What it feels like to be shot
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Keep walking, he told her, and don't look back. The carjacker had promised to let her go and she wasn't going to do anything to make him mad.
But then she heard the gunshot, and started screaming.
"Oh my gosh, I'm dying," she thought as she fell to the ground, a bullet in her head. "This is what it feels like to be shot."
As she lay in the grass, he pumped another shot into her head.
"How is my family going to find out?" she wondered, blood saturating her dark brown hair. "My family isn't going to know what happened to me."
Then a third bullet pierced her head. "I'm going to die right here," she thought.
But 20-year-old Lai Chau didn't die. She struggled to get help at a house about 200 yards away, scraping her bare knees each time she fell. It would take her 30 minutes, but she would make it.
The former Pinellas Park High School honor student was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, where she spent 15 days in bed, connected to tubes, comforted by family, adopted by a community.
On Saturday, from her father's Largo home, Chau spoke about the ordeal, her survival and the effect on her life.
With her head on her pillow, her teeth wired together and her throat only recently free of a tracheotomy tube, Chau talked about an overriding desire to face her attackers.
"I can't wait to see them, to show them that I'm still alive," she said, her voice low, raspy and often weak. "I'm going to call for the longest imprisonment they can ever get."
Chau spent the evening of Dec. 13 helping out at the family's restaurant, the Wok Out, in Clearwater.
The University of South Florida pharmacy student left about 10 p.m. and talked on her cell phone to friends during the drive home to her apartment near USF.
Less than 2 miles from home, she stopped at a Checkers drive-through on Fowler Avenue for a hamburger, fries and a drink.
She was on the cell phone when she swiped her access card to open the security gates at her apartment complex, Remington Apartment Homes at 10610 N 30th St.
She parked her pink Acura Integra in front of her first-floor unit and gathered her purse and her hamburger and fries. Just as Chau opened the driver's side door, two men rushed up to her, one pointing a gun at her head.
"Scoot over, don't scream," he told her.
"I didn't know what to do," Chau recalled. "I couldn't scream. I didn't want to be shot."
She dropped her cell phone, slid over to the passenger seat and watched helplessly as one man got into the driver's seat and the other slipped into the back seat. The one in the back, who looked younger than the other, kept a gun pointed at her. They told her not to say a word.
"We're just going to take you for a little ride," one of them said.
They asked her how much money she had on her. She told them $45. But when she was only able to produce $40, they became agitated. "Where's the $5? Where's the $5?" one of them asked.
Then she remembered that she had spent it on her dinner.
"Here's my Checkers," she offered. But they wouldn't take it.
They wanted the radio on, but it was broken. So they turned on her CD player and listened to a CD of rap and hip hop songs a friend had made for her.
They drove around, but she didn't recognize her surroundings.
Her mind raced with ways to escape.
Finally, the driver stopped and got out. He went to speak to someone who had been following in a separate car. They were outside about 15 minutes. Chau heard the man in the other car ask how much money they were able to get.
The gunman in the back seat tried to make conversation. "What's your name?" he asked her.
"What's yours?" she said back, unable to squelch her feisty personality.
She can't remember what name he gave her, but she knew he was lying. She gave him her real name. They had her purse and her driver's license, she reasoned.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"How old do I look?" she shot back.
The other man climbed back behind the wheel and continued driving.
"Am I going to get my car back?" she asked. Her car was her baby.
They talked about stealing her radio.
"We're going somewhere, and we'll give you your car back," the driver said.
They stopped behind Forest Hills Elementary on N Ola Street and the driver told Chau to get out.
It was dark, and there were no other cars.
She kept walking, but could hear his footsteps behind her. She didn't turn around and kept walking, just like he said.
But he shot her anyway.
She felt the sharp pain of the impact followed by her body going numb and weak.
"It's the worst feeling that anybody can live through."
She remembers crawling toward a pole, trying to get to her feet. But she fell, scraping her knees on the pavement.
She made it halfway across the street, then rested.
"I laid there like a dead body in the middle of the road," she said.
She got up again and willed her body to the nearest house. With all the strength she could muster, she knocked on the door then on a window.
"Help me, please help me," she said.
A couple inside looked out to see Chau slumped in a chair, just outside the window. They tapped on the glass to get her attention, but couldn't turn her head.
She heard them calling 911.
A little more than three weeks later, she is weak and spends much of her time sleeping. She is afraid to be left alone. She has nightmares about being robbed at gunpoint. Her teeth are wired together because one of the bullets shattered her jaw. She has no hearing in her right ear
She gingerly sips milkshakes and nutrition drinks through a straw. Walking from her bed to the kitchen exhausts her.
"I feel like an old lady," Chau said. "When I walk, it's so slow. I'm afraid I might fall."
Doctors have not determined whether her hearing loss will be permanent. Chau is expected to recover fully from her other injuries. Her hair will conceal scars.
But now, she is too weak to return to school. She will take two courses this semester through the university's television program.
"I want so bad to go back to school," she said. "I can't. I feel so weak."
But she is happy that Tampa police have made arrests. Two of the suspects are stepbrothers. Police said Tobaris Arrington, 17, is the one who sat in the back seat of Chau's car, holding the gun on her. Police are looking for the driver, who they said is Arrington's stepbrother, Jabari "J.B." Armstrong.
On Friday, authorities charged Anthony Smith, 22, with being an accessory. He is accused of following the car that night and helping light Chau's car on fire after she had been shot. Police said they spent the $40 on drugs.
Chau said she is afraid because Armstrong is out there somewhere. And she's afraid because her life has been altered forever.
"I don't want to grow old like this. I'm handicapped," she said. "Why did they have to shoot me?"
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