WOONSOCKET — Having lost the use of his legs, Donald Paterson doesn't leave his third-floor apartment at Kennedy Manor as often as he'd like these days. But tomorrow, his wife, Trudy, will help him into his wheelchair, jostle him into their minivan and take him to meet someone he's been waiting a long time to see: the boy who left him a cripple.
More than nine months after he was stabbed in the back, Paterson expects to confront his alleged attacker in Family Court.
It will be the first time the 74-year-old retired machinist has ever seen the boy.
“I just want to see the bugger,” Paterson said. “I want to know why, you know, why did he do such a foolish thing to me and my family, a thing that's caused us so much pain and suffering.”
The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether the alleged assailant, who is just 16 years old, will be waived into Superior Court to be tried as an adult, according to Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. Citing the boy's juvenile status, however, Kempe declined to say what took so long to get to this point.
Paterson was stabbed in broad daylight on April 24 in the parking lot of the Four Seasons Apartments on Diamond Hill Road, where he was living at the time. He was walking home from the Gulf convenience store across the street, where he had just purchased a lottery ticket, when someone jumped out from behind a Dumpster and thrust a knife between his shoulder blades, severing his spine.
The only eyewitness, if you can call it that, was Paterson, but he caught little more than a fleeting glimpse of the assailant from behind as he collapsed to the pavement.
After days went by without an arrest, the police blanketed the neighborhood with fliers asking whether anyone in the area had noticed anything unusual around the time of the crime, with a few details about what the assailant might look like.
Nearly two weeks after the attack, police took the alleged perpetrator into custody. Because the suspect is a juvenile, few details about him have ever been made public, including his identity. But police did say the youth had been attending school outside the city and that they expected a judge to order a psychiatric evaluation before the legal case against him moved forward. Kempe would not comment, however, citing the boy's juvenile status.
The boy is charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and assault on a person over 60. The felony charges carry up to 20 years each in adult courts, but if the boy is sentenced as a juvenile the longest prison term he faces would probably last until his 19th birthday at the most – a little more than two years.
Despite the criminal charges, the police were unable to determine the boy's motive for the alleged attack. Revenge, robbery and such far-fetched speculation as a gang initiation rite were all ruled out.
The sheer senselessness of the attack troubled Paterson almost as much as the devastating consequences of the wound itself. But Trudy, who has done some personal sleuthing, now has a better idea of why her husband was allegedly attacked — though she says state prosecutors have cautioned her against speaking out publicly while the criminal charges are pending.
“It wasn't robbery and it wasn't a gang initiation ... it wasn't any of those things,” she says.
Meanwhile, Paterson's journey toward recovery is a work in progress. Before the attack, Paterson was a spry retiree who enjoyed an active social life and outings with his grandchildren, a man who won trophies for his keen hand with a pool cue.
Ask him how he's getting along lately, though, and Paterson answers with a tone of audible despondency, “Not too well.”
The stabbing left Paterson hospitalized for weeks, including a period of extended physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island. When he was released it was no longer feasible for him to return to the Four Seasons because he couldn't walk up the stairs. So he and Trudy relocated to Kennedy Manor, a public high rise for seniors.
“It's very convenient because it has an elevator,” says Trudy.
During the early phase of his recovery, Paterson suffered from excruciating pain in his legs, a kind of heightened sensitivity caused by neurological trauma to his body, his family says. He was treated with powerful painkillers that made him feel listless and dulled his senses.
And there were medical complications from the stabbing that required more treatments and more drugs — life-threatening blood clots in his legs and lungs. The condition has been blamed on the physical inactivity foisted upon him by paralysis.
Paterson says he spends most of his time in his apartment, sleeping, lying around watching TV — and feeling helpless. But one of the worst bits of this new and unwelcome life is that his wife must endure it with him.
“My life's all done,” says Paterson. “I lost my life and my wife has lost hers too because of things we have to do together and now it's a burden for her to take care of me.”
Last year, Paterson's friends from the Italian Workingmen's Club sponsored a fundraiser for the family that helped them buy a Plymouth Voyager to help him get around.
“It doesn't have a lift for the wheelchair, but at least I can transport the motorized wheelchair wherever he goes,” says Trudy.
Paterson has no feeling in one of his legs and a little left in another. Using his arms for leverage, he can lift himself high enough off the wheelchair and shift himself into the passenger seat of the Voyager.
It's a tough job for Paterson, but if he's feeling strong and he summons all his strength, he can do it.
He's just hoping the courts do theirs.
“This wasn't just a slap-on-the-wrist crime where they just say, 'Hey, don't do that again,' and send him on his way,” he says. “They should put that boy away.”