Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story about the victim of a burglary struggling with daily life in the wake of the attack. Part two will run in Monday’s T-R.
People rarely, if ever, talk about what happens after — after the arrest, after the trial, after the sentencing. Police got the bad guy. The jury convicted him. Justice was done.
But for Sarah McGuire, the story doesn’t end there. The waves made by the events of May 17, 2010 will ripple through her life forever. Her attacker, Keith Tate, took more from her than her health. When he broke into her Grant Street home, he took her security. When he smashed her head and arms with a brick, he took her independence. In a way, when Judge Carl Baker sentenced Tate in January 2011, locking him away for a 57-year sentence, Tate took Sarah to prison with him. The person she had become the first 25 years of her life was gone forever.
It’s Saturday afternoon, just five days before Independence Day, and Sarah sits on the porch of a duplex she shares with her neighbor and landlord Greg Specht. Sarah says Greg, close to 30 years her senior, is her best friend now, unless you count Donna, her fluffy gray cat who hides when strangers are around.
On the porch, her aluminum walker, which folds like a tri-fold wallet, sits next to her plastic lawn chair. In her lap, she clutches a black tin of Fox pepper spray. The paint on the canister is wearing thin.
She takes a drag from her Skydancer cigarette. Normally, she smokes Camel 99s, but without an income, she doesn’t buy her cigarettes, and beggars can’t be choosers. On May 22, Sarah got her final letter informing her that the federal government would not be providing her with Social Security disability benefits. Her injuries prevent her from working, so having a stable income is all but impossible.
Suddenly, in a nearby yard, a string of fire crackers explode, making a quick, snapping succession of “pops.” Sarah jerks her head toward the noise, a look of duress on her face. Her grip on her pepper spray tightens; her knuckles are white with tension. When she realizes what the noise is, she glares in the direction of the diminutive explosion and furrows her brow where the scar from her eyebrow ring – a remnant from her rocker girl days – is still evident. She decides to head back indoors.
Such reactions are common for Sarah. The Lorazepam she takes for post-traumatic stress disorder can only curb her anxiety so much. She still has triggers: seeing someone who looks like Tate on TV, a noise in the yard. Printed on the side of the bottle are the words “take up to three times a day.” Sarah takes the drug three times a day.
Upstairs in her modest but well-kept apartment, a metal case with a combination lock that looks as though it should house a poker set is stowed beneath her coffee table. Instead of poker chips, it holds 13 bottles of medication. Being on so many meds leaves Sarah in a fog, making it hard for her to keep her train of thought. She speaks slowly and deliberately, choosing each word carefully, and she often writes reminders on scraps of paper and sets alarms on her phone to remind her to stay on track if she has appointments to keep. The meds numb her sense of self.
“I don’t feel like Sarah anymore,” she says.
In addition to the Lorazepam, there is the Dicyclomine for her stomach, Baclofen to relax her muscles, Gabapentin for pain; the Trazodone helps her sleep, the Topiramate is another painkiller; the Viibryd treats her depression, and the Seroquel XR helps curb bipolar disorder; the Prazosin takes the edge off the night terrors. Just like the PTSD meds, the Prazosin doesn’t eliminate the night terrors. It just helps mitigate them. She still wakes up soaked in cold sweat almost every night.
Sarah is tired of people pretending they understand. No one understands, she says. One night, while staying in her mother’s guest room, a night terror struck. Her mind was telling her Tate was trying to get into her room. She tore the room apart trying to hide, and when her mother tried to come in to help, Sarah threw herself against the door, hitting her mother in the face.
“Oh yeah. I get nightmares too,” people tell her.
“Oh yeah? Did you bite your own hand? Did you scratch your own face thinking it was him?” Sarah says. “People just don’t get it.”
She unfolds her walker and inches toward the door to her apartment. Wrapped around the high-polish knob dangles a shoelace Greg tied to the door to allow Sarah to pull it shut as she leaves. Just inside the metal door, a small landing divides two sets of stairs leading up to Sarah’s apartment. The upper flight is perpendicular to the lower one, creating an L shape.
Sarah closes the door and grabs the railing. Reaching over, she snaps over the door’s deadbolt. Using little more than the strength of her arms, she hoists her 110 pounds close to the rail before climbing hand-over-hand to the landing. Once there, she pauses to catch her breath then grabs the brushed metal handle Greg installed to allow her to get from one hand rail to the other. She repeats the process on the second, smaller flight of stairs until she plops herself onto the wheeled walker that she uses to get around her apartment.
Police records show the attack on Sarah was more or less random. Although she can never forget his face now, she didn’t know Tate prior to the attack. She was unable even to identify him in a lineup of six mug shots police showed her following her assault. It was dark, and the only light in her bedroom — from the TV — silhouetted Tate during the attack.
However, although random, it appears the attack was at least somewhat premeditated. According to eyewitness statements of two young boys, Tate had asked them the previous day whether Sarah had a boyfriend. Sarah told police she had noticed Tate trolling her street while she was outside smoking. His watching her unsettled Sarah, so she went back inside. On her way upstairs, she left a pack of Pall Malls on the banister.
Just after midnight May 17, the sound of shattering glass woke Sarah as Tate forced his way through the door that used to lead to her apartment before Greg replaced it with the metal one. Loud footsteps made their way up the stairs, and before Sarah knew it, Tate was straddling her. He began slamming the landscaping brick into her head. She screamed for help.
“Take whatever you want,” she told Tate.
Downstairs, Greg heard Sarah’s screams. He grabbed his baseball bat and rushed to the stairwell. Back in the bedroom, Sarah was struggling for her life. She lashed out, dragging her nails down Tate’s arm. Tate fled. On his way down the stairs, he ran into Greg.
“I’m her boyfriend,” he told Greg. “Get help. Someone broke in.”
Greg relaxed. He couldn’t hear Sarah upstairs yelling “No he’s not! Call 911!”
The cigarettes on the banister were missing.
Greg would later tell police Tate’s story didn’t seem right and that he regretted letting Tate leave the scene. But Greg wasn’t the only person Tate managed to elude. Conflicting descriptions and locations allowed Tate to avoid capture when two Marshalltown officers stopped him walking near Riverside Cemetery. Another officer had spotted Tate skulking in Sarah’s neighborhood, but a traffic violation pulled his attention from Tate, who finally ended up on North 14th Avenue, at the home of his wife’s mother. There, he stashed his bloody clothes.
But a manhunt was underway. Greg and the boys put Tate at the scene, and once police gathered more accounts, they discovered several officers had spotted Tate in the area wearing a signature red jacket with initials embroidered on it.
Police applied for search warrants on Tate’s home he shares with his mother and another for the home of his wife’s mother. Detectives marked 28 drops of blood in the less than half a mile between Sarah’s apartment and Tate’s North Fourth Street address. They recovered the bloody clothes from the home of Tate’s mother-in-law where they arrested him. Detectives took evidence photos. In one photo, a long, deep scratch runs the length of Tate’s arm.