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Ronald and Nancy Reagan Visit Burned Youth

March 19, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Ronald and Nancy Reagan are the latest in a string of notables to come to the hospital bedside of David Opont, the 12-year-old boy fighting back from a nightmarish attack by a bully who set him afire.

The Reagans visited the severely burned boy Sunday evening at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, just hours after the youth had had a visit from actor Bill Cosby.

The outpouring of sympathy and good wishes from around the country, most of it from people he’s never met, began after the March 7 attack by a 13-year-old boy from David’s neighborhood.

More than 400 cards and letters arrived in a single day, along with an assortment of stuffed animals, posters and baseball caps. He also received numerous gifts, flowers and balloons on his 12th birthday, the day after the brutal attack.

″You not only can have a great feeling for him and his recovery, but down deep there is a resentment that these things can happen,″ the former president said after spending a few minutes with Opont.

If his recovery goes perfectly, David could be out of the hospital in June. If there are any complications, he could die. His chances of making a full recovery remain only 50-50, doctors said.

A fund set up to cover David’s massive medical expenses received between 15,000 and 20,000 donations in five days, said Opont family lawyer Michael Prieto, who is overseeing the contributions. About two dozen local clergy are holding a week-long prayer vigil at the hospital, where David will probably spend the next 12 weeks.

In addition, skin banks run by the Vietnam Veterans of America and the New York Firefighters Skin Bank have offered to assist the youth.

″The horror of the crime, the heinous nature of this crime, and the ages of the people involved have helped produce this response,″ said Prieto.

Diana Goldin, a hospital spokeswoman, said the heavily bandaged boy was delighted with the visit from Cosby.

″David recognized him and was very pleased. He (Cosby) joked around with him,″ she said.

The Reagans, who flew in from California Sunday for an award ceremony Monday night, asked to visit Opont after reading about his plight.

Naomi Opont, David’s sister, said David brightened up and gave a small smile when he saw the Reagans, but did not speak. He can’t smile a lot because it hurts, she said.

Others who have donned hospital garb to offer their support include Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

His optimism and spirit have won over the hospital staff.

″He’s a fighter. If you ask him does it hurt, he says ‘no,’ even during procedures we know are uncomfortable,″ said Dr. Cleon Goodwin, head of the hospital burn unit. ″He’s tough.″

David’s attacker, a 13-year-old whose name is being withheld because of his age, allegedly admitted torching the youth after tying him to a railing inside an abandoned garage. In chilling testimony, Detective George Klingberg quoted the suspect’s account of the incident:

″I walked over to him. I lit a match. I held it up to his shirt. His shirt caught on fire, and I got scared and ran off.″

Opont originally told relatives he was torched because he refused to smoke crack but no drug charges were filed against the suspect.

David wound up with second- and third-degree burns over 55 percent of his body.

The attack nearly ended the dream David brought with him when he arrived in New York 18 months ago from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He came over with his sister, Naomi, and was reunited with their father, Luther, who had immigrated in 1981.

While David initially spoke his native Creole and very little English, he became a good student and applied himself in school. A school photo of David, shows the boy, in a jacket and tie, looking seriously into the camera.

His sister said the 12-year-old’s goal was to become a doctor and support their mother, Premese, who works as a seamstress. On the morning he was beaten, bound and burned, David was walking with friends to the Walt Whitman Intermediate School.

″All the teachers like him at school because he’s fun,″ his sister said. ″He always has a story to tell them, but he’s well-behaved.″

David’s passions were like those of any other 12-year-old: He enjoys rap music, Nintendo games and ″The Cosby Show.″ His first Saturday in the hospital, the boy asked to watch cartoons.

But the scars will remain with him for life, both physically and emotionally, doctors said. The boy will need many years of psychological after-care, said Goodwin.

The effect on David’s family is harder to assess.

In the days after the burning, his parents and other family members were stunned by the viciousness of the attack and shaken by the severity of David’s condition.

″I cannot believe a guy would do that,″ said an anguished Odridge Opont, a cousin of the burned youth. ″This family cannot believe what happened to David.″

Seated nearby in the hospital lobby, the boy’s father sobbed and shook, his head in his hands. ″He’s not OK yet,″ Luther Opont said softly before walking away.

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The address for the fund:

David Opont Fund

c-o Scheinfeld & Mayer

30 E. 42nd St. Suite 401

New York, N.Y. 10017

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