A family is watching TV on a cold Sunday afternoon when a man bursts in, calls them an obscene name and attacks with a hammer, aiming for their heads. One woman is killed. Another suffers a severe head injury that steals pieces of her memory and speech. Two other family members are beaten but escape with minor injuries.
It sounds like something straight out of a horror movie, but that’s what Yvonne Wallis, her son, daughter-in-law and grandson experienced last Dec. 19 in Bayview, Idaho. Their next-door neighbor, Larry Cragun, was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder, and is in jail awaiting trial in January. His bail is set at $1 million.
Ten months later, the survivors are struggling to move on.
Patty Heath, wife of Wallis’ son, Michael Heath, died the day after the attack. Wallis has had three surgeries on her skull and is awaiting a fourth. She is visited daily by nurses and therapists, along with her son, who is paid by a Coeur d’Alene nonprofit organization to be his mother’s caretaker.
Heath lives in his RV in the woods nearby. He said his nightmares aren’t as bad as his good dreams, in which his wife visits him.
“You wake up and you realize that’s not your life anymore,” said Heath, who was married to Patty for almost 22 years. Their son, Jedidiah Heath, 22, declined to comment for this story, but suffered numerous blows and needed stitches in his head, his father said.
If there is a silver lining, it’s the love and support they’ve received from the tiny community of about 300 people that sits in picturesque beauty at the edge of Lake Pend Oreille. Community members have held fundraisers and brought casseroles, and visit Wallis daily to help with medical care. Neighbors who never were friends before have become like soul mates.
“Everybody here has been touched that something like this happened so close to us. It could have been any one of us,” said Genette Gabica, who manages the nearby Bitter End Marina and does everything she can for Wallis, from taking her shopping to cleaning her small trailer. “I cried tears for her from the beginning, not knowing her. I just want her to see, people do care. I think it does help lighten the pain.”
Struggling to get by
On the left side of her head, Wallis has a “hammer-shaped” space that’s soft to the touch. The 59-year-old woman has undergone three surgeries – first to clean out bone fragments, then to insert a plate in her skull, then to remove the plate when it became infected.
“It’s just skin over my brain, and any little puncture could be severe damage to my brain,” Wallis said recently, in halting speech. “Just fluke things, like leaving a cupboard door open, could be deadly.”
Neighbor Judy Gullidge, who never knew Wallis before, now visits daily to help her with the intravenous antibiotic drip that’s helping clear the infection. Eventually, Wallis will return to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle to have a new plate inserted. But for now, she wears a helmet to protect the vulnerable spot.
“I’d like to be able to do normal things,” Wallis said. “I’m hoping my life can be a little more normal. Right now, I’m just an invalid.”
Before the attack, she said, she was personable and chatted easily with people. A former bartender and hairdresser, she had a lot of friends. Now she struggles to find simple words and gets dizzy just looking up.
Still, she said the speech and occupational therapists she works with regularly have told her she’s made significant progress. Panhandle Health District declined to allow her therapists to discuss Wallis’ condition, citing federal privacy laws.
Despite support from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security disability and the state Crime Victims Compensation Fund, Wallis barely gets by financially once she pays rent and utilities on her small trailer.
Local churches and neighbors have helped pay for gas and motel rooms when she has traveled to Seattle for surgeries and follow-up care.
“We made our food to bring with us because we didn’t have money for food,” she said.
Days after the attack, the blood-stained couch where Patty Heath was sitting when she was attacked was still in Wallis’ living room.
“They were putting a blanket over it,” Gullidge said. “It makes me cry. I’m sorry, I can hardly talk about it,” she said, her voice catching with emotion. “We got a new couch for her and whatever we could do.”
Whatever they could do was a lot. In the weeks and months after the attack, several neighbors befriended Wallis and Heath, helping with everything from housecleaning to raising money.
“I feel we’ve covered the evil with enough good, if that makes sense,” Gullidge said.
Next-door neighbor Herb Huseland only knew Wallis to wave and say hi, but drove her to Seattle and stayed with friends for 10 days, waiting to take her back home after her surgery. Huseland, who once wrote a column for The Spokesman-Review, put out a call for donations on his blog and collected hundreds of dollars.
He continues to advocate for her, emailing her Harborview Medical Center doctor and patient care coordinator for the documentation necessary for reimbursement from the state Crime Victims fund.
Shortly after the attack, Gullidge and her friend Robin McKellar organized a fundraiser at a nearby bed-and-breakfast, raising a considerable sum for Wallis and Heath. Gullidge said her actions are motivated by the love she received when she had cancer.
“The neighborhood rallied around me. When I saw there was this opportunity to be that for somebody else, that’s what I wanted to be,” Gullidge said. “It’s a beautiful little community, that’s for sure. I want her to feel that God-love from all of us. And I think she is.”
Still haunted by that day
Despite the financial difficulties, the larger challenge Wallis and her family confront — daily — is the loss of Patty Heath, the petite, dark-haired woman who Wallis said was “just full of love.”
Michael Heath said he and his wife enjoyed sea kayaking and camping and she loved to collect rocks on the beach.
“I’m pretty much having to learn life all over again,” said the tall, gruff man, looking suddenly lost.
Gabica, the Bitter End Marina manager, said the attack stunned the Bayview community. Many people saw Cragun that day, as he allegedly ran from business to business downtown telling people he’d just killed four people. Some heard the screams emanating from the trailer on the hill. One visitor to town that day said he’s still haunted by it. Many people saw the sheriff’s cars rolling through town.
Gabica met Wallis at the fundraiser and offered to help.
“My heart just kind of broke open for her,” she said of her new friend.
Cragun is scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 3 in Kootenai County 1st District Court.
In May, a judge postponed the case because a psychologist determined the 32-year-old was unfit to stand trial. Following treatment, Cragun was found to be competent to stand trial and assist in his defense, said county Prosecutor Barry McHugh.
McHugh said his office does not intend to seek the death penalty.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, some Bayview residents said, Cragun had posted fliers around town suggesting an umbrella submerged in Lake Pend Oreille allowed the government to read people’s minds.
When Cragun was apprehended by police that Sunday, he told a deputy “they” had raped his wife and daughter. The deputy said in his report he understood “they” to mean the victims. Cragun’s ex-wife told the news media that was a lie.
Deputies had been called to Cragun’s home several times to investigate claims they later found to be false, including an allegation that the Heaths’ son had poisoned Cragun, police reports show.
Michael Heath told deputies that Cragun had been angry over the previous few weeks and had thrown snowballs at Wallis’ trailer and yelled profanities at the family, a police report said. Wallis’ and Cragun’s trailers are about 50 feet apart. At the time of the attack, the Heaths lived in a different Bayview trailer park.
Despite the evidence of mental illness, Michael Heath points to a police report that says Cragun “took a circuitous route that would keep him out of view of any windows” in Wallis’ residence. “Cragun could have easily walked straight north to the deck and sliding glass door … but chose not to,” the report said. Heath said that shows his alleged attacker planned the attack.
Wallis said she doesn’t hate Cragun, though she feels she should. She thinks she’s suppressing her hatred but that it will surface when she attends the trial.
Heath is not so charitable.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to be in the same room with him,” he said. “Unlike Mom, I do hate his guts and I wish he was dead.”