Local News

Saturday, Feb 09 2013 09:00 PM

Crime victims share their stories, optimism regarding upcoming march

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Donna Bulford is one of the crime victims who will participate in a march organized by the Kern County District Attorney's office during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week. Bulford was a victim of a kidnapping, robbery and rape in 2009.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Donna Bulford, who was a victim of a brutal rape, kidnapping and robbery in 2009 will be one of the crime victims participating in a march organized by the Kern County District Attorney's office during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

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    By Photo courtesy of the family.

    Robert Grant was struck and killed at the intersection of Mount Vernon and Virginia avenues in 2011.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Michael Benge lost his wife, Jada, when a drunken driver slammed into their vehicle while the family was on vacation. Benge and his three daughters also suffered injuries in the horrific collision.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

One was the victim of a robbery and rape who has publicly shared her experience and encouraged other victims of sexual assault to quickly report the crime. Another is a mother who lost a son to a drunken driver, while the third is a father who -- along with his three young daughters -- witnessed his wife die after they were hit head-on by an SUV driven by a drunken teen.

All three plan to come together with potentially dozens of other crime victims and their families for a march in Bakersfield during April's National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

Related Info

Victims march

What: Organizers have planned a march for victims and victims' families during April's National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

When: 10 a.m. Thursday, April 25.

Where: The march will begin at Mill Creek Park and end at the Liberty Bell at the corner of Truxtun and Chester avenues.

How: Those interested can email victimmarch2013@co.kern.ca.us for more information.

Source: Kern County District Attorney's office

"We want to say to victims and their families, 'Your case may be done, but we haven 't forgotten you,'" Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pafford said.

Following are the stories of some of those who plan to attend. They recently described the horrors they experienced at the hands of others and how they've coped.

Holding her head high

Time has given some distance to what happened on Jan. 29, 2009. It's still there -- it always will be -- but "the ugly" of it has faded into the background.

It was just over four years ago that Anthony Ray Graham Jr. committed a heinous crime against a Bakersfield woman that stunned area residents both in its brazenness and its depravity. Graham, now serving a 71-years-to-life prison sentence, kidnapped a mother and her 11-month-old daughter from a Rosedale Highway parking lot in broad daylight.

He forced the mother to drive to an ATM and take out money. Then he raped her in the back seat of her car, threatening to kill her and her family if she went to the police.

The mother, Donna Bulford, took action as soon as Graham left. She drove to the store of a friend, fell to her knees, and said she'd just been robbed and raped.

It is The Californian's policy not to identify victims of sexual assault by name or by image. Exceptions are made only when, as in Bulford's case, individuals willingly come forward to tell their stories.

"Women need to know there's no shame to being a victim of this type of crime," Bulford said recently.

"We can live on afterward and hold our heads high whether we receive justice or not," she said.

Thoughtful and self-assured in her replies, the 35-year-old said she's thankful she received justice.

Graham was arrested in Los Angeles a month after the crime. Bulford faced him in court and underwent two excruciating days of cross-examination on the witness stand.

She said she has the utmost respect for law enforcement and the District Attorney's office in arresting and prosecuting Graham. Knowing he'll be behind bars the rest of his life provides solace.

What helped the most in getting through this ordeal? Her husband's support.

"He stood by my side through absolutely everything," Bulford said. "He never made me feel guilty or responsible."

Others weren't so kind. Bulford said there were times she was at the grocery store or the hairdresser's and overheard comments made about her.

She was mad at first, but she knew the truth of what had happened.

"I've always known from the beginning that this was not me," she said.

Bulford hasn't let the assault define her life. She, her husband and two daughters love doing the things many families do, including "family nights" playing board games or going out to dinner. They cheer on their favorite sports teams.

But she also believes in the importance of sharing her experience, and has spoken in public about what happened. She stresses the importance of reporting a sexual assault as soon as it occurs in order to better the chances of an arrest.

Bulford didn't hesitate to commit to the march when she heard that District Attorney Lisa Green, who prosecuted Graham, was involved. She sees the march as an opportunity to act as sounding board, for people to gain support not only for themselves but in turn to help others.

"You may be able to help others with their journey," Bulford said.

Hers continues to get better.

Losing a son to a drunken driver

The drunken driver who killed her son is serving a six-year prison sentence, but that punishment does nothing to dull the pain Donna Dias suffers every day.

"It's like it happened yesterday," Dias said of the Oct. 6, 2011 crash that took her son's life.

"He meant everything to me," Dias said. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for him."

The son, Robert Grant, was struck and killed at the intersection of Mount Vernon and Virginia avenues. Grant's vehicle was struck on the driver's side door and he died at the scene.

Paul Sainz, intoxicated and realizing he'd killed a man, ran from the scene but was brought back by a couple of witnesses to the crash, Dias said. He pleaded no contest in February 2012 to DUI vehicle manslaughter without gross negligence.

Dias said she didn't get a sense of closure at Sainz's sentencing. He'll serve a few years, but her son is gone forever.

Grant, 33, worked as a welder and was attending evening classes to finish his chemical engineering degree, Dias said. She described him as a hard worker who was loved by many in the community.

Dias, 57, and her husband, Michael Dias, 56, have lived in the Pismo Beach area the past 15 years but were always in close contact with Grant. Donna Dias said with a laugh that her son was a "mama's boy" and they shared a special relationship.

Grant's sister Monique Middleswarth said her mother's not the same person she was before the crash.

"It's like her light has blown out," Middleswarth said.

Her mother isn't as happy as she used to be, and Middleswarth said she's spent as much time with her as possible to try to give her some hope that things will become better.

Middleswarth, who has two sons and two daughters, said her family keeps her going. Her children loved Grant, and her 19-year-old son still has the memorial picture of him as the background on his computer.

As for Sainz, Middleswarth said she doesn't hate him, she hates what he did.

"I wish that he takes this tragedy and turns it around for the positive and helps others to realize the dangers of drinking and driving," she said.

Family trip becomes nightmare

Walking his eldest daughter down the aisle proved extraordinarily difficult for Michael Benge. It was a moment that should have been shared with his wife, but years earlier a drunken driver killed her and sent Benge's life down a path that he previously could never have imagined.

Whether it's for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, A Life Interrupted or any of the myriad of anti-drunken driving programs that target teens, Benge has been a part of it. The 51-year-old told his story over and over again, and it still packs the emotional wallop to bring listeners to tears.

Benge and his three daughters aren't just the husband and daughters of a victim, they're victims themselves.

He views the upcoming march as a chance not just to share stories, but also to hear about what they're doing to make a difference.

Benge, wife Jada, and daughters Madison, Hayley and Hannah were leaving a campground at Lake San Antonio on Memorial Day weekend in 2004 when 17-year-old Dana McCormick hit their Dodge Dakota head-on at 95 mph. Jada Benge, 33, was killed, as was a 17-year-old passenger in McCormick's vehicle.

Michael Benge and his daughters -- who at the time were 8, 9, and 12 -- suffered major injuries including broken bones, bruises and cuts.

The emotional scars are deep.

"These little girls watched their mother die," Benge said.

McCormick was sentenced to a detention center until her 25th birthday and has since been released.

Benge said he was more satisfied at the end of her time in custody that she was remorseful for what she'd done. At first, she just seemed to be upset that she'd gotten in trouble, he said.

"I've kinda sorta forgiven her," Benge said.

He believes much of the blame for what happened is a result of her parenting. Dana's father, Dennis Dewayne McCormick, bought the teen $67 worth of vodka, beer and malt liquor the weekend of the crash, despite knowing she was on probation for a previous drunken-driving conviction.

The elder McCormick was sentenced to two years in jail after pleading guilty to one felony count of child endangerment and six additional misdemeanor charges, including three counts of purchasing alcohol for a minor resulting in death or great bodily injury.

Benge has spent the years since raising his daughters on his own and spreading the message that drunken driving ruins lives. It's taken patience, perseverance and faith to keep moving forward and making sure his daughters worked hard and strived to do the best they could in life.

It was especially tough as the girls went through high school. Other girls would say things like, "You should have died in the car with your mother," Benge said.

"Teen girls can be vicious," he said.

The youngest daughter, Madison, struggled in school and was failing all her courses her freshman year. Benge sat them all down and told them that their mom would not be happy if they didn't try their hardest.

They turned things around. Benge said all his daughters did independent study and graduated high school early.

One thing his daughters didn't do was live with a "victim mentality" and use the crash as an excuse not to do well in life. They didn't volunteer information about what had happened to them, and would only discuss it if someone asked where their mom was.

The daughters are now 17, 18 and 21, and the oldest, Hannah, is taking tests to become a respiratory therapist. Benge said she keeps busy because idle time is depressing.

In addition, she's pregnant, and Benge is looking forward to greeting his first grandchild. It will be another bittersweet moment, though, because Jada won't be there.

It's been more than eight years since the crash, and its repercussions are still felt. Benge credits his faith in God with seeing him through.

The crash brought about a significant change in the way he prays.

"Before I used to ask for things," Benge said. "Now I don't do that. I just give thanks for what I have."

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