The Miracle OF KEVIN CURNUTT

Four years ago, a sniper’s bullet pierced the brain of an Arlington teenager. For three weeks he lay in a coma, with little hope for recovery. But Kevin Curnutt defied the odds. Last month he crawled nine inches across the floor.

The polished tile hallway outside the Arlington Community Hospital emergency room quietly echoed the whispers of the doctor as he stood, grim-faced, trying to comfort the parents of a dying 13-year-old boy. For Jerry and Gail Curnutt, the past few hours had dissolved into a sequence of bizarre events borne from nightmares, not reality. Suddenly, nothing made sense. That Sunday afternoon in January four years ago, so full of activities, so carefully planned, was not supposed to end in a strange hospital with a strange doctor talking of death.

The Curnutts had attended church services that morning, had lunch, and the elder Curnutts planned to spend the early part of the afternoon back at the church, teaching country/western dance lessons to a group of junior high students. The lessons would be cut short, everyone had agreed, so they could get home in plenty of time to see the Super Bowl later that day.

Kevin Curnutt, Jerry and Gail’s youngest son, would visit a friend nearby. They planned to ride motorcycles on some trails in a wooded pasture across from the south Arlington church.

Then, just minutes after 3 p.m., a carefree day turned into a pitch black horror in which the family still lives. A quiet mystery man who lived a reclusive life near the property on which the youngsters were riding shot and killed 14-year-old Trey Shelton and seriously wounded Kevin Curnutt.

I have to be honest with you,” the doctor told Gail Cur-nutt. “Your son has been mortally wounded and is unconscious. He won’t know you’re here.” The doctor went on to explain that Kevin Curnutt had been shot in the head. A piece of buckshot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun had entered above the right temple, traveled completely through his brain and exited on the left side. The exit wound, located in the area of the most severe damage, was roughly the size of a silver dollar. Their son, he told them, would not live more than another 30 minutes. The doctors had examined Kevin, then simply wrapped a towel around his head to cover the wounds. The situation seemed hopeless.

As afternoon crept into evening, then night, Jerry Curnutt paced the hospital corridors in a state of shock. It was, he says, as if his brain was overheated. “The only way I can describe it is to say it was if I had spent a lot of time looking directly into the sun,” he says.

Dazed and desperate, he tried to bring reason from what had occurred just hours earlier. There had, he realized, been warning signs that such an insane tragedy might occur. The previous fell his son had returned home to tell him of “some old guy” who lived near the Sheltons chasing him and Trey Shelton with a shovel. Jerry had listened to the story, made certain the boys had not been on the man’s property, then dismissed the incident as a case of teenage exaggeration.

Later, he had overheard a conversation between Kevin and Trey about a $25,000 quarterhorse owned by Trey’s father, former Arlington City Councilman Ralph Shelton, being killed by a shotgun blast “down at the barn” on New Year’s Eve. Jerry Curnutt, who had never visited the Shelton home, didn’t realize that the barn was on the same 17-acre plot where the family’s residence was located.

It was shortly after 10 p.m. when Jerry Curnutt passed a waiting room television set and heard a reporter giving details of the shooting. Both youngsters, the reporter was saying, had been killed. Still not certain he wasn’t trapped in some bad dream, he turned and ran back to the intensive care ward with tears in his eyes. He felt a small rush of relief when he saw that his son, defying all odds the medical staff had given him, was still clinging to life. There was little evidence that night, however, that Kevin Curnutt would still be alive four years later, mentally alert and making a slow-but-sure physical recovery that has gone beyond all medical logic.

The friendship of Kevin Curnutt and Trey Shelton developed soon after they enrolled for the eighth grade at Arlington’s Floyd Gunn Junior High School in the fall of 1980. They shared several classes and were teammates on the football team. Soon they began to spend time in each other’s homes, often staying overnight and occasionally taking trips with Trey’s father to attend cutting horse competitions.

The Saturday before the shooting, in fact, Trey had spent the night with Kevin. “I remember them being back in Kevin’s room, laughing until late in the night,” Gail Curnutt says. “In fact, I had to finally go in and tell them to quiet down and get to sleep because we were going to church the next morning.”

On that Sunday afternoon, the Curnutts and another couple were busy with the dance instructions when a man Jerry didn’t know entered the back door of the church and spoke briefly with one of the other instructors. He, in turn, walked over to Jerry and informed him there might be a sniper in the woods across the street.

After advising all those in the church not to leave the building, Jerry Curnutt walked out onto the front steps and saw several police cars lined up along South Bowen Road. An ambulance and a paramedic team had also arrived. A police officer, seeing Jerry standing on the church steps, yelled for him to “get back inside.”

Panic tightening in his chest, Jerry Curnutt ran immediately to his car and drove it the 50 yards to where the police officers were assembled. He parked near the ambulance and took cover behind a telephone pole.

A paramedic told him that two boys had been shot and a sniper was barricaded in the house across the street. One of the victims had been picked up and taken to the hospital. They had not yet been able to reach the body of the other.

Curnutt immediately drove back to the church to tell his wife what he had learned. Standing on the porch, the hectic police activity in full view, he repeated to her what the paramedic had said. Gail Curnutt, her mouth suddenly dry, listened, saying nothing. Then she fainted.

While others tended Gail, Jerry telephoned the Shelton house. It was Trey’s oldest sister’s birthday, he knew, and some sort of celebration had been planned. It was the sister who answered and said her mother was out walking with a neighbor. Curnutt briefly told her of the possible danger in the woods and advised her to remain in the house.

In just a matter of minutes a call came to the church from Arlington Community Hospital, asking that the Curnutts get there as quickly as possible.



It would be some time before the Curnutts would learn the full details of the tragic event that had , brought them to Arlington Community Hospital on that cold, suddenly dreary Sunday afternoon.

Only after talking with Arlington police investigators did they find out that their son had been ambushed by a man named Richard Wade Tiedemann, a 32-year-old aerospace engineer employed by the Vought Corp. For four years Tiedemann had lived alone in the two-bedroom house adjacent to the Shelton property. Others in the neighborhood described him as a “loner” who rarely spoke to anyone and always kept the gate to his property locked. Born in Texas City, he had graduated with honors from the University of Virginia and earned a master’s degree from Princeton. He spent a great deal of his time raking leaves in his oak-shaded yard or working on the sailboat he’d recently purchased. No one seemed to know him well.

A search of Tiedemann’s house revealed that he also owned a number of guns. In fact, when he’d paid a Christmas visit to his parents’ home in Texas City a month earlier, he had taken all his guns with him, explaining to his father that he feared someone might break into his house during his absence and steal them.

Two months before, Tiedemann had called the Arlington Police Department to complain about the noise made by kids riding dirt bikes on the property next to his house. Police records indicate that an officer drove to the area and spoke to young Trey Shelton and several of his friends about the matter following Tiedemann’s call. Neither the police nor Tiedemann ever spoke with Trey’s parents about the complaint. No action was taken; the bikes were being ridden on the Shelton property, and nobody else in the south Arlington neighborhood had complained of the noise.

On that Sunday, however, Richard Tiedemann decided to take the law into his own hands. He loaded his 12-gauge shotgun, then stepped over the barbed wire fence separating his property from the Sheltons’ and positioned himself behind a concrete outbuilding.

Tiedemann waited until young Shelton, riding ahead of the inexperienced Kevin (who had been riding his friend’s bike for just a couple of weeks), topped a small rise on the dirt road running adjacent to the fence line. He fired two shots, knocking Trey from his bike. Hit in the back and the head, the boy died almost immediately.

The third shot was aimed at Kevin Curnutt and struck him in the head. He fell, and the red dirt bike he’d been riding toppled over on him.

Tiedemann then rose from his kneeling position, his rifle at his side, and slowly walked back to his house without even looking back at his fallen victims.

Arlington detectives R. A. Puente and T.C. Ingram, in the vicinity at the time, received word from dispatch of a possible sniper shooting and were at the scene in a matter of minutes. From their vantage point they could see that Kevin Curnutt was still alive but convulsing.

As soon as the medical unit arrived, Ingram drove his police car through the gate to shield the ambulance attendants who made their way to Kevin and hurriedly took him to the ambulance. Getting to Trey Shelton was impossible; the gunman was evidently still in the house and might start firing at any moment.

Within minutes, the Tactical Unit arrived and took up positions while attempts were made to talk Tiedemann from the house. Once, as the surrounding officers waited, the suspect walked, almost casually, from the house to the garage. He stayed for a few minutes, then returned toward the front porch, the shotgun at his side. As he stepped up on the porch he turned suddenly and fired in the direction of the officers. Several return shots were fired and Tiedemann screamed, reached for his leg and fell. He crawled back into the house.

It was after six when tactical officers fired tear gas canisters through the front window. A small fire broke out. Moments later, Tiedemann lunged out the front door, fell to the ground and started shooting. Marksmen from the Tactical Unit returned fire, killing him.

For almost three weeks Kevin lay in a coma. Despite an endless stream of relatives and friends coming to the hospital, the Curnutts rarely left their son’s side. They attended the funeral of Trey Shelton and occasionally made a quick trip home for clean clothing or to check the mail, but they always rushed back to the hospital, back to Kevin.

Their ordeal seemed endless. Jerry tried to comfort the steady stream of Kevin’s distraught friends, who could be found in the hospital waiting room at all hours. For Gail, one of the greatest difficulties was telling her mother about her grandson’s misfortune.

“I called her that night it happened,” she remembers, “and told her that Kevin had been shot and wasn’t expected to live. As soon as I mentioned he had been shot, she wanted to know where. I told her he had been shot in the woods. She asked the question again. And again I said in the woods. Finally, she said, ’Gail, what part of his body?’ I said, ’Mother, he’s been shot in the head.’ For some reason, it was really hard for me to say that Kevin had been shot in the head. But once I did, I found that I was able to talk more openly about what had happened. Since that time I’ve never had any trouble talking about the details of the shooting.”

Jerry and Gail and their oldest son, Kelly, constantly talked to Kevin. They told stories, read aloud, sang songs and prayed, hoping they might be heard by the youngster who lay motionless. Even if Kevin lived, doctors believed, he would be little more than a vegetable for whatever time remained for him. The swelling in his brain was still too severe to determine the full extent of the damage done, but no doctor was optimistic.

As the days passed, the Curnutts were told of the heartbreaking list of problems that could plague their son for the rest of his life: paralysis, blindness, inability to speak, loss of memory. And, of course, there was a very real chance that Kevin might never awaken from his coma. The doctors were trying to prepare them for the very worst. They didn’t realize that the Curnutts were preparing for something entirely different.

For parents who had gone so far as to sign organ donor agreements on that first dark night, the fact that Kevin was still alive was all the reason they needed to hope. “We had talked to the doctors about donating Kevin’s organs,” Gail Curnutt says. “At first the idea bothered me a great deal, but then I began to think maybe it would be a way part of him could live. At that time, I think we were resigning ourselves to his death. I remember looking at the form and the list of things it had: eyes, liver, heart and skin. The thought of someone else with Kevin’s skin really bothered me. I kept trying to imagine someone with his freckles.”



KEVIN HUNG ON, but each day presented some new crisis. Following surgery, his temperature rose dramatically and would not subside for several days. And there was no indication that he was responding to any of the stimuli provided him. The family continued to talk, to sing, to read-but there was no evidence that Kevin was hearing them. The doctors grew even more certain of their earlier diagnoses. The longer Kevin remained comatose, the greater the possibility he would never regain consciousness.

It was on a Sunday afternoon, three weeks after the shooting, that a nurse stood feeding Kevin small spoonfuls of ice cream, carrying on a running stream of conversation with the patient. “I’ll bet you’re getting tired of this ice cream,” she said. “What you probably would like is a big ol’ pizza with everything on it.”

Gail Curnutt smiled. The mention of pizza, she told Kevin, reminded her of the time Kevin and one of his friends had climbed through some cubicles designed for smaller children at one of the pizza restaurants the family had visited. Kevin had gotten stuck while attempting to crawl through one of the small boxes.

The nurse, joining in the one-sided “conversation,” said to Kevin, “You must have really been a sight. Your rear end must have been a foot in the air. . .”

Suddenly Kevin Curnutt was laughing. His mother laughed with him, then cried. It was, she says, a miracle. Doctors, admitting surprise that he had come out of the coma, still refused to offer the family any hope that their son would recover. One of the nurses, apparently concerned that the Curnutts might get their hopes too high, again used the word that chilled them: “In all likelihood,” the nurse said, “he will be a vegetable for the rest of his life.”

No longer comatose, Kevin was transferred from the intensive care unit to a private room the following day-Valentine’s Day-and his condition was upgraded from critical to serious. Though still immobile, the youngster was alert and aware of those around him. His speech had not yet returned, but through the use of an alphabet board designed by his brother Kelly, he was able to communicate a little. His greatest response was to the steady flow of tapes from his former schoolmates, who kept him updated on what was happening at school. “Seeing his eyes light up as he listened to those tapes sent by his friends,” says his father, “was worth a million dollars.” Two weeks later Kevin was transferred to Baylor Medical Center for a battery of tests and physical therapy. After three more weeks, doctors told the Curnutts they could take their son home.



FOR EIGHT YEARS Gail Curnutt had worked as an elementary schoolteacher. She loved her work, but now her course was clear. She quit her job to stay home, tending to the constant needs of her injured son.

Waves of frustration washed over her as she did everything she could to see that Kevin was comfortable-yet saw his condition take a mysterious turn for the worst. For reasons more than 20 doctors could not determine, Kevin could not keep food in his stomach. In time, even the mention of food caused him to become ill. He had weighed 155 pounds when he was shot and was down to 130 when he returned home from Baylor Hospital on June 1, 1981. Once a husky youngster with full cheeks and developing adolescent muscles, Kevin had begun to look as ill as he actually was. Pale and drawn, there was a lifeless quality about him. He looked somehow older and weary. If there was a sign that he had the strength to continue his battle for life, his family was unable to see it.

After one month at home, Kevin’s weight had dropped to 100 pounds. Baffled, the doctors even called in a psychiatrist to determine whether Kevin was actually trying to kill himself.

“I think,” says Jerry Curnutt, “that there is an inclination in the medical profession to lean on psychological problems any time they are unable to come up with a medical answer that fits. There was no way they were going to convince us that our son was trying to commit suicide. That just didn’t fit Kevin’s personality. Maybe he was too sick and too weak to put up much of a visible fight, but we knew if we could find out what the physical problem was, he would battle back.”

Kevin was admitted to Arlington Memorial Hospital on July 4 and for the next several weeks was intravenously fed a mega-calorie liquid diet while doctors wrestled with the problem. Eventually they discovered that Kevin was suffering from hypercalcemia (excessive calcium in the blood), an ailment common to adolescent males who are immobile. Medication controlled the problem, and soon he was again eating normally and regaining his weight.

But the good news, it seemed, was always mixed with bad. A neurosurgeon reviewed Kevin’s brain scan and told Jerry and Gail that there was little hope their son would ever be able to move. The injury had damaged the area of the brain that controlled motor skills.

On the advice of their doctors, the Cur-nutts took Kevin to Denver for a two-month stay at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital. There, the family went through an intensive training program on the care of quadra-plegics. Gail stayed the entire two months, living in an apartment near the hospital.

Miraculously, Kevin was mentally unimpaired and his speech and eyesight were not affected. There had been no nerve damage, and he would retain his complete sense of touch, but walking or using his arms and hands was out of the question.

“The people telling us these things,” remembers Jerry Curnutt, “were highly trained professionals for whom we had a great deal of respect. But we simply could not accept their conclusions. We had no idea when or how, but we felt strongly that the day would come when Kevin would be able to walk again. We just had to keep searching and praying that we might find the way.”

In the meantime, they tried to provide their son with as normal a life as possible. One of the first orders of business was to solicit the services of a homebound teacher so that Kevin might continue with his education. The Curnutts had their van equipped with a lift and, strapped into a wheelchair, Kevin would enjoy occasional weekend outings for chicken-fried steak and a movie with friends or his brother.

But for almost a year there was little, if any, sign of physical progress.



IT WAS IN the fall of 1981, almost a year after the shooting, that Jerry Curnutt heard a news item on the car radio about an anti-gravity platform that had been created by NASA to help brain-damaged children learn to walk.

Jerry immediately began placing calls, trying to learn more about the device. The radio station directed him to the CBS offices in New York. They, in turn, put him in touch with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. A dozen or so calls later, Jerry was talking with a staff member of The Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, a facility specializing in the treatment and rehabilitation of brain-damaged children.

The next stop in the Curnutt odyssey, then, was Philadelphia. It was there, finally, that they found the hope they’d sought.

The institute operates on the philosophy that a very small portion of the brain controls all the physical movements of the body. It is possible for another, still healthy, part of the brain to be trained to take over the motor function responsibilities of the damaged part through a re-teaching process that sends messages to the limbs. To help stimulate activity in the untapped areas of the brain, a series of daily breathing exercises (called “masking”), designed to send additional oxygen to the brain, is part of the rehabilitation program. An agonizingly slow process, it is much like training an infant to first crawl, then support his own weight on all fours and finally to stand. In a sense, then, the previously unused portion of a patient’s brain has to grow from neurological infancy.

Told there was a year-long waiting list, the Curnutts were insistent, repeatedly contacting the institute to ask if there had been any cancellations. In March of 1982, five months after their first contact, they were at the facility with Kevin. Tests were performed, and the Curnutts, including Kelly, spent five 14-hour days being instructed in the program and the procedures it involved. The basis of the still controversial Philadelphia program is “patterning,” which involves five people working together, moving the patient’s body in a crawling motion. The concept, originated in the Fifties, is that repeated physical movements develop new motor pathways that signal the brain what is expected.

The Curnutts returned home to make arrangements to begin the program in their home. A garage was converted into a bedroom/therapy room, and, with the help of his father, Jerry Curnutt began to build the necessary equipment (designed by the institute) for the patterning procedure.

The institute outlines the patterning therapy program, then turns the program over to the parents. Progress reports are sent at regular intervals, and return trips to the facility are scheduled only after the patient has reached a certain level of recovery. It is a three-times-a-day workout, seven days a week. If patients fail to adhere to the rigorous demands of the schedule they are dropped from the program to make room for another who is waiting.

For the experiment to have a chance at success, the Curnutts realized, they would have to make Kevin’s recovery their full-time jobs; Jerry would have to quit his job with the Department of Energy. The Curnutts would rely on their respective retirement funds, a modest settlement granted by the courts from the estate of the man who shot their son and aid from the Victims of Violent Crimes program. Careful budgeting, they felt, would enable them to devote full time to the program for an estimated two years before Jerry would have to return to work. That original estimate has been extended, he says. “I think we can make it another 18 months.”

Though there have been offers, the Curnutts have refused charitable help. “We decided when we got into the program that we wouldn’t look too far down the road,” Jerry says. “Our approach, much like Kevin’s, has been one day at a time.”

With volunteer aid from friends throughout Arlington, Kevin’s rehabilitation program began in April of 1982. Three sessions, lasting almost two hours each, were held daily. Repeatedly the five volunteers who came to the Curnutt home gently moved Kevin’s limbs through crawling and creeping motions, according to the instructions of Jerry Curnutt. With the aid of a specially designed canvas harness and hydraulic lift, Kevin was lifted and placed in an all-fours position so he could begin to get the feeling of “walking” on his hands and knees. That’s still the daily routine in the Curnutt house.

The patterning aides talk with Kevin, constantly lending encouragement. Trey Shel-ton’s mother and father are two of the more than 80 people who call themselves “Kevin’s Team.” Schoolteachers, airline pilots, bankers and housewives are among the volunteers who give their time and their hearts to Kevin.

“I have never been exposed to such a positive, upbeat, loving atmosphere in my life,” says Katheryn Toxey, who for four years doubled as Kevin’s homebound teacher and a member of one of the pattern groups. Today, another teacher instructs him in his high school studies, but Toxey continues to work with the Tuesday evening patterning session.

“I think of Kevin as my own,” she says. “I love him dearly. He has a wonderful attitude and has remained optimistic throughout all this. To see him progress has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

To the casual observer, the progress would seem minimal. Kevin still can’t walk or even turn the pages of the books he enjoys reading. But he can now crawl on his stomach as far as 1,000 feet a day on the carpeted floor of his room. And while the harness and lift are still used, he is able to support himself on hands and knees. On the afternoon of October 22, he established a new “record” by moving forward on hands and knees nine inches-five inches better than he had ever done before. His balance has also shown marked improvement in recent months.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is getting much brighter,” his father says. “Perhaps it’s like first learning to ride a bicycle. Once you get the balance down and get some momentum, you really pick up speed. We’re more encouraged than ever now. When you say it, nine inches of movement doesn’t sound like that much. But when you stop to think that what he’s done is considered medically impossible, it’s really something. Really something.”

“When you understand he couldn’t even hold up his head alone or move an inch along the floor when he started,” says volunteer coordinator Dolly Wadlington, “then you realize the amazing progress he’s made. There aren’t many kids who would have the strength and courage that he has shown day after day. And the attitude of Jerry and Gail is incredible. They know Kevin will walk again one day, and they are devoting themselves to seeing that happen.”



TODAY KEVIN CURNUTT is 18 years old. Currently a high school senior, he is aware of the time his injury has cost him. Taking just two courses a year now, he is still four credits shy of graduation at a time when most of his friends have gone off to college.

Visits from youngsters his own age are less frequent now. “I miss seeing a lot of my friends,” he says, “but they’re pretty scattered, going to different colleges and all.” Troy Jackson, one of his closest buddies and a regular companion on his weekend outings, is now a student at Stephen F. Austin. “We haven’t been out together in a couple of months now,” Kevin says, “because he doesn’t get home that much. But he calls now and then to say hello.”

Someday Kevin himself hopes to be a college student. And, if he can fight his way back, he would like to train to become a pilot. His dreams are still intact. Despite the fact that he cannot feed or clothe himself, that he has to be lifted from his bed and carried to his specially designed shower and that a simple desire to sit outside in the sun means being strapped into his wheelchair, Kevin holds firmly to his ambitions.

And he is not bitter about his life. “There are times when I get frustrated,” he says. “Just keeping on with the program gets hard some days, particularly when I reach a plateau and don’t see much improvement.

“See, everything happens so slow-too slow. There have been times when I wondered if I was really getting any better, but then something always happened to show me that I was and I’d be okay again. It hasn’t been that much of a battle because I know this is what I have to do to get well. I really feel like I’m making progress now. It may take another year, maybe two. But I just have to keep telling myself to be patient.”

Kevin rarely thinks back on that January day four years ago. “I really don’t remember anything about the shooting,” he says. “One minute I was riding a bike and the next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital. Thinking about it wouldn’t do me any good.”

On his bedroom wall, near a collection of gimme caps and souvenirs given to him by friends, hangs a photograph of Trey Shelton as an eighth grader. Kevin still thinks of his late friend. But the dreams that once came regularly are gone.

“I used to dream about him a lot,” Kevin says. “Not nightmares, nothing scary. Just dreams. I would dream that I was in the school lunchroom and see him across the room. I would go over to him and say, ’What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to be dead.’ Dreams like that. But not anymore. All that’s in the past now.”

Kevin Curnutt is well aware of the time, effort and sacrifice his parents and his brother (who is now a sophomore at UT Arlington) have made in his behalf. “I know that Mom and Dad get frustrated at times, just like I do. But they’re great. So’s Kelly. Lesser people would have quit this program or just taken off somewhere. But they believe in what we’re doing, just like I do. They go to bed exhausted every night and then are ready to go again the next morning.

“And they’re fun to be around. I’m lucky.”

With that he falls silent for a moment. “Back before I got hurt,” he says, “Mom and Dad used to go dancing all the time. They both love to dance. But now, they don’t have the time anymore. Sometimes I feel bad about that. I wish sometimes that they could go dancing.”

Someday Jerry and Gail Curnutt may go dancing again. But not until their work is done, and Kevin is back on his feet. For them, the miracle is not finished.

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