This article won a 2006 Western Publication Association Maggie Award in the personality profile category.
Friday Evening, Feb. 18, just before 5:30 p.m.
She didn’t want to go. Tiffany Engle jumped in her new, charcoal-gray Mazda 6 and argued with herself in the front seat. A brokerage assistant at Marcus & Millichap in downtown Denver, she also managed two apartment buildings on nights and weekends for the extra cash. She needed to double-check a maintenance job at one of her buildings, but knowing she still hadn’t packed for a weekend road trip she just wasn’t in the mood. She would’ve rather gone home, popped something in the microwave, cleaned up a bit, and relaxed. She reminded herself this was only her job for two more weeks-after all, she’d already turned in her notice. But the Midwestern work ethic-a personality trait that so far had served the Iowa native well-kicked in. Besides, it would only take 10 minutes to make sure some windows had been properly replaced.
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She zipped down familiar Denver roads to 19th Avenue, took a right on Park Avenue, and crossed over Colfax Avenue to Franklin Street. Still making a mental checklist for the things she needed to pack later that night, she took a right onto 13th Street and then south on Marion Street, just west of Denver’s Cheesman Park.
The building at 1057 Marion St. looks out of place in the neighborhood. Built in 1957, the long, rectangular box with seven apartment units is an ugly duckling among the deep-red brick of circa-1900 bungalows and Denver Squares. On an otherwise lively block, 1057 Marion was only half-full with tenants. It was 5:30 p.m. and the February sun was setting as Tiffany grabbed her car keys and the keys to Apartment No. 4. The tall, slender blonde with freckled Irish skin walked down the narrow pathway along the side of the building to a recessed doorway, her high-heeled boots clicking along the cement.
Opening the door, she stepped onto a landing, walked down a short flight of stairs, and turned to her left. Just a few feet in front of her, she saw something that made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand up straight: A nude young woman and a naked man stood in the hallway. Tiffany didn’t know it, but she’d stumbled in upon serial rapist Brent J. Brents and his hostage. Behind him, on the floor of the otherwise empty apartment, was a two-by-four.
Saturday Morning, Feb. 19, 9 a.m.
“Hey Tiffany. It’s 10 minutes after 9. Just making sure the directions I gave you are OK. See you in a little bit.”
“Hey Tiff. It’s about 9:20. Are you lost? Call me when you get this.”
“Tiffany, it’s Lindsey. It’s almost 9:45. I think we said 9, didn’t we? Hope everything is OK. Just call me when you get this message.”
“Hey, it’s me again. It’s 10. I’m starting to get a little worried. Can you call me as soon as you get this?”
“It’s Lindsey again. It’s 10:30. Call me.”
“Hey. It’s 11. Please just call me and let me know you’re OK when you get this. Don’t worry if you can’t make the trip, I just want to make sure you’re all right.”
Tuesday Afternoon, March 1, 1 p.m.
It was a quick elevator ride to the fourth floor-except in my mind, where everything was in slow motion. I followed the signs to the nurses’ station, where a nurse asked for my driver’s license and verified it against “the list.” Tiffany was a high-profile patient, and hospital security was tight. Handing me my ID, she pointed across the room to a set of double doors.
Thirty-one hours went by after my phone calls before I knew what had happened. A call from Tiffany’s Aunt Deann on Sunday afternoon explained why Tiffany hadn’t come to pick me up for our road trip to Utah the previous morning. Ten days later, I was at Denver Health medical center. Tiffany was out of the intensive-care unit, and I could finally see her.
I knocked as I opened the door and voiced a quiet “hello?” A heavy curtain hung lengthwise across the room, obstructing my view. I’d spoken with Tiffany’s dad, Paul, on the phone a few times that week, and his soft, friendly voice matched the man standing in front of me. Although he sported a full head of white-gray hair, a goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses, his face was young. Wearing a plaid flannel shirt and jeans-clothes he would wear for weeks-he shook my hand and motioned for me to come in. As I turned the corner I heard Paul tell Tiffany that I was there. I didn’t understand why until I saw her.
Lying still with her eyes swollen shut, she looked dead. On the right side of her head, which was shaved of its shoulder-length, strawberry-blonde hair, was a 12-inch surgical incision lined with staples. The raw-edged cut began at her right ear and swirled its way back and over her head to the top of her hairline above her right eyebrow. Just above the right ear, her head caved inward into a baseball-size bowl. Her puffy face was black and blue and green and yellow. Below both eyes were huge, red pools where blood had drained from her skull. She couldn’t open her right eye. When she tried to open her left eye, it revealed only a narrow slit of light blue. The top of her right ear was missing. Her hands and arms displayed a small host of fading, yellow bruises and nearly healed scratches. I noticed small, horizontal, ligature-like cuts on both wrists below her thumbs. Her body, which was slender to begin with at 5 feet 7 inches and 125 pounds, had withered to a skeletal 117.
I looked around the room. Two pieces of notebook paper were taped to the wall directly above the head of her bed. In black felt-tip pen someone had written “fall precautions” on one and “missing bone flap” on the other. To the side of the bed was a small table where a clear-plastic, astronaut-worthy helmet rested. Behind the helmet was a bouquet of daisies-for the first time I noticed the air was heavy with the aroma of flowers.
Paul pulled over a chair and sat it down on the left side of the bed for me. He again told Tiffany I was there. She slowly reached her right hand out and I caught it. With her eyes still shut, she grinned and without hesitation said, “Sorry I stood you up last weekend.”
Friday Evening, Feb. 18, approximately 5:45 p.m.
It’s about 100 feet from the door of Apartment 4 to the middle of Marion Street. Tiffany doesn’t remember getting up, climbing the flight of stairs, or walking along the side of the building to the street, where Greg Walz, 29, came upon her in his truck that night. Only feet from his own house, Walz’s first thought at the sight of her was that someone was playing a sick joke. After slowing to a stop, however, Walz knew this wasn’t funny. His second thought was more of a question: How is this woman even walking? Although it was dusk, he could see she was covered in blood and badly beaten. Her face was so swollen he couldn’t tell the difference between her nose and cheeks. She was bleeding from her nose, the inside of her right ear, and from a wound at the top of the same ear. Her face and hands were smeared with blood, and her hair was soaked with it. Walz thought to himself that if she had been his best friend, he wouldn’t have recognized her.
As she came up to the driver’s side window, Tiffany screamed, “I think I’ve been attacked. Call an ambulance.” She begged him for help over and over and over in a semi-delirious panic. The only other words she said comprised a very simple question. “She asked me if her face was swollen or bruised. I didn’t know what to say,” Walz remembers, “so I didn’t say anything.”
As Walz dialed for help on his cell phone, another car pulled up. Lindsey Kruger, 25, immediately saw that something was wrong. While Walz spoke with the 911 operator, Kruger sat Tiffany down on the curb. Noticing the cold February air, Kruger ran to her car to get a blanket and wrapped it around Tiffany, who could no longer even sit up and instead lay down on the gravel.
Walz’s phone call came into 911 dispatch at 5:53 p.m. In less than four minutes, Walz and Kruger heard the sirens. When paramedics arrived, they placed Tiffany on a backboard and left for Denver Health at 6:06 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Denver police cordoned off the Cheesman Park neighborhood and the manhunt for Brents began-again.
Terror in Denver
On Feb. 11, eight days before the attack on Tiffany at 1057 Marion St., convicted rapist Brent J. Brents began a weeklong charge through Denver. The city held its breath and locked its doors as women reported near-daily assaults. Police scoured the city, but searchers came up empty-handed. Police Chief Gerry Whitman went on the Today show and asked the nation to be on the lookout.
Only eight months earlier, on July 12, 2004, 36-year-old Brents had been released from the Sterling Correctional Facility after serving 16 years of a 20-year sentence for sexual assault on two Denver children in 1988.
That week in mid-February was not Brents’ only criminal activity since his release. A handful of attacks from October through February were later attributed to him, but it was a report on Nov. 9 that set the stage for Brents’ rampage. A woman who had dated Brents contacted police to say she believed he had sexually assaulted her 8-year-old son. Aurora police interviewed Brents about the child on Nov. 23, and though he confessed, police didn’t arrest him. More than two months passed before an arrest warrant was filed. By then, Aurora police couldn’t find him. Police did, however, visit Brents’ Aurora townhome, where they spoke with his roommate, who then kicked Brents out. It was only hours after becoming homeless that Brents started his tear.
At 1:45 p.m. Brents broke into the home of a 29-year-old woman in the 1100 block of Adams Street and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint in her bed. At 4 p.m. he wandered into a pet shop on East Sixth Avenue. After first posing as a customer, Brents raped the 44-year-old owner. Three days later, on Valentine’s Day, Brents sexually assaulted a 67-year-old woman and her two 11-year-old granddaughters near Cheesman Park. Two days after that, Brents kidnapped a 27-year-old woman, brought her to the vacant 1057 Marion St. location, and held her there for three days, repeatedly raping and assaulting her.
As Tiffany pulled up to her West City Park apartment on Feb. 17, she saw police cars and stopped to inquire. They told her to go home, lock the doors and windows, and stay inside because Brents was reportedly in the neighborhood. On the phone with her sister that night, Tiffany relayed the news about the assaults and told Cari that the man police were after could be in her backyard. Cari told her to be careful-not to go out after dark, not to go out at all if she didn’t have to while a lunatic was on the loose.
The next day at about 5:30 p.m., Tiffany Engle walked into the vacant apartment on Marion Street.
The Attack, Feb. 18, just after 5:30 p.m.
He was just standing there staring at her. Except he was completely naked. The 27-year-old hostage stood in the living room just to the right. For a fleeting second Tiffany thought she’d happened upon a couple using the unoccupied apartment for a tryst. Until she looked back at Brents. The expression on his face made her skin crawl. She knew she needed to get out of the apartment and turned to run. As she dashed up the stairs she pushed the keys on her keychain up through her fingers to use as a weapon-a technique she’d learned in self-defense class a few years before.
She wasn’t quick enough. Only three or four stairs from the open front door, Brents dragged her back inside, screaming. He threw her on the floor and straddled her. Tiffany screamed and kicked and threw key-filled punches, landing more than one. Undeterred, Brents shouted for the other young woman to help him hold Tiffany down, but she refused to move. Getting control of Tiffany himself, Brents then bound her wrists together with a plastic zip tie, the edges cutting into her skin. He threw her car keys to his prisoner and told her to go find Tiffany’s car. Tiffany thought, Oh, man, they’re gonna steal my car. I just bought that car. But thoughts of her new Mazda faded as Brents’ hands tightened around her throat. He skillfully applied pressure to her carotid artery. A calm sensation washed over her and a new thought entered her mind: So this is what it’s like to pass out. And then the gray curtains closed.
Grabbing one of the two-by-fours left in the apartment from the previously boarded-up windows, Brents let loose on the unconscious 33-year-old. He slammed the board into the right side of Tiffany’s head. He hit her repeatedly until the cries of his hostage-begging him to stop before he killed Tiffany-interrupted him. Grabbing their clothes and the young hostage, Brents left Tiffany lying in a pool of blood and dragged his hostage out of the apartment to Tiffany’s car.
Tiffany came to five to 10 minutes later. Afraid, she lay still listening for sounds of her attacker. Her only thoughts: Let him think you’re unconscious. Stay still, keep your eyes closed, and don’t breathe deeply.
Denver Health emergency department, Feb. 18, 6:10 p.m.
Awake but visibly confused, Tiffany was admitted to the ER and rushed in for a CT scan. Within 10 minutes, the scan came back with bad news: Tiffany had a right subdural hematoma, a right subarachnoid hemorrhage, and a right basilar skull fracture-in other words, there was substantial bleeding in her brain. Doctors admitted her to the ICU to monitor the mounting pressure inside her skull. The fight for Tiffany’s life had begun.
Sioux City, Iowa, Saturday, Feb. 19, 5:40 a.m.
It was still dark when the phone rang at the Engle house early Saturday morning. Tiffany’s stepmother, Cheryl, picked up and got the call that no parent ever wants to receive. A Denver Health nurse gave her the news that Denver’s recent serial rapist had assaulted Tiffany. Cheryl asked the question anyone would ask: Was she raped? The nurse assured her that Tiffany had not been sexually assaulted but didn’t quite get across the serious nature of her daughter’s injuries. Still in a sleepy haze and trying to register the information, Cheryl asked an extraordinarily pragmatic question: Do we need to come out there?
The Engles have a very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact way about them most of the time. They take life at face value-things are the way they are for a reason and there’s no sense in whining about it.
Paul and Cheryl married when Tiffany was almost 6 years old-nearly five years after Paul and Tiffany’s mother divorced. Tiffany calls Cheryl “Mom.” The entire family, including half-siblings Cari, 27, Paul Matthew, 23, and Andrew, 18, calls her Tiff. The usual mother-daughter bickering and normal sibling dynamics aside, Tiffany and her family seem comfortable and content together. Little is off-limits as they poke fun at each other-even at Tiffany lying in a hospital bed.
They came up with a new term while at the hospital. “Tiffi-isms” referred to a series of less-than-flattering, uninhibited episodes Tiffany had in the hospital. Tiffany feigned mortification at the retelling of a scene where she bribed people for ice chips by offering a flash of her assets. Tiffany doesn’t remember it but seemed to enjoy the attention of her family, who recalled her justifying the bribes to her father by saying, “It’s just skin, Dad.”
During my hospital visits, I noticed the affection Tiffany has for her little brothers. She told me with a hint of pride that Andrew begins classes at her alma mater, Iowa State University, this fall. She also mentioned that she’s been trying in vain to get her sister and her husband to make the move to Denver-faking horror at the idea they’d rather move to Kansas City. Tiffany also talked in grateful tones about how her stepmom was taking care of all the logistical matters for her while she was in the hospital-calling her apartment complex, paying her bills, double-checking her insurance policies. But it’s the relationship Tiffany has with her dad that holds a special place in her heart.
Paul owns a small air-conditioning business in Sioux City-it’s his job to keep others cool. Off-duty, his demeanor stayed cool even when The Denver Post printed a jailhouse interview with Brents and let his daughter’s attacker wax crazy for paragraph after paragraph while she lay fighting for her life in a hospital bed. And he gets Tiffany-especially her independent nature. He says the only way to get her to do something you want her to do is to really explain it and then let it go. “I could pull the Dad Card for a while, but not anymore,” he says. “Now I just have to say to myself, ‘She’s a garden, I’ll try to plant a seed.'”
Within an hour of that early-morning phone call, Paul, Cheryl, and Andrew were driving west. They stopped in Omaha, where Paul’s brother was waiting with a frequent-flyer ticket for Cheryl. Cari and Paul Matthew caught a flight out of Des Moines, Iowa. Tiffany’s dad and brother Andrew drove the rest of the way to Denver, arriving at the hospital only a few hours after the rest of the family.
Tiffany was in the ICU when they arrived, her eyes bruised and shut. She spoke only one-syllable words here and there. She could squeeze her dad’s hand if he asked. Fiber-optic pressure sensors and fluid drains stuck out of her head in every direction. She looked worse than her family expected, but it was really only after the neurosurgeons came to speak with Paul and Cheryl early that evening that they grasped the gravity of their daughter’s situation.
The bleeding was putting pressure on her brain. If the intracranial pressure didn’t stop increasing, a surgical team would have to go in and relieve the stress. The plan was to monitor the slowly increasing pressure over the next 24 to 36 hours and, if it rose too high, prep her for a craniotomy, a pressure-reducing surgical procedure involving the removal of a piece of the skull and bruised brain tissue.
The Engles waited. They sat with Tiffany and talked to her. They didn’t, however, ask her about what happened-they weren’t sure they wanted to know. Over the next day, doctors came in and out. They adjusted Tiffany’s blood and fluid levels, trying to lessen the amount of fluid volume in her already-swollen body. They monitored the pressure in her brain; it normally registers at a level less than 20, but hers was steadily rising above that. And, as the hours passed, Paul said he could see that Tiffany was deteriorating and becoming less and less responsive.
Around 11 p.m. on Sunday night, Paul Matthew and Andrew took their turn hanging out with Tiffany while the rest of the family took a break in the waiting room. Tiffany had been marginally responsive for most of the day, squeezing fingers and answering direct questions. After a while, Andrew took a walk out to the waiting area to see if anyone else wanted to join them. Finding everyone a little weary and settled in, he headed back to the ICU. Before he reached Tiffany’s room, he met Paul Matthew in the hallway. Something was wrong. Tiffany had stopped responding. He needed to find the nurse.
Finding one of Tiffany’s pupils fixed and dilated and that she wasn’t responding to any stimulus, the nurse alerted Dr. Kathryn Beauchamp, the neurosurgeon. Tiffany’s brain had swollen at an unexpectedly rapid rate, and she needed an emergency craniotomy. A flurry of hospital releases fell into Paul and Cheryl’s laps. Paul took off for the chapel. Within minutes, doctors gave Tiffany a large dose of diuretic to flush her system of any pressure-inducing fluids, shaved her head, and wheeled her into the OR for brain surgery.
Tuesday Morning, Feb. 22
For nearly 30 hours after surgery, Tiffany remained in a medically induced coma. Her family sat transfixed by a monitor that tracked her intracranial pressure, which fluctuated to near-catastrophic levels. Doctors had told the Engles it could take days or weeks for her to wake up and breathe on her own. And if and when she did wake up, there was no way to really know what to expect. During surgery, Dr. Beauchamp had sawed out a piece of Tiffany’s skull to find a bloody, bruised mess inside.
Doctors had to remove a 2-centimeter-by-4-centimeter-by-2-centimeter section of brain tissue that had already died due to the pressure. No one knew what information that ice-cube-size section once held. Tiffany’s right temporal lobe, which can affect memory, hearing, some visual perception, and speech, was injured, as was her right occipital lobe, which primarily affects vision. Also damaged was her frontal lobe, an area that many doctors refer to as the personality center. It was possible that Tiffany could wake up with a host of physical problems, not the least of which was that her bubbly, lovable personality might simply vanish.
Before her family had even arrived at the hospital on Tuesday morning, doctors took Tiffany off the respirator. She was breathing on her own, and for someone with an injury so severe, Tiffany was awake earlier than expected. She was agitated and scared, but as soon as she could talk she asked for her family.
As Paul, Cheryl, Cari, and Paul Matthew entered the room, Tiffany looked up through her barely open left eye and said, “Hi Dad.” Looking around at her family, Tiffany asked where Andrew was and they told her he was parking the car-to which Tiffany responded, “Good, at least Mom’s not parking it.” To an outsider, that line meant nothing, but to the Engles it meant everything. Just a few months earlier, Cheryl had accidentally backed out of the driveway right into Paul’s Blazer. Tiffany had made a joke-a joke that used her long-term memory.
Thursday, Feb. 24
Glenwood police knew Brents was in the area only hours after the attack on Tiffany-they had used her cell phone, which was in her car, to trace the stolen Mazda. Once they saw the car, they knew they had him. Arrested after a short car chase, Brents stayed in Glenwood until the next day, when police brought him back to Denver. Police rescued his hostage and brought her back to Denver as well. In the Denver County jail since Saturday, Feb. 19, Brents’ bail rang in at $25 million. On Feb. 24, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey charged the 36-year-old ex-con with 80 felony counts, including 24 counts of sexual assault, seven counts of second-degree kidnapping, three counts of sex assault on a child, and, for his attack on Tiffany, one count of criminal intent to commit first-degree murder.
Monday, March 7, midafternoon
After 18 days at Denver Health, which included brain surgery, a massive ear infection, daily blood draws, numerous CT scans, and long hours in bed, Tiffany was transferred by ambulance to Englewood’s Craig Hospital, one of the premier brain and spinal-cord trauma rehab centers in the country.
She has only brief, fleeting memories of those first three weeks from the attack onward. Tiffany says she remembers a nurse named Ernest but doesn’t know why. She remembers her best friend visiting from Iowa, because she was pregnant and Tiffany touched her belly. She remembers being embarrassed about getting an anti-seizure shot in the rear-end while a male coworker was visiting one day. And she remembers the day she called her own press conference. A bit confused, Tiffany got hold of a phone, called her cell phone to get her messages, and found she had a series of voicemails from Denver-area reporters looking for her to comment. Figuring she might as well get the hoopla over with, she called them back and set up a time for local news outlets to visit Denver Health. Her father, doctors, and Mitch Morrissey put the kibosh on the conference, as Tiffany could still barely sit up.
She remembers those insignificant moments with clarity but has no recollection of her attack, the surgery, doctors, friends visiting, or the pain. Although she appeared lucid and alert-to me and everyone else-for the three weeks she was at Denver Health, Tiffany says, “It was like someone took a roll of pictures but only gave me three.”
Tuesday, March 8
For three weeks, Tiffany’s doctors had focused on healing bones, blood, tissue, and nerves. Denver Health had saved Tiffany from death. Now, a whole new stage of recovery was beginning. Craig Hospital’s doctors were now faced with restoring her life.
CT scans, blood tests, eye examinations, hearing assessments, memory evaluations, and physical exams prepared Craig’s staff to take care of Tiffany. She had lost the majority of the peripheral vision in her right eye and nearly 30 percent of the hearing in her right ear. Her short-term memory was badly damaged, as was her visual and spatial memory. She couldn’t walk alone, her ear was infected, and they had to constantly monitor her for seizures.
On her third day, Tiffany started therapy. She was given a spreadsheet that resembled a schedule of university classes: physical therapy from 9 to 10 a.m.; speech therapy from 11 a.m. till noon; lunch; occupational therapy from 1 to 2 p.m.; psychological therapy from 3 to 4 p.m. And she was responsible for remembering to get to her classes on time and on her own in a wheelchair-which also meant remembering exactly where in the hospital her classes took place. A seemingly easy feat, except that temporal-lobe damage had affected her visual and spatial memory. Tiffany’s occupational therapist would take her out of her room, turn down another hallway, and stop, and then ask Tiffany to return to her room. Only 15 feet from her bed, Tiffany could not remember how to get back. A look of desperate confusion and agitation spread across her face as she looked around for clues. Finding that nothing struck her as familiar, she rolled from room to room to room.
Wearing a safety helmet because of the missing skull piece, Tiffany made her way through her first days of therapy. Nearly all Craig patients require some physical therapy for their injuries, and Tiffany was no exception. After having been bed-bound for three weeks, Tiffany had lost muscle mass and stamina. Her ear infection as well as the craniotomy, which changed the pressure in her head, had affected her balance.
Tiffany’s physical therapist began with a very basic skill: standing up. The therapist assisted her out of her wheelchair and situated her on a floor mat in a half-kneeling position. From there, she asked Tiffany to slowly stand up. Tiffany gingerly tried to lift her body, wobbled, and then crashed back to the mat, stunned. It was the moment at which Tiffany started to grasp just how impaired she really was. She thought, My God, this is how I always get up off the floor. Why can’t I do this? It was a question that bounced through her mind on a daily basis. From working out on an exercise ball to walking a balance beam, Tiffany kept falling. The agony of knowing how to do something, knowing she should be able to do something, knowing she used to do that something every day, and not being able to physically do it was a battle Tiffany waged with her body and the injured parts of her brain for weeks.
Frustrated with her gruelingly slow progress, Tiffany often lay down in her bed and turned up the music. Friends had given Tiffany Tim McGraw’s newest album. Two songs on the album-“Live Like You Were Dying” and “How Bad Do You Want It”-spoke to her. Every time she fell off the balance beam, she heard a verse playing in her head: “How bad do you want it, how bad do you need it, are you eating, sleeping, dreaming with that one thing on your mind? How bad do you want it, how bad do you need it? Because if you want it all, you’ve gotta lay it all out on the line.” She always got back up.
Because Tiffany’s ability to express language wasn’t affected, her speech-therapy sessions focused mainly on her visual and short-term memory, both of which were, in the straight-shooting, Midwestern words of her father, “complete junk.” Tiffany’s long-term memory was intact, but remembering something that happened yesterday was nearly impossible for her. Ask her what she had for lunch and she wouldn’t know. Try to remind her of this morning’s conversation and she’d be fuzzy. She’d ask for pain meds only minutes after the nurse had given them to her.
According to Tiffany’s speech therapist, recovering memory is often extremely difficult. To get Tiffany’s brain working in that capacity again, the therapist had Tiffany practice logic and reading problems. Tiffany spent hours reading paragraphs and answering questions. She listened to lists of words and numbers and repeated them out loud. She looked at pictures and recited the name of each person in the photo. Each week the lists got longer, the words got harder, and the instructions changed just enough to make the therapies more difficult.
The sessions were tedious and exhausting, but Tiffany knew her scores-and her ability to function-could only improve from the less-than-10th-percentile ranking she received for processing speed and visual recognition when she arrived at Craig. Tiffany found herself thinking over and over again: If my brain would just rewire itself…please, please let it rewire itself.
Dr. James Berry’s office, Craig Hospital
Speech pathology and physical therapy can only repair so much, which is why Tiffany also spent time with Dr. James Berry, one of Craig’s neuropsychologists. It was his job to begin repairing Tiffany’s psyche, to help her recognize what was different about her since the trauma, and how to deal with it.
Dr. Berry became Tiffany’s brain-injury bible. She asked him to explain things to her, tell her why certain things were happening to her, and what she could expect from each event. He tried to explain why the therapists were having Tiffany do things she thought were too remedial or not important. He listened when Tiffany talked about her feelings of guilt that her little brothers had to deal with something so horrible so young. He was there to alleviate some of her fears. He told her that she wouldn’t ever remember the details of her attack-her brain injury had wiped those memories away. He couldn’t, however, promise she wouldn’t have nightmares-like the one especially vivid daydream she had that Brents was climbing up the outside of the hospital walls to get to her. He did explain to her in exact detail that Brent J. Brents was locked up tight.
Dr. Berry discussed with Tiffany how she would never be the same. He expressed to her his concerns that she might not be fully integrating the attack into her life quite yet. He tried to get across that many brain-injury patients, especially those with right hemisphere injuries, can potentially have a difficult time dealing with emotional issues during their hospital stay. Patients often don’t begin to focus on their cognitive issues until well after they leave Craig and re-enter a society that can seem faster, less forgiving, and more complicated than it did before the injury.
On the other hand, injury or no injury, Tiffany may simply be a person who doesn’t need to examine or dwell on life’s inescapable negatives. She might simply be pragmatic, positive, not overly emotional, and realistic. Just like an Engle would be.
The one thing Dr. Berry expresses absolute certainty about today is Tiffany’s inexplicably good fortune. In his experience, Tiffany’s brain injury had the potential to produce devastating, lifelong effects. Dr. Berry can only say that she’s an anomaly. “I don’t know if it’s luck or if it’s resilience, but she’s fortunate,” he says.
Thursday, April 14
Fifty-six days after paramedics carried a broken, battered Tiffany into the Denver Health ER, she walked out of Craig under her own power. Her release had been delayed a week by a nasty staph infection in her surgical incision, and she still had to wear the protective helmet, but Tiffany no longer needed to live her life in the hospital.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t live alone yet either. She wasn’t allowed to drive. She still needed regular blood tests. And she hadn’t been alone for nearly nine weeks. The plan was for her to go back to Sioux City for a month so that her family could make sure she was capable of living outside the hospital’s caring embrace.
The arrangement took her away from her friends and the city she loved just when she could finally enjoy them again, but with no other option the 33-year-old reluctantly went home with her family. Her saving grace was that her cranioplasty, the surgery to replace the missing bone flap, was scheduled for June 3 back at Denver Health. Tiffany told herself that once she got back to Denver she wouldn’t be leaving again.
Monday morning, May 2
Nearly six weeks after his initial arrest, Brent J. Brents listened to five police detectives at a preliminary hearing as they described the gruesome details of his tear through Denver. The judge found probable cause to bind the case over into district court for an arraignment on May 20. The case was assigned to Denver District Court, Division 3. On May 19, Brents’ defense attorneys as well as the prosecution asked the judge to postpone the May 20 arraignment. After three more postponements, the judge set a firm date of July 6 for Brents’ arraignment.
Sunday, June 26
Three weeks after Denver Health doctors replaced Tiffany’s missing skull piece, on a hot, sunny day, I’m driving over to help Tiffany move into her new apartment in the Park Hill neighborhood. I pull up and watch for a moment as Tiffany walks down the truck ramp carrying a box full of books. I flash back to when Tiffany was in her wheelchair, then using a walker, and finally-after more than six weeks-walking on her own. She’s wearing a little green T-shirt, and I can see she’s gained some weight back-she says too much-and with her skull back in one piece the crater on the side of her head is gone. She cut off the long side of her hair to match the shaved side. It’s an adorable pixie cut that suits her just fine, but it’s the fact that I can’t see her incision anymore that makes me smile.
Knowing Tiffany, I can pick out small changes in her face that tell the story of what happened that night in February. Her right ear droops slightly, and although the wound has healed the chunk out of her right ear-which her dad calls a “cookie bite”-stands out. The right side of her face, just above her cheekbone and right under her eye, still looks a bit swollen and slightly discolored. The average person walking down the street would never see these things and would never suspect that just three months ago she had nearly died.
She sees me and waves me over. I jump out of my car and grab a box full of miscellaneous items-one of which is the large astronaut helmet from Denver Health. I slap it on and walk down the ramp with a bit of a swagger. Tiffany doubles over with laughter and then says, “Man, I gotta get rid of that thing.”
Tiffany is getting on with her life, but traumatic brain injury isn’t something she’ll ever totally recover from. Even as lucky as she was, she’s been permanently altered. Out of everything that has happened to her-losing vision, losing hearing, becoming more prone to seizures, missing nine weeks of her life-it’s the idea that she will never be the same that may bother her the most.
Tiffany tells me that she only realized how much it bothers her when she was watching a movie in the hospital. “I remember watching it and thinking, ‘These people, these actors, are perfect in the sense that their bodies are perfect,'” she says. “They don’t have broken bones, they’re not missing a skull piece, they’re not injured. And I thought, ‘I’m never going to be perfect again.’ It was losing that sense of perfection that I used to have that I don’t anymore that really bothers me.”
However, it may be that “imperfection” that’s allowing Tiffany to get on with her life without too much emotional baggage. Because of the nature of her injury, Tiffany remembers very little of her run-in with Brents. She doesn’t have the minute-by-minute play-by-play running through her mind 24 hours a day. She simply doesn’t remember enough to be scared. Yes, she’s mad. Yes, her physical deficits are annoying the hell out of her. Yes, she just wants her life to be normal again. And although she admits to a little apprehension about strangers now, she doesn’t spend her days looking over her shoulder and waiting for someone with a two-by-four to take a swing at her.
Her injury has left her with residual maladies. Her vision and hearing will probably never fully return. She’s dealing with some lingering dizziness that her doctor says should eventually subside. And, probably most bothersome, her senses of taste and smell are altered. Chocolate doesn’t taste right anymore-a travesty for a self-described chocoholic. And there’s a recurring smell of burnt rubber that Tiffany can’t seem to shake.
There are other things, of course, that bother her. Having a piece of your skull surgically reattached is one thing, but putting a life back together means months of tedious tasks and myriad to-do lists. Tiffany had to find a new place to live. She had to get her car from the police and spend time trying to remove the fingerprint powder and police tape. She had to pass driving evaluations with Craig Hospital and the DMV so her car could be fully insured. At work, she says, she deals with a running paranoia that she’s going to forget to do something or screw something up entirely.
Knowing that she’d order pizza for weeks instead of taking the bus to the grocery store, I took Tiffany to King Soopers. We made a mental list on the way-bread, peanut butter, sandwich meat, bananas, Miracle Whip, iced tea. The parking lot was completely full at noon on a Sunday. In a bit of a hurry, we scurried across the lot and Tiffany grabbed a cart. I quick-stepped toward produce and stopped when I noticed Tiffany had slowed to a crawl.
She was overwhelmed. I looked around and tried to see the grocery store through her eyes. Eyes that hadn’t seen a grocery store in 10 weeks. Wrapped in a cocoon of recovery at the hospital, she had been insulated from the noises, distractions, and sheer velocity of normal life. People were everywhere. Kids were running around chasing each other. Carts squeaked. The “thunder and lighting” function was spraying down the broccoli. There were six different kinds of onions. Two were on sale if you had a club card. One was organic. A high-pitched voice came over the intercom to tell us the meat department was having a sale on New York strips. So I slowed down and let Tiffany take the grocery store at her own pace. For me this was normal-I’d chosen my onions just the night before-but Tiffany’s still-recovering brain appeared to have shifted into sensory overload.
Her mailbox has been overwhelming her too. Each time she opens it, it’s crammed with medical bills, explanations of benefits, and letters from hospital billing departments. She received a notice in August from Denver Health: While she was still an inpatient at Craig Hospital, Denver Health began sending medical bills to her apartment, a place she had given up when she was injured. The bills were returned to Denver Health without ever reaching her, at which point the hospital turned Tiffany in to a collections agency. “It’s just adding insult to injury,” she says with a laugh. Although she doesn’t receive insurance through her job, Tiffany was smart enough to purchase her own major medical plan. If she hadn’t, she would be responsible for all her medical fees, which right now tally around $260,000 but are certain to rise.
There are also the lawyers to deal with: Tiffany has filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against the city of Aurora and the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s Office for failure to arrest Brents after he confessed to molesting the 8-year-old Aurora boy. Tiffany was reluctant to file; however, given the facts of the case, she feels that the city and DA’s office should be held accountable. And her health status could change at any moment, with future medical bills yet to be paid and a serious pre-existing condition that could affect her ability to get health coverage. Lawyers are also working to determine her eligibility for workers’ compensation.
Since being released from the hospital, Tiffany has noticed some changes in her personality. Impatient since birth, Tiffany says she now tries harder to keep her cool. “Now when I’m getting worked up about something I remind myself to just chill out,” she says. “I have to tell myself, ‘This is not life and death. You know what life and death is now, and this isn’t it.'” Tiffany also says gaining some perspective from her plight isn’t as easy as some would expect. “It’s not like I’ve received some big enlightenment or that I’m any better of a person than I was,” she says. “I think I’m just a little more aware of the way I used to act.”
She also says the experience has made her realize how good most people are. “For one very, very bad guy,” she says, “there were hundreds of good people out there that went out of their way for someone they didn’t know.” Prayer chains, cards, flower arrangements, and other well-wishes flooded her hospital rooms throughout her ordeal. Complete strangers contributed thousands of dollars to the Tiffany Fund, a fund-raising account set up by the owner of the apartment building to help with Tiffany’s medical expenses. Most important, though, Tiffany says she learned-maybe relearned-that family and friends are the most important thing in her life.
It seems like you always hear people who’ve had life-altering experiences, no matter how brutal or traumatic, say they would not change a thing. They say they’re stronger, more aware people for their injury, and that those positive changes were worth the pain and suffering. I asked Tiffany about that one afternoon while we were sitting on my living room floor. She looked right at me and without hesitation said, “Fuck that. I am no superhero. I’m no martyr. I’m not a saint. Opening that door was the worst mistake of my life.”
Once we finish unloading the truck, we drive around the corner to grab a cup of joe at the neighborhood coffee shop. Tiffany seldom offers internal thoughts about how she’s feeling, but as we drive she tells me that she had another nightmare. A man knocks on the door of her apartment and tries to sell her something. When she says no, he opens the doors and pushes his way inside uninvited. She turns to run up the stairs and he follows her. She wakes up just as he reaches for her.
Denver City and County Building, Court-room 3, Wednesday, July 6, 8:30 a.m.
I arrive at Tiffany’s place at 7:45 a.m. Dressed in a sleek black suit with pink pinstripes and her short, stylish haircut, she looks like an attorney herself. I can tell she’s nervous, and the funny thing is I am too. As far as I know, I’ve never been in the same room as a rapist and murderer. I can only imagine what’s running through Tiffany’s mind as we head downtown for Brents’ arraignment.
Inside the courtroom we find seats with Tiffany’s aunt, uncle, cousin, and two friends of hers from work. There are fewer people than I thought would show up. Tiffany and I sit in the second row, sandwiched between two of Brents’ rape victims. They both look like they’ve been crying. Both come over to hug and speak with Tiffany in hushed voices. Tiffany sits very still and only every once in a while turns to say something to me or to her family. We hear rumors that Brents plans to plead guilty, but we remain calm. District Attorney Mitch Morrissey comes by and talks with Tiffany. He’s the only one who doesn’t look nervous.
A little before 9 a.m., deputies bring Brents into the courtroom. I pat Tiffany on the knee. Clothed in a red jump suit and wearing shackles, Brents shuffles in and sits down. He’s shorter than I had imagined. I look at Tiffany, who stops her gaze on Brents long enough to look at me and say, “Punk,” in perfect Tiffany style.
Judge Robert S. Hyatt begins the hearing, and it becomes immediately apparent that Brents has copped a plea with the prosecution. Tiffany turns to me and mouths the word “guilty.” For the next two hours we sit and listen to the details of the 68 felonies to which Brents pleads guilty. My stomach turns as the judge describes count No. 72-one count of criminal intent to commit first-degree murder with a deadly weapon, that weapon, in this case, being a two-by-four.
Throughout the hearing Tiffany holds a piece of folded-up computer paper in her hand. She steals a look at it every few minutes. I finally catch a glance and realize what it is: It’s the statement she’ll read before the judge hands down his sentence.
It is 11:30 a.m. before we begin to hear what we’ve all come to hear. Judge Hyatt reads off each individual count and then asks how Brents pleads. It is satisfying to hear him say “guilty” 68 times in a row. After the last guilty plea, the judge takes a 15-minute recess, and when he returns the district attorney motions for the first victim to come to the podium. A young, beautiful blonde offers her opinion that the Aurora Police Department should accept responsibility for its mistake of not arresting Brents in November. She goes on to say simply and emphatically to Brents that raping women and children is not OK. The second victim, the 44-year-old pet store owner, tells Brents he’s pure evil and that she hopes in prison he will experience the sheer terror he inflicted on her and his other victims.
As the second woman sits down, Tiffany slowly rises and walks through the courtroom toward the podium. She turns to her left to look directly at Brents and begins in a slow but strong voice, “My name is Tiffany Engle and I’m the apartment manager whom you attempted to murder. As you can see, I’m still here. You may have hurt me, but you couldn’t beat me.”
Brent J. Brents was sentenced to more than 1,300 years in prison, one of the largest sentences ever handed down by a Denver district judge.
Lindsey B. Koehler is managing editor at 5280.