Woman Without a Face
That Thomas's life has changed forever is something all the world can see. Toying nervously with her bandages on a recent afternoon, she describes how the single bullet traveled through her right eye, shattered her cheekbone and nose and destroyed her upper jaw. Today she breathes through a tracheotomy tube and gets her nourishment through another tube to her stomach. When the former athlete, once a pretty girl, arrives at a pancake house near home in Waco, Texas, strangers stare in embarrassment and horror. "People usually respond positively to my personality," she says. "If only I had some of that beauty on the outside again. I would be so grateful."
At the same time, Thomas, 34, knows she is lucky to be alive. Each year more than 1,000 women in America are killed by partners in abusive relationships. Although seriously disfigured, Thomas survived her attack to find new meaning in her faith ("This happened to me for a reason," she says) and a passion to share her dramatic story. A Houston surgeon has offered to reconstruct her face—an arduous process that could require a half dozen operations—but first she plans to use her own damaged appearance for a public-awareness campaign targeted at potential victims. "Listen when he says he's going to kill you," she tells women. "When a man says that, he's telling you the truth."
Born to a 16-year-old mother, Thomas was raised by two religious grandmothers who did their best to shelter her. "My mother got pregnant at a young age," she says, "and they didn't want that to happen to me." A star sprinter at Midland High School, she was thinking about a college track scholarship when, as she puts it, "I got kind of boy crazy." She moved to Waco after graduating in 1989. Three years later, in a parking lot, she met the man who would dominate her life: Terrence Kelly, then 20. He seemed "shy, not rowdy," she recalls. "He said I talked too much."
At first he treated her well. Then she began to learn of a darker side. Kelly carried guns and hung out with drug dealers, she says. After he was busted for marijuana possession in '92, a cop told Thomas, "You don't want to be hanging with Mr. Kelly here." But by then Thomas was deep into the relationship. Kelly forbade her to see old friends and forced her to wear baggy pants to hide her figure. When she wasn't at her job as a home health-care worker, "he'd call my cell phone and say, 'You've got 15 minutes to get home,' " she says. (Kelly, who has served a prison term for cocaine possession, is currently in the McLennan County Jail, where he's being held on one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.)
Thomas doesn't remember when the violence began, only that the verbal abuse turned to shoving. At one Easter dinner, she says Kelly attacked her in front of his family. "I had dyed my hair blonde and he said only streetwalkers dye their hair," she says. Still, despite her fears, "I had nowhere to go. I never smiled. A lot of me was dead."
In the fall of 2000 Kelly was sentenced to eight years in prison for cocaine possession, and Thomas experienced a huge sense of relief. "I felt free, like a baby bird," she says. But on Oct. 14, 2003, Kelly was released, and within weeks Thomas was seeing him again. "He said he was going to be a truck driver, make an honest man out of himself," she says. "That's what I always wanted for him, and I fell for it." Then, on the night of Dec. 5, while Thomas was on the phone with a girlfriend and her mother was eating a meal from McDonald's in the dining room, Kelly burst in. Acting irrationally, she says, "he grabbed the phone and threw it on the ground. He was screaming, 'Someone's in here! Who's in here?' "
According to Thomas, Kelly drew his gun and fired at Reeves, who died after crawling into the hallway. Then he fired at Thomas, who lost consciousness. "It was an out-of-body experience," she says. "Where I was was real calm and peaceful. I asked the Lord to forgive me for my sins." When Officer Tyrone Robinson and his partner Kermit Graham arrived on the scene minutes later, "the first thing I see at the door was Carolyn. Her whole face was gone," says Robinson. As Graham paused next to what he took for a corpse, a bloody arm grabbed him by the ankle. "He said, 'Man, she's alive! She's alive!' " recalls Robinson.
Kelly fled the apartment. He was soon apprehended by police—but not before he allegedly attempted to shoot his own mother and tried to flee by jumping naked into a fire truck called to the scene. (His court-appointed lawyer did not respond to repeated phone calls from PEOPLE.) When Thomas regained consciousness the following day after being airlifted to a hospital, her uncle Milton Robinson was at her side. Unable to speak because her jaw was wired shut, she scrawled a note: "How's Mom?" For a week her family kept her in the dark about her mother's fate. "I just don't understand why [Kelly] took her," Thomas says. "She had nothing to do with it."
Although she still can't fully raise her left arm because of the bullet wound to her shoulder and suffers pain in her face and eye socket, after months of therapy Thomas has learned to speak again without an upper lip. Coming to terms with the shattering damage to her appearance is another matter. Like a lot of victims in abusive relationships, she has had to deal with a combination of grief, anger and guilt. "They're often embarrassed because they feel responsible in some way for allowing it to happen," says Dr. Mary Lynn Moran, a surgeon from Woodside, Calif., who has helped reconstruct the faces of battered women. It took Thomas four weeks, after she had been stabilized at the hospital and moved to a nursing facility, to muster the courage to see what the bullet had done. Standing at a bathroom mirror, she lifted up her bandages and remembers thinking one word: " 'Why?' "
That's a question that may take Thomas many years to answer. In the meantime she has bravely begun to help other abused women by speaking at local churches about her experience and posing for a poster she is producing with an advocates' group. "She is just so determined," says Dione Jackson, a social worker at Waco's Family Abuse Center. Now living alone in a one-bedroom apartment—decorated with a pillow embroidered "One Day at a Time"—Thomas is preparing herself for the rounds of surgery that will help restore her physical identity. But first she looks forward to walking into a Waco courtroom on April 11 to testify against Kelly, who faces life in prison if convicted of murder and attempted murder. Says Thomas: "I want him to see me without the bandages."
Susan Schindehette. Michael Haederle in Waco
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