Ebb was hospitalized this year for two weeks, she refused to leave the house. She stayed mostly in her room — a haven of safety where her blindness recedes and no one can harm her.

It’s also where she can dream. For months after the attack, Outland rarely slept more than two hours before nightmares awoke her. Now, she sleeps through the night, and her dreams are no longer torture; they are escapes.

“I can see in my dreams,” she said. “I can see my son. I can see Ty.”

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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