LYMAN, S.C. (AP) – Almost a year ago, Pat Stephens' brother-in-law, Jefferson Lee Perry, came to her front door in Greer with a 12-gauge shotgun.
“J.L.,” as he was known to family, lived across from his in-laws, and asked Stephens' husband of almost 32 years, Don, if he wanted to buy a gun.
“I heard a very demonic voice, not what I consider J.L. And then I heard, `pow,“’ Stephens said. “That `pow' didn't really register.”
She had been at the back of the house with Don, 65, just moments before. The couple was making plans to take a walk at the Barnyard Flea Market, something Don enjoyed and often did to get exercise when his legs swelled from diabetes.
She remembers her husband's last words to her that day in November.
“He said, `Here comes J.L. across the road with a gun,“’ Stephens said. He walked to the front of the house to see what J.L., 69, was doing. They didn't know then that Pat Stephens' sister, Bobbie, lay dying of a shotgun blast to the abdomen in the house across the street.
After hearing the gunshot at the front of her house, Stephens went to see what happened. She saw Don on the floor, then looked up into the barrel of the shotgun.
She turned around and ran into the bathroom. J.L. stuck the barrel of the gun into the door and pushed himself in.
“I got the barrel, somehow,” said Stephens, pausing. “I don't know how I got out. I ran back down the hall into the dining room, and leaned over the table. I saw my husband laying there.”
At the same table and chairs where she accepted Jesus into her life on March 6, 1989, Stephens pleaded for her life.
“I raised my hand and said, `Oh dear Jesus, J.L. You don't have to do this,“’ Stephens said. “And he shot my hand off.”
She fell to the dining room floor, saw her hand on the floor under the table. J.L. shot again, this time the blast hitting Stephens in the upper thigh, dangerously close to the femoral artery. J.L. Perry then walked out the door.
Being a long-time employee of Spartanburg School District 5, Stephens had been trained in how to respond to an emergency injury. She raised her right arm, now without a hand, and compressed the wrist with her left hand.
Somehow, she pulled herself over to where Don lay. She touched his face.
“I never lost consciousness,” Stephens said. “I said, `Talk to me, baby.’ But I knew he was gone. Next thing I remember was them putting a mask over my face.”
Emergency workers found the couple on the floor, facing each other.
Bobbie Perry, 64, also a longtime school employee, died as the medical helicopter landed at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center that day – Nov. 13, 2011.
Stephens said J.L. had become increasingly controlling of her sister, with whom she had been very close, over the past two years. He controlled the couple's finances. He didn't allow Bobbie to drive anywhere. He limited the time she spent with Stephens.
“I knew there was something going on behind closed doors,” Stephens said. “She was isolated. She made excuses why she couldn't go places. It was silent abuse. Her self worth went way down. She had a look of fear. Even though she had a smile on her face, deep, deep down in my heart I knew something was going on.”
Bobbie Perry's outlet had always been her work with the school district. She was a special education teacher's assistant.
When Bobbie retired in May 2011, that outlet was gone. She tried to make plans to leave. She opened up and told her sister about some of the things happening in her home. Stephens offered to help her get an apartment on her own. But Stephens believes that her sister had lost hope.
In August, Bobbie suffered a stroke and moved in with Don and Pat Stephens across the street to recooperate. Bobbie continued to communicate with J.L., and J.L. had come across the street to eat dinner with his wife and in-laws two weeks before the shootings.
On Nov. 11, a Friday, deputies were called to a domestic dispute at the Stephenses' home, involving Bobbie and J.L. Because Bobbie opted not to start the process for an order of protection, there was nothing the officers could do, Stephens said.
Bobbie decided to move back home.
“I can still see her walking across the street with a bag of her things,” Stephens said. “J.L. had told her if she didn't, he would kill the whole family.”
On that Sunday morning, Stephens said she noticed the Perrys' car gone from the driveway. She called her sister.
“I asked if there was anything I could do to help,” Stephens said. “She said, `This is something I have to work out myself, but I love you.“’
Stephens was in the hospital from Nov. 13 to Dec. 8. She underwent 10 days of rehabilitation.
She missed her sister's funeral. She demanded that doctors allow her to leave the hospital to attend her husband's. A friend, Charles Horack, rented a van with a wheelchair lift so she could go say her final goodbyes. Another friend from the school district, Lori Arledge Vinson, helped Stephens use the computer service Skype to keep in touch with family and friends while she was in the hospital.
“There is always a time when God calls you home,” Stephens said. “For Bobbie and Don, it was their time. He (God) left me here to let others know there is that road to hope. I hope I can make a difference in someone's life.”
But it was a hard road to where she is today.
“I lay in that hospital bed and thought, `I've lost my home, my job, my hand, my sister and my husband,“’ Stephens said. “Lord, where am I going? What am I going to do? He said, I'll be your right hand.”
Stephens was fitted with a prosthetic right hand, matched to her left hand right down to the beautifully French-manicured nails and the age spots, she points out with a smile. She still has phantom pains from the missing hand, and swelling in her leg.
Vinson helped spearhead finding a new home for Stephens, so that she wouldn't have to go back to the home flooded with so many bad memories. A “Fresh Start for Pat” fund collected donations, and a rental home was secured in the mill village in Lyman.
The outpouring of love and support Stephens received from District 5 after the tragedy last November is the result of what she gave during her time with the school district.
“It was the District 5 family taking care of a loved one, more than anything,” said assistant superintendent Greg Wood.
Beech Springs Intermediate School continues to keep Stephens involved in activities there. Wood said he thinks Stephens' positive attitude and appreciation makes people want to give back even more.
“I've been most impressed with her positive attitude, her willingness to share what happened to her, how she overcame it through her faith and how domestic violence can impact lives in a family and a community,” he said.
Forgiveness and hope
After shooting his family members, J.L. fled north on Interstate 85, leading deputies on a high speed chase. He was stopped near Gaffney and shot by a deputy after aiming the shotgun at officers.
At first, J.L. was expected to recover, and he was charged by the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office with attempted murder and two counts of murder. But he contracted an infection and died three weeks after the shootings.
“At first, I was happy,” Stephens said. “But the Lord got a hold of my heart. If I had been able to, I would have gone into that hospital room at Regional and said, `I forgive you.’ How can you not forgive somebody, with the way the Lord has forgiven you? That's how I've gotten to where I can speak about it. I thank God I was able to lean on Him enough to get through this.”
Now, Stephens is driven to tell her story, so that other people who may be suffering domestic abuse in silence can have hope and find help. Stephens recently shared her story at a vigil to promote domestic violence awareness in Spartanburg, and has other speaking engagements lined up.
Lynn Hawkins, executive director of SAFE Homes Rape Crisis Coaltion in Spartanburg, a nonprofit agency that aids victims of domestic abuse, said she is thankful for survivors like Stephens who reach out to others.
“I think it's also good for her to be able to share – there is a therapeutic factor there as well,” Hawkins said. “These stories still send chills up my spine. It's horrible to listen to what people do to each other in the name of love.”
Stephens urges victims to get help, to turn to someone they can trust to talk to.
“The bottom line is, there is hope,” Stephens said. “First of all, in the Lord. Second, in all of these agencies. I cannot say how good God has been to me. I've had showers of blessings and I know where my hope comes from. I don't feel like I'm a victim. I am a survivor. I'm here for Bobbie, to continue what she can't do. She can't speak for herself.”