Jeff Gordon, who was training for his next triathlon, headed out to Arlington County’s Custis Trail one January afternoon. He was running through a secluded area when someone reached out and grabbed his right arm. As he turned, he saw two young men. One hit him in the head with a gun.
Gordon fell to the ground. When he tried to look up, he was kicked in the head. The attackers stole the only valuables he carried — the sunglasses on his head and the Garmin GPS watch on his wrist.
“Does he have anything else?” one of the men asked.
Gordon heard them move away. Slowly, he rose and staggered over the embankment onto the Route 66 exit to Glebe Road, where cars were stopped at a red light. A woman rolled down her window and asked whether he needed help. He asked her to call 911.
A noise made Gordon turn his head. The woman in the car gasped. “Oh, my God,” she said. He touched his ear, and his white running glove came back covered in blood.
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The random attack took only a few moments, bringing together a 55-year-old personal trainer and two brothers, one who said he was looking for money to buy drugs. But it changed Gordon’s life, he said, leaving him with nightmares, headaches and fear.
The criminal case ended last week when Robert Thomas, 23, of the District was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the robbery. Andre Thomas, 17, who also was convicted, will serve a sentence that will be determined by the juvenile-justice department. Guidelines suggest 18 to 36 months in prison.
During a hearing Friday in Arlington Circuit Court, Robert Thomas told the judge that he was high on PCP the day of the robbery. As a child, he said, he’d run away from a foster home after being abused. He said he was not taking the medication he had used in the past for bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression, and he wanted cash for a drug buy.
“I am truly, deeply sorry,” Robert Thomas said in court as his uncle and father looked on. “I will not go back out there and cause any more trouble.”
Prosecutors said the series of events leading to the Jan. 10 attack were set in motion when Robert Thomas and another person decided to go to Arlington and rob a cellphone store. Andre Thomas thought it was a bad idea. So, prosecutors said, they settled on a simpler plan: Get out at the Ballston Metro station, head to the trail and find someone to rob.
Robert Thomas said in court that he didn’t want to hurt anybody. The gun wasn’t even loaded.
The first guy they stopped kept running and went on to call 911, prosecutors said. By the time Gordon came by, the three men had settled on a tighter formation: Andre Thomas was the lookout, and the third man hit Gordon with the gun, prosecutors said.
After the attack, the Thomas brothers fled toward the Metro station but were caught. The other robber was not found. The brothers said they don’t know the third person’s name, their attorneys said.
Andre and Robert Thomas are from a troubled family, Deborah Cason Daniel, who has been guardian ad litem for them, testified at an earlier court hearing. There were eight siblings; one was fatally struck by a car when she was a toddler. All five brothers have been involved in the criminal-justice system, Daniel said in court. Two sisters became mothers while in their teens, and their children were taken away because of neglect, she said, adding that the siblings’ parents are intellectually disabled; their mother struggles with drugs, their father with alcohol.
“It’s a terrible cocktail to grow up in,” said Daniel, who is a child-welfare law specialist.
Andre Thomas, the youngest boy, had been doing well, living with a foster mother in Virginia. But the summer before the attack, he got a job in the District and started spending more time with his relatives, Daniel said in court.
He got into what she called “the family business: maladaptive behavior.”
Andre Thomas didn’t even want to be at the scene of the robbery, public defender Dusty Sparrow said at the sentencing earlier this month. He didn’t completely understand what he was doing, Sparrow argued, and has an IQ of 67.
“I feel like I’m being locked up for something I didn’t commit,” Andre Thomas said in a statement before sentencing.
In the end, Robert Thomas pleaded guilty to robbery, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and conspiracy. Andre Thomas, who was 16 at the time of the crime, was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to robbery and conspiracy.
Gordon said he is sorry that the Thomas brothers were dealt such a bad hand in life. But that does not lessen his pain.
He lives with constant reminders of the attack that gave him a subdural hematoma. In 55 years, he never had a headache, he said. The first two months after the attack, he had one 24 hours a day. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t get comfortable enough. Nine months later, he still gets what he calls “zappers” — a sharp zing to the head — two or three times a week. His back, cut and bruised, hurt for months.
He has nightmares. One night, a few days after the attack, he relived the entire experience in the middle of the night. He lay on the floor of his bedroom, screaming and kicking, dripping sweat, yelling, “I can’t die! I can’t die!”
He used to pride himself on his memory. In 19 years on the job, he’d never messed up his appointment schedule. Since the attack, it’s happened seven or eight times. He forgets words.
Gordon still runs three to four days a week on the Custis Trail, a hilly, four-mile path that links the Key Bridge in Rosslyn with the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail. “I can’t let three punks — they’re not people, because people don’t do this to people, in my mind — I’m not going to let them stop me,” he said. But he looks around constantly. His heart rate is up. He’s afraid even to talk about the case because he’s worried the perpetrators’ friends will retaliate.
“It look 10 minutes for them to come into Virginia from D.C.,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joshua Katcher said Friday. “We need to send a message that if you come into our neighborhoods with this foolishness, it can take you 10 years or more to get back.”
On Friday, as Gordon faced Robert Thomas in court, he was asked how he’s coping.
“Ask me in a couple of years,” he said. “Right now, I’m still suffering.”