So, This is What It's Like to Die
Award-winning journalist Torri Minton tells the story of the violent attack suffered by her sister in California's Gold Country, her subsequent recovery, and the prosecution of her attacker. Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 16, 1993.
Victim's Sister Recalls Horror of Attack
My sister Jennifer went for a bike ride on a glorious green May afternoon in Gold Country. She rode past barns, brooks and little white houses with their doors open, past an old gold mine and calves and oaks in deep pastures. The sun was in her face.
On her favorite country road, a white pickup truck stopped. The driver asked for directions and drove off. A minute later she heard the pickup behind her. The driver rammed her back tire.
She landed in a gravel ditch on the side of a grassy hill, her ankle broken. He jumped from the driver’s side and grabbed her arm and yanked her up. He tried to put plastic handcuffs on her.
“Get in the truck, bitch!” he yelled.
She didn’t; he stabbed her in the breast, chest and abdomen. My sister looked down and saw her intestines pushing out from the abdominal wound. She tried to hold them in.
Then she was down on the ground again, looking up at the blue sky. My 34-year-old sister felt the warm blood pumping from the wounds onto her skin and thought, “So this is what it’s like to die.”
Even now it’s hard to write her name, Jennifer Minton, in a story about violence. It is so horrible that, nine months later, I still try not to think about it. But I do think about it. It affects my whole life.
I am angry at men, and mistrustful. My heart pounds in fear when they walk too close on the street. I jump at sudden sounds. I hate it that women have to live in such fear.
It started for me with a phone message from Mother one night after work. Jennifer had been in a bike accident, she said. That was all. She didn’t want to scare me.
But when I called the hospital, a social worker told me my sister was alert in the helicopter after the stabbing, on the way to the trauma unit. Helicopter? I thought. Stabbing? I started breathing too fast.
On the way to the hospital, I kept imagining what happened to Jennifer. This was the kind of mad, random violence that we read about and see on TV and in the movies. But it doesn’t happen to the people we know and love. Not on a beautiful afternoon in a quiet town where neighbors leave their doors open.
Could Jennifer still see? Was her face torn apart? The car rushed through the darkness. I was numb. My friend Cynthia asked how I was doing. But it was hard to talk, almost as if uttering my fears aloud would make them come true.
Jennifer was in surgery. The social worker said she was lucky the knife had missed her heart. I was told that from what she looked like at the scene, they weren’t sure she would live. We waited for hours under the bright hospital lights, my mother and her friend, me and my friend, stretched out in couches, dry eyed and shocked. I called my father; he was in Ohio at his sister’s funeral. The rest of our family was on the way.
It was 4 a.m. when she got wheeled out of surgery. The nurse warned us we’d feel faint when we saw her. But I thought I was tough. I had seen my father unconscious, on a ventilator, after his heart ceased working. I had seen the limp body of a man who’d jumped off a crane to his death.
But when I saw my little sister -- the one I’d shared a bunk bed with, the one I’d shared sleeping bag with the night her cat crawled in between us and had kittens -- the room began to spin and my face got cold. I would have fallen if a nurse hadn’t pushed a chair under my knees. My mother had to leave the room.
Jennifer had been cut open the length of her chest so the doctors could clean her out and look at the damage. A lung was punctured. Her liver was nicked. She had a brace on her neck and there were tubes in her nose and mouth.
Her fingers were covered with dried blood. There was grass still tangled in her long brown hair, and I wanted to take it out. Irrationally, I didn’t want her to know what had happened.
Two young loggers, Christopher Poor and his nephew, Jason Mayberry, were driving down a back road to avoid traffic when they saw what they thought was an accident. They found my sister, hysterical.
The man with the knife threatened Poor and drove off. Mayberry went for help. California Highway Patrolman John Slusser, also an emergency medical technician, was at home when he heard Mayberry outside yelling. He grabbed his medical kit, thinking he was rushing to an accident. On the way he passed the white pickup, noted the license plate and got a look at the driver.
Slusser wrapped Jennifer’s intestine in moist bandages to keep them from bursting and tried to stop the bleeding until help arrived. Then he told Amador County Sheriff’s detectives about the pickup and its driver. Jeffrey Allen Tate was arrested that night. Slusser was named Peace Officer of the Year by the Amador County Peace Officers Association. Poor and Mayberry were commended by the Board of Supervisors for saving Jennifer’s life.
Driving Each Other Crazy, As Sisters Will Do
Jennifer opened her green eyes in the hospital bed but couldn’t talk. The only sounds were the ventilators and beeping monitors. She reached out to hold my hand. We cried.
Jennifer is a kindergarten teacher. I’m two years older; we’re both single. We’re so close in age that we often clashed. I’d fix up my room and she’d copy it. I hated that. I’d make Halloween candy last until Christmas. She hated that.
She was bossy. So was I. She wanted to be the oldest. When I ran away from home when I was 16, she finally was. Then I came back home. She didn’t like it.
She liked to organize everything. Still does. Drives me crazy, but she’s good at it. I wish we’d been closer when we were growing up. I wished we’d gotten along better at Christmas. As I looked at her, I wished a lot of things.
In the last few years, we hadn’t seen each other much, even though she lived only two hours away. I’d never even seen her new home in Sutter Creek.
My imagination ran wild: Would she have to be connected to a machine the rest of her life? Would she ever be able to walk on that broken leg? Who’d take care of her kindergartners? Would finding out about Jennifer scar them?
The nurses told us Jennifer remembered everything. Jesus, I thought. Doesn’t the mind blank out such awful things so it doesn’t go crazy?
An Olympic Gold Medalist Helps Provide Some Humor
Jennifer remembered the weirdest things.
“Guess who one of my doctors is,” she asked our brother when he walked into intensive care, fighting tears.
Dashing Eric Heiden, Olympic speed-skating gold-medalist and bicyclist, she said. She even remembered how to spell his name. Our brother didn’t believe her. Then Heiden introduced himself. Our brother stared. My sister thought it was funny.
Heiden had cut a hole under Jennifer’s arm to insert a tube to inflate her punctured lung. She recognized him after she was lifted off the helicopter and rushed into the emergency room at the University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, the busiest trauma center in the state. She read his name tag in the emergency room, thinking she must not be too bad off if she knew who Heiden was. Or maybe, she thought, she was hallucinating.
They took her contact lenses out and put them in test tubes. They cut all her clothes off, including her favorite riding shirt. She remembers somebody yelling, “Don’t throw those on the floor. They are evidence!”
She also remembers the worst part – struggling with the attacker: “All of the sudden, you realize that, yes, people do get killed and this is how it feels and you don’t have any control over it, and there are people who are stronger than you and if they want to kill you they can. This is dumb, all the work I’ve done. I went to school, I have a job and now I’m going to die like this. What are people going to think when they find my body?”
It took days for this to come out. People pressed Jennifer for details, or talked over her head about the attack, as if she couldn’t hear. It made me mad.
She’d tell me this upset her, and it felt like we were kids again, in the good times, sharing confidences. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to keep away men I didn’t know. Even when one of the men who saved her life called to see how she was doing, I grilled him until I found out who he was. I didn’t want any weirdos to find her.
I’d felt this bonding before in crisis situations and didn’t trust it. People revert to old patterns when the crisis subsides. But with Jennifer, the new bond has stuck.
People ask if I had thoughts of revenge when she was in the hospital. I didn’t, but I thought I should. I thought I should cry more. But my feelings were flat, a protective blanket to keep the pain from rushing in.
Meet Jeffrey Allen Tate: A Dishwasher and a Rapist
The man who attacked my sister is Jeffrey Allen Tate, 23, dishwasher and rapist. His record is long. An arrest for sexual battery at 13, one for attempted robbery and attempted rape at 16, the same year he raped his girlfriend’s mother at knife point. Six years served for that. He’d been paroled just five months before he attacked my sister.
It wasn’t until we took Jennifer home to my mother’s house that I got angry. My mother and I had to clean out the gaping wounds twice a day, including the abdominal gash so wide and deep I could have put my fist in it. It hurt Jennifer every time we touched the wounds. We were all irritable and tired. I worried constantly about infection. He was responsible, and I hated him for it.
“Not knowing at first if she would survive, or be whole again, and in the days and weeks that followed, worrying over her future physical and emotional state, I endured what must be every mother’s worst nightmare,” Mother told the court later.
“She only lived because of chance circumstances; she will carry the scars for the rest of her life. And I must live with these facts and this concern for the rest of my life. I am deeply concerned that other young women – and their families – be spared this kind of senseless suffering – or worse, the pain of death and bereavement.”
During the trial in a little courthouse in Jackson, Amador County, I stared at Tate’s back and his cap of dark hair. When he turned around, I couldn’t bear to look at his face, with its short little mustache. He’d shaved it off to try to disguise himself after the attack, hiding in the apartment of a friend. There he licked porno magazine pictures complained that women were always turning him down.
Once, he locked his brown, watery eyes on me and I felt disgust. But I didn’t let the rage rise. If I allowed myself to feel anything, I feared it would let loose a river of emotions and I’d get screamingly hysterical and make a mess of things. Sometimes I wondered if it was right to hate someone so much, that there must be some reason -- possibly beyond his control.
I tried to feel compassion, even after Tate smiled when the verdict was read: guilty on all counts, including attempted murder, torture and mayhem. I tried. I wanted to believe that something horrible happened to him when he was a child. Something he had no control over. Therapy can heal him, I wanted to believe.
But then, on the day he was sentenced, he swaggered out of the courtroom. “Have a nice day,” he sarcastically told the courtroom. Finally I could hate him.
A Change in the Outlook On the Predators Among Us
“Sex predators can’t be saved,” a lawyer wrote in a January piece in the New York Times. I paid attention. She said they have a fundamental lack of empathy, a card missing from the deck. Before my sister was attacked, I couldn’t have accepted this. Now I do.
I’ve always admired Jennifer’s ability to go it alone. Once she drove her Volkswagen cross-country and back by herself. Solo bike trips were a way to relax. Now she’s been robbed of her courage. She wakes up every night, afraid.
Yet, for months, she wasn’t angry.
“I guess I should be,” she admitted. “I don’t really feel like poking his eyes out, but I’m hurt and I’m sad. Maybe I haven’t gotten to it yet.”
My emotions also are still being clarified. I dream of stabbings and I feel nothing. I hear footsteps and I am frightened. I got furious the other day at the sight of a coffee cup. On it was a painting of a man chasing a naked woman. Maybe it was supposed to be funny.
Maybe this is what they mean when they say feminists have no sense of humor. Quite simply, it offended me.
The night before I saw the coffee cup, I caught my breath at the sudden sound of a man shaking his umbrella on the sidewalk.
I’m angry that the 10-minute walk home from BART makes me hyperventilate for fear of someone lunging out from behind a parked car.
There are other wounds. When I was about 20, walking from my ballet class to the bus stop, a man in a ski mask jumped on my back at twilight in a residential neighborhood in Marin County.
He tried to knock me down. He said he had a gun in my back; I grabbed it to see if it was real. I thought he was trying to rape me. In a surprisingly calm voice, I asked him over and over to stop. Finally, he ran away. It made me afraid of men. What happened to Jennifer only makes it worse.
I am angry that women’s lives are so restricted by violence. Angry that my sister had to lose her innocence and freedom. We don’t start out being afraid. We grow into it. I look back now, amazed that I walked home from school on a long dirt road alone, making toe prints in the dust and picking blackberries.
It’s our mothers who first make us fearful, warning us, trying to protect. Now we warn our women friends. Don’t walk alone after dark. Don’t let strangers know where you live. It’s suffocating.
It was a man who tried to kill my sister. But it was men who saved her life – and they kept me from hating every man on the planet.
Now She Rides With Friends On a Bike the Town Bought
My sister’s town, Sutter Creek, rallied behind her. Two friends of hers set out fund-raising jars and solicited business in Amador County, raising enough money to buy Jennifer a fancy new bike with all the trimmings. She rides it now in the company of friends. Teachers and others employed by the Calaveras County Unified School District donated their sick leave, more than 500 hours of it, so she could recover.
She is back teaching. This kind of small-town support is why she moved to Amador County and why she is staying.
On January 7, in a courtroom packed with Jennifer’s friends and relatives, Tate was sentenced to life plus five years and 10 months, the maximum. You know what that means? He could be out in 10 years.
But more likely it will be 20 years before he’s even considered for parole, says District Attorney Larry Dixon.