Shooting victim's memoir examines the crime that took a friend's life 23 years ago
People say I’m a “MIRACLE.” They say I must have a purpose. Don’t we all have a purpose? I think we do. I also think, it’s quite possible, that I’m literally just too darn hardheaded to die.
One minute, Susan Nelson was 29, attractive, single, loving life and dreaming big — of moving to New York and becoming a soap opera star. She even had a Readers Digest article on how to do it.
The next, she seemed to be driving in a strange, dark place when her car broke down. Up ahead she noticed a house with lights, so she made her way there to ask for help. But those who answered the door were malevolent beings — witches, she thought. She guessed they intended to hold her captive and then sell her.
It was April 4, 1993, a day that started with Nelson’s Sunday ritual of sleeping in, then sipping coffee while reading the paper on her balcony. By midafternoon she was at the northeast Arlington apartment of Gary Rutherford, a man she was becoming close friends with, though there was no romantic connection, at least not yet.
Around 10:30 p.m., Rutherford, 30, the manager of a Tex-Mex restaurant, lay dying on his living room floor. Doctors thought Nelson had no more than a few hours left herself. “Her chances of survival are felt to be nil,” her surgeons said.
The pair had been shot after being robbed by an emotionally troubled young man who a few months before had showed up at the restaurant and asked for work. Jason Ray Dean, then 19, had spent the second decade of his life bouncing back and forth between his father in Indianapolis and his mother in Arlington. Less than a month earlier, he had been arrested by Grand Prairie police on suspicion of trying to write a bad check to pay for jewelry at a Wal-Mart.
About two weeks before the shooting, after moving out of his mother and stepfather’s home following an argument over $1,200 in bad checks, Dean began staying at Rutherford’s apartment, within easy walking distance of the eatery. It would become a fatal gesture of compassion on the part of Rutherford, who a fellow manager would later tell the Star-Telegram had brought Dean back several times after he stopped showing up for work.
Dean had joined Rutherford and Nelson that Sunday evening for a home-cooked dinner, a recipe from Rutherford’s native Australia that he had wanted Nelson to try. After the dishes had been cleared away and Rutherford and Nelson sat on the couch talking, Dean retrieved Rutherford’s hidden-away 9mm semiautomatic handgun, demanded their possessions, ignored their pleadings and, when they stood to make a dash for the patio door, shot them both from behind.
For Nelson, now 52 and a longtime Austin resident, death would have spared her from the on-and-off nightmare her life would become in those first weeks, months and years after the shooting. The bullet left what surgeons described as a “blast deformity in the left occipital bone.” Medical images of her brain showed traces of bullet fragments like “rays of the sun,” her mother told the Star-Telegram about four weeks after the shooting.
The book, I wrote was for me and part of my healing journey. It is in the hope of inspiring others in their time of darkness. Although the subjects of gun violence, being a crime victim and the long road of recovery are all difficult, I had to find the light that remained in order to overcome and survive the horrific act inflicted upon me.
That Nelson lived to tell the tale is by all accounts a medical miracle. That she chose to tell it in a book she published last year, The Only Light I Saw Was in Galveston, is proof that not even a bullet to the brain could kill her spirit or her sense of humor, though it did permanent damage to other parts of her. She was also shot in the left shoulder and right hand, the latter likely a defensive wound.
“I hope maybe the book can help other people find their own light,” Nelson, an avid Texas Rangers fan, said during a recent visit to Globe Life Park in Arlington, where her former employer David D’Aquin owns the custom jewelry shop Baseball Diamonds. (The Rangers, for whom Nelson worked for a time, helped with a fundraiser for her medical expenses that was held in a parking lot outside the old Arlington Stadium.)
Her last name in 1993 was LeBlanc, and for two weeks she lay in a coma at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. When she later learned that her doctor and her mother had discussed having her organs donated, she surmised that her unconscious mind had caught wind of it and turned it into the bizarre dream about witches and being sold. The house in the dream reminded her of her great-aunt’s historical home in Galveston, a place that holds happy childhood memories of summer fun.
Dean, who was arrested on foot less than a mile from the apartment with the gun and their jewelry still on him, is serving a life sentence at the Alfred Hughes state prison in Gatesville, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In 2014, he received an additional eight-year sentence for aggravated assault of a public servant with a deadly weapon, a charge he racked up while in prison in 2012.
I don’t forgive Jason for what he did. I don’t forgive him for what he took from me: the life I had planned and worked hard for, and my friend and his life; but somehow I think he was just as scared as we were.
Susan Nelson in her book
Nelson doesn’t wish Dean had gotten the death penalty, but she doesn’t want him ever to be released on parole. Though he’s years away from even being eligible, she vows to fight it if that day comes.
More than two decades later, at a time when gun control is as hot an issue as ever, Nelson, now a wife and mother, sometimes speaks at Austin-area events on behalf of gun control advocacy groups. She hadn’t known that Rutherford owned a gun and believes that Dean had secretly found it while going through Rutherford’s belongings.
Though her road to recovery was long and her life was forever changed, readers will likely appreciate her humor and openness. And maybe, along the way, somebody else will draw inspiration from her strength.
I think by sharing my story now, helps me to validate who I am to myself. How “I” see me. For so long I didn’t want it to be a focus and just wanted to be back to be just me. And although I still don’t want the horrific act to be the center, I do hope people will gain something from my journey. Perhaps a way to laugh, a way to gain strength or keeping faith, finding their path or perhaps even change some of the issues of government and healthcare. Maybe taking a look at the face of what guns and violence and mental health offer. Or maybe it will just be the music and the light.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.