Sioux Falls woman finds forgiveness after surviving shooting
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Ashley Van Hemert gripped her walking stick, smiled at her parents and took her first step onto the field.
The 2004 Sioux Falls Christian graduate appeared confident as she ambled along the 50-yard line under the lights of Bob Young Field before Sioux Falls Christian’s homecoming football game earlier this month.
Van Hemert was a little nervous to handle the coin toss for her alma mater, where she still holds a number of athletic records from her time there. The 33-year-old wasn’t sure she could properly flip the coin, as her left hand doesn’t function as it did before her stroke, and she needs her right hand to hold the stick that keeps her steady.
She was stoic as her story of survival echoed over the loudspeaker:
“On Jan. 7, 2018, in Belgrade, Montana, Ashley was involved in a home invasion. She was severely injured, and her roommate was shot and killed by her estranged husband, Paul. Ashley was shot multiple times, including the forearm, neck and head.”
Her eyes followed the referee as he negotiated the terms of the toss with the captains. She thrust the coin up with her right hand, watched it tumble to the turf and asked for her walking stick before walking back off the field.
The brief ceremony was just another stage in her journey back to life, the Argus Leader reported.
After facing severe trauma nine months ago and uncertainty about whether she would ever walk again, Van Hemert feels blessed to be back home in Sioux Falls, surrounded by loved ones and planning her future.
“It’s kind of surreal in a way,” she said. “You never think something like this will happen to you.”
Strengthened by the power of faith and family, she believes the odds are on her side. And she’s finding forgiveness for the man who nearly took her life.
“Even though what he did is absolutely horrendous, I still care about his soul, and I just want to tell him that I forgive him,” Van Hemert said. “Honestly, without a shadow of a doubt, if I know that he can be saved, it would all be worth it.”
Van Hemert had moved to Montana for the mountains about nine years ago and was enjoying life in Belgrade, a town of about 9,000 just west of Bozeman.
As an avid runner and skier, she loved the outdoors. Her dog, an Alaskan Malamute named Bronson, adored the snow and accompanied her on wintry excursions.
She shared a house with a roommate, Audria Butler, and had recently required a third housemate, Lauren DeWise.
DeWise was fleeing an abusive relationship and moved in with the women about two months before her estranged husband broke into their home Jan. 7 and opened fire.
Ashley doesn’t remember anything about the night she was shot. She’s pieced together the chilling timeline based on conversations with Montana law enforcement.
She was sleeping at about 3 a.m. when law enforcement officials say Joseph Paul DeWise broke into the house.
The gunshots must have woken her up. She had likely gotten out of bed to investigate and confront him when she was shot in the neck, head and forearm. She must have tried to shield herself with her door, because she was found behind it.
A bullet fragment stopped at just the right spot in her carotid artery. Any farther in or out and she would have bled to death.
“It’s a miracle God stopped (the bullet) right where he did,” said Ashley, sitting on the couch of her family’s Sioux Falls home. “He led me many angels that night that saved my life.”
Van Hemert spent six agonizing hours on her bedroom floor that night before Butler came home to find Lauren DeWise dead and Ashley crying for help.
Her family wouldn’t find out that she was fighting for her life for another 12 hours.
They received a message from one of Ashley’s friends saying he hadn’t heard from her and that there was crime scene tape around her house.
Lyle Van Hemert desperately made phone calls after his daughter’s phone continuously rang unanswered. Police wouldn’t tell him what happened. Hospitals wouldn’t say if she was being treated.
A frustrated call and “choice words” to a top law enforcement official finally yielded some answers as Lyle demanded to know what was happening.
“Your daughter’s been shot,” came the reply.
Lyle called two of his sons off the slopes of Great Bear and said they needed to come home immediately. The family needed to make an 11-hour overnight drive to Aurora, Colorado, where Ashley was being treated.
Her younger brothers, Terril and Caleb, were in a town about three hours from the hospital and were the first to arrive.
Staff wouldn’t tell them her room number, even after they gave their sister’s identifying details.
“Eventually we just got sick of it and started running down the hallway, literally, going up and down elevators,” said Terril.
Eventually, Lyle had what he called a “dad-to-dad” moment over the phone with the head of security, who at last revealed where Ashley’s room was.
“That was a weird feeling going in for the first time, not knowing what you’re going to see,” Terril Van Hemert said.
Ashley Van Hemert had been struck by at least four bullets. In addition to her head wound, she suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured shoulder and a broken arm. In the days after the shooting, she had a stroke and brain swelling, and needed three surgeries, including an emergency craniotomy.
“The first time you see your daughter laying there like that, there’s only one thing that goes through your head,” Lyle Van Hemert said. “You say, ‘God, let me switch places. I’ve had a good life. Let me take her place.’”
“Left, right, left, right. Come on, hand, up. Up. You can do it. Push.”
Ashley Van Hemert now has to encourage her body to follow her mind’s commands.
A lifelong athlete and avid runner, Van Hemert never thought she’d have to learn how to walk a second time in her life.
She never thought she’d be so excited to be able to turn on a light switch or ring a doorbell with a left hand left largely immobile from a stroke she suffered about a day after the shooting.
The quick-witted soccer and track champion endured six months in inpatient care, another three months in outpatient therapy and is now living at home with her family in eastern Sioux Falls.
At the age of 33, Van Hemert didn’t picture herself living in her parents’ basement. But she chose to continue therapy in her hometown to be closer to family.
Her parents remodeled the basement to accommodate her needs, connecting a bedroom to a bathroom as an addition to the unfinished basement. Railings were added to both sides of the stairs to help stabilize her treks up and down. Walking sticks are stationed at the top and bottom of the stairs so she can grab one and go.
“What I’m impressed with is her attitude, her willingness, her stride,” Linda Van Hemert said of her daughter. “She gets down every once and a while, but it’s brief.”
Ashley’s furry best friend, Bronson, made the journey with her. She is thankful he wasn’t at her house the night of the shooting, but her dad almost wishes the massive dog was there.
“Bronson might have been able to scare him off,” Lyle Van Hemert said. “He might have taken a couple of shots but, maybe he could’ve stopped this from happening. But Ashley, of course, said it wasn’t meant to be.”
Joseph Paul DeWise is scheduled for trial in February on charges of deliberate homicide in the killing of his wife, Lauren, and attempted deliberate homicide in shooting Van Hemert.
He pleaded not guilty and denied involvement in the shooting, saying he was at home with his children that night. His son later told police that he went with DeWise to the house and was downstairs when he heard gunshots.
Even before Van Hemert could talk again, she made it clear she wanted her family to forgive the man charged with nearly killing her.
She started communicating by writing out messages with her finger on a hospital pillow. The first thing she wrote out to her family was, “If I die, forgive the man.”
She recalls the exact moment she made this decision. She was in her hospital bed.
“I thought, ‘God forgives us an unlimited amount of times,’” Ashley Van Hemert said, tears welling up in her eyes. “I knew the best thing I could do for him was pray for him and let it go, and pray that he finds the Lord. That’s the only thing that matters.”
She’s encouraging others to do the same. When she was asked to do the coin toss at the homecoming game, she made sure the synopsis of her story included a plea of prayer for the DeWise family.
Van Hemert still has her down moments, but her mother says she bounces back quickly. Even when the family gets down, she is the first to make them smile and steer them toward their faith.
“You choose how you go through things in life,” she said. “I’ve been able to share my story with a lot of people. I know that God’s going to work through my story with people I talk to.”
Van Hemert has long dreamed of spending time at an orphanage in a developing country, and she doesn’t plan to let her shooting tragedy stop her.
She’s not sure if biological children are in her plans, so she wants to see if she could be a maternal figure to children who need one. She has sponsored two children in Africa and met one of them on a trip to Ethiopia for an English camp in 2014.
Those goals, she admits, are long-term.
For now, she’s focusing on her weekly therapy, flipping light switches, walking longer distances, becoming more independent and spending time with friends and family. She’s thankful for all of the rides, meals and financial support the community has given her and her family.
She’d like to live on her own again, though she’s not sure if it will be back in Montana. Like the flip of a coin, much of her future is uncertain. But she’s not leaving it up to chance.
Guided by forces bigger than herself — faith, family, forgiveness — she is ready to tackle challenges as they come, using one step at a time to move forward and find her way.
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com