Sioux Falls native survives gun violence using her faith
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Ashley Van Hemert shouldn’t be alive.
The .22-caliber bullet lodged in her right carotid artery would normally be a fatal shot, but it stopped in just the right spot. Any farther in or out and the 32-year-old Sioux Falls native would have bled to death.
As far as her family is concerned, Van Hemert’s survival is a miracle from God.
The Argus Leader reports that the 2004 Sioux Falls Christian Schools graduate was shot in the back of her head and shoulder Jan. 7 at her home in the Montana town of Belgrade, where she moved nine years ago. One of her roommates, 35-year-old Lauren DeWise of Bozeman, died of her multiple gunshot wounds.
DeWise’s estranged husband, Joseph DeWise, 47, is being charged with deliberate homicide and attempt to commit deliberate homicide in the shooting.
“I fell on my knees and started bawling,” Van Hemert’s younger brother, Terril, said of the moment he heard of the shooting. “You don’t expect to hear your sister was shot in the back of the head.”
Van Hemert, a devoted athlete who embraced her faith early in life, has always been stubborn, a fighter. Her family sees those same qualities in the trial she’s facing now, increasing their confidence in her ability to bounce back.
“It is truly a miracle from God that she is alive,” said Van Hemert’s sister Carissa DeVries. “That’s what my sister wants people to know, that God breathed life into her. All the doctors said she should not be alive.”
Van Hemert is no stranger to using her faith to fight past obstacles.
She participated in nearly every sport she could at Sioux Falls Christian and held a school record for the 3,200-meter run. Though she had her share of injuries throughout her running career, she always pushed through.
“She was competitive,” said Troy Kooima, who coached Van Hemert in high school cross country. “If she could run you into the ground she would, but after she’d be hugging you and thanking you for pushing her.”
After graduating high school, Van Hemert worked at DakotAbilities in Sioux Falls and spent a few winters teaching skiing and snowboarding on a military base in Germany.
She moved to Montana about nine years ago for the mountains, where her husky-malamute Bronson tagged along with her on outdoor adventures. She even trained him to pull her on skis.
Van Hemert worked as a certified nurse assistant at a hospital and volunteered with her local church. She’s still sponsoring a child she met on a mission trip to Ethiopia in 2014.
When those who know her well think of her current struggle, they point to past examples of adversity and express confidence that she’ll shine through.
“This is just another obstacle in the race she’s running,” said Kooima.
Her family was aware that Ashley, the oldest of the eight Van Hemert children, had acquired a third housemate in Montana. DeWise moved into the house with Van Hemert and her other roommate in November.
Van Hemert’s roommate, Audria Butler, was Lauren DeWise’s personal trainer. When she started to notice bruises on DeWise during training sessions, DeWise explained it by saying she ran into something. But she later revealed that her husband was abusive.
In August, Butler offered her residence for refuge. DeWise at first declined, and in the following months, showed up to training sessions with bruises and a black eye. DeWise asked if she could stay with Butler and Van Hemert in November after seeking a divorce.
The morning after the move, Lauren DeWise received more than 30 text messages from her estranged husband. He messaged Butler on Facebook, calling her a bad influence for encouraging Lauren to live a single lifestyle and blaming her for “Lauren’s promiscuity,” according to court documents.
DeWise went to Joseph’s home three days before the shooting for a birthday party for their child, where Joseph asked her multiple times to move back in with him.
They were supposed to meet on Jan. 7, the day of the shooting, to talk about divorce paperwork.
On Jan. 6, Butler was leaving the house for the night. DeWise told her she was happy to be there and felt “safer than she had felt in years.”
Butler returned the next day around 9 a.m. and saw large footprints in the snow outside of the door. The rear entrance of the home was damaged, with a few pieces of wood torn from the frame.
She immediately suspected Joseph DeWise.
Butler went upstairs and found Lauren DeWise dead in her room. Then she heard Van Hemert calling for help.
When emergency responders found her, Van Hemert was on her back on the floor, barricaded behind her bedroom door. She had been alone there for at least six hours.
She had four gunshot wounds: one to the back of her head, one to her right shoulder and two to her back. She also suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured shoulder and a broken arm.
Van Hemert’s family learned of the shooting from a friend in the Belgrade area who had gone to check on Van Hemert after she had not responded to multiple messages. Van Hemert’s father called the police station there and found out she had been shot.
She suffered a stroke and brain swelling and had three surgeries, including an emergency craniotomy, shortly after the shooting. She spent about three weeks in the intensive care unit.
“I remember a couple times in the ICU, we would just all get in a circle and pray,” Terril said of his sister’s struggle. “We would ask everyone to pray.”
Van Hemert couldn’t talk for about a week and a half and wasn’t able to sit up on her own. With therapy, she’s since started holding conversations and has moved to a wheelchair that she can navigate with her right foot.
She’s able to stand for a bit with a standing machine. Her left side still isn’t fully functional, though she’s able to slightly move her left leg while sitting.
“She keeps talking about God and how he’s with her through it all,” said her sister, Carissa. “She says that however much he wants to heal her is how much she’ll be healed.”
Van Hemert’s prognosis varies depending on who you ask. Some doctors are hopeful she may walk again. Others say it’s unlikely.
Van Hemert’s younger brother is more confident.
“I know God is with her the whole time, from the moment she was on the floor until now,” said Terril, 26. “I know she will walk. I don’t know when or what it looks like, but God has taken her this far.”
Van Hemert’s mother and brother have been with her the majority of the time since the shooting, and her other siblings have taken turns flying to Montana.
As local prosecutors prepare a homicide case against Joseph DeWise and Van Hemert works toward healing, the family leans hard on faith to try to envision one more obstacle that Van Hemert can overcome.
“We’re asking for more prayers,” Terril said. “Prayer for her and for the siblings and parents, that we can learn what it looks like to forgive and to love.”
The family has created a YouCaring page to help with increasing medical expenses and travel costs. They have also been updating her condition on a Facebook page, Pray for Ashley.
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com