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Hana Gartner: HOW VIVID IS YOUR MEMORY OF APRIL 21ST ?
Louise Russo: Very, very clear in my mind. I'll never forget it, never. It's difficult.
Hana Gartner: COULD YOU WALK ME THROUGH WHAT HAPPENED?
Louise Russo: Sure. Well, I just finished off at a Toronto Catholic School Board meeting. I was on the Special Education Advisory Committee. I was advocating for kids with special needs. And I stayed a little later because there was an issue with one of the schools and I wanted to speak to the Superintendent. My daughter had asked me that night to pick her up early from Air Cadets.I was supposed to pick her up at 9:30 and it was about 10.
Hana Gartner: I'M FIXATED ON THIS.FOR ONE HALF HOUR YOUR LIFE WOULD HAVE BEEN AS IT WAS BEFORE THAT NIGHT?
Louise Russo: Absolutely. It was a beautiful clear night and I just happened to look over and there was no traffic and I just looked over and I saw her favourite sandwich shop. We had had an early dinner because I was rushing around that day. She was in the care and I said to her - do you want to come in? And she said - no, I'm really tired and we've been marching all night. And I said to her - okay I said, well lock the doors and I'll just be a minute. And she was just listening to some music and that's the last I said to her.
So, as I walked in I placed my order and there was a group of rowdy teenagers that were just leaving and I was just kidding around with the young lady behind the counter. And I noticed a group of men in the corner at a distance.
Hana Gartner: WAS THERE SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY ABOUT THEM THAT MADE YOU NOTICE THEM? WHY?
Louise Russo: No, it was the angle that I was in. I just walked in and they were just facing in front of me and so I just looked and then I just proceeded to place my order. And I didn't really pay much attention. I noticed there were four or five men. And then the teenagers left. So it quieted down.
I had just placed my order and then, all of a sudden, I hear the strangest sound and I thought somebody hit my car. And I say- oh my God, my daughter is, Christa's in the car. And I remember turning around and all of a sudden I felt my hair move and.I realized they were bullets. And I said - oh my God, I've got to get down. But this was like seconds, we're talking seconds here.
And as soon as I tried to get down, I found myself on the ground and I felt the ice-cold cement floor. And I heard screaming and chairs moving. And then I was in total darkness at that point. And I could still feel the coldness of the floor and I tried to open my eyes and I was unable to open my eyes. It was just dark and cold.
And I just started thinking - you know when you're dying you just know it. And I said - I can't be dying I just walked in here and I'm 45 years old. How could this be? And I thought of Christa in the car and I said - Christa, I said - is she all right? I was concerned about her.
And then I was thinking of my daughter Jenna, my special needs daughter. And my husband Sam, how is he going to manage this? This is very difficult. She's 24-hour care, there is so much.she's very complex. And then I thought - my son, he's 19 at the time. And I said - Stephen, I said - I know he's 19 but he still needs his Mom.
My mind shifted from my family, my thoughts then to myself. And I said - what have you done in this lifetime that you could really be proud of to leave this world? I said - yes, you have three beautiful kids and you have a good job and you've done a lot for the community, I said - but what have you really done?
And at that moment this beautiful voice came to me and said - Louise, it's your time to come. I didn't want to but then for a split second I said - I want to go. There was so much warmth, the serenity, the peace that I felt and the accompaniment of this strong presence with me. I felt myself very light.
Hana Gartner: YOU WERE DYING?
Louise Russo: I had a near-death experience, that's what it was. And all of a sudden in front of me appeared the most gorgeous light. Huge, huge light, it was just beautiful. And the warmth that was coming. And I felt myself drawn into a light. And around the light there was these tall, tall, tall figures and it was just beautiful. They were gathering and so many just gathering coming around.
"This act of violent crime has complicated every aspect of my life.
It's just altered everything. Nothing is the same, nothing."
And I thought - oh my God, I said, I'm not going to go back. And I said - I have to go back, I said - can I just visit my grandparents, but I need to go back? And the voice laughed and said - strong sense of humour - and said - Louise, curiosity killed the cat, in this case we'll kill Louise. And in other words, you're going across, you're not coming back. And I'm thinking - who are you in all of eternity to go check it out and come back?
And I said - I have to go back, I really have to go back. And at that moment the voice said to me - if you choose to go back, and the word 'if', I'll never forget that 'if'. If you choose to go back you will have a long and painful journey ahead of you. I said I don't care, I need to go back.
And, split second, I felt my hands on the cold floor again and I still was unable to open my eyes. But everything disappeared, the light, everything was gone. I felt the floor again - I still heard screaming and yelling and tables shuffling and doors slamming.
Hana Gartner: BUT YOU COULDN'T SEE?
Louise Russo: I couldn't open my eyes. And my hand was really gooey and sticky and warm and I thought - what is that? And I remember being like this and I remember my hands feeling very weak. There was no movement in my hands almost. All of a sudden I felt the most beautiful, warm feeling like somebody when you're really cold and somebody puts a warm blanket around you. And instantaneously I opened my eyes.
I knew God was with me and I knew I was going to be okay somehow. And I was very calm at this point, but I opened my eyes instantly and it was a very strange feeling because when I opened my eyes I felt something very dark leave that room, the presence of dark. And how I could explain that to people is that if you're sitting here and somebody's behind you and you're not sure, but you feel the presence of someone. We have all felt that. That's exactly how it felt.
I remember when I opened my eyes the room was just very bright at the time. And I just looked over and I saw my purse and there was all this blood, you know, around and I thought - oh God, my purse is getting ... I've got to move it. So I moved my purse and at that point, at that same point, I felt pain like I've never felt. And my hands were shaking. I said - I remember saying - oh God, oh God. I said - I know you told me it was going to be painful but I didn't think it was going to be so painful. But, I had no idea what, you know, I understand a lot more now what ... it wasn't all about the physical pain at that point.
I tried to open up and get my cell phone out. But, my first, first reaction was - I automatically wanted to get up. So, I remember pushing myself up and I couldn't move. And I thought - what's going on, and my back? And I said - okay, I realized I was shot in my back.
Hana Gartner: YOU UNDERSTOOD?
Louise Russo: Well there was blood and you know I couldn't move my back. I knew something was wrong with my back and I couldn't feel my back and I was in so much pain and you know, I couldn't comprehend really what happened to me to be honest with you.
I was so worried about Christa. My mind just kept going to her. And I tried to pull myself along the ground. I couldn't do it. And I just kept saying - somebody please help me, please help me. And no one came. No one.
And then this man came up to me and I couldn't see his face because I couldn't turn. But I saw him wearing something blue and he says to me - Are you all right? Are you all right? And I said to him I can't move, I said, but could you please go check my daughter? And he goes - but are you all right? And I said - please go check my daughter. I said - see the little red car over there? I said - just go, please. And he said, he wouldn't go and I never begged anyone as much as I begged that man. He wouldn't go.
I ended up I just started calling out her name. Christa, Christa, Christa. I figured you know, he's going to just go. And all of a sudden he said to me - is this your daughter? And I looked up and I saw her walk in and it was very hard, it was so hard because you're trying to reach your child and you can't. And you don't know if she's harmed or not. She looked at me, she walks in and she's - Mummy. I was very, very calm when I was speaking to her and I said - just come and get the phone. Call 911 and call Daddy.
Hana Gartner: WHAT DO YOU RECALL ABOUT THAT MAN WHO WAS BESIDE YOU, ASKING YOU IF YOU WERE ALL RIGHT?
Louise Russo: He just seemed like he was in shock.his voice, I'll never forget his voice.
Hana Gartner: BY THEN THE AMBULANCE HAD COME?
"I'd be very happy to give back every penny and more to get my life back.
And I challenge any critic to sit in my chair and deal with I deal with and my family deals with on a daily basis.
I'd be very happy to hand it right over."
Hana Gartner: GUESS THE WAY TO DEAL WITH HUGE, HORRIBLE DISASTERS IS TO FOCUS AND CONCENTRATE ON SOMETHING REALLY, REALLY
Louise Russo: ... Especially a bargain.
Hana Gartner: ESPECIALLY A BARGAIN.
Louise Russo: Yeah, and they did what they had to do. They were wonderful. They were wonderful. And I remember my husband said to me when he finally got there and they allowed him to come through...And he said - to me as you were getting put in the ambulance - don't worry Hon, I'm going to be just fine.
Hana Gartner: ARE YOU JUST FINE?
Louise Russo: No, I'm not, no. This act of violent
crime has complicated every aspect of my life, my family, my friends.
It's just altered everything.
Nothing is the same, nothing.
My whole life has just been altered.
Just taking my little girl shopping with me, and Jenna - I used to do so much with my special needs child on my own with her. We would go to the grocery store and I'd get her to understand little things like you know, Jenna - Stephen needs bananas at home. Can you go find them? Even though it'd just be close by. And she'd get the bananas and I didn't care what they looked like as long as she put them in the cart. And just the concept of shopping. I can no longer do that independently with her.I can't take her to all her programs anymore.
Hana Gartner: ALL THE PEOPLE YOU WERE TAKING CARE OF, NOW HAD TO TAKE CARE OF YOU?
Louise Russo: To a point, yes. I'm trying to be as independent as I can, I'm working very hard at it. But it's quite a struggle, it's not as easy ... and it will never be the same as it used to be.
Hana Gartner: ARE YOU ANGRY?
Louise Russo: There are times I am angry, absolutely.
Hana Gartner: THAT COULD EAT YOU UP THOUGH?
Louise Russo: I know, it could eat you up but you could become very bitter inside. But, I've chosen not to go there. And I've chosen you know, enough is enough. I am a victim but I refuse to be victimized over and over again.
Hana Gartner: BUT YOU HAVE. YOU WERE CAUGHT IN A HAIL OF BULLETS AND THEN YOU WERE CAUGHT IN THIS STORM OF CONTROVERSY ABOUT THE RESTITUTION, ABOUT THE TWO MILLION DOLLARS?
Louise Russo: These people had money and have the power and the money was confiscated through quite a bit, over seven hundred [thousand] alone was confiscated in their homes. And who's going to keep that? It is, it goes in the government, so ...
Hana Gartner: ONTARIO ATTORNEY GENERAL, MICHAEL BRYANT SAID THIS WAS A WIN/WIN SITUATION - WAS IT A WIN/WIN SITUATION DO YOU THINK?
Louise Russo: I'd be very happy to give back every penny and more to get my life back. And I challenge any critic to sit in my chair and deal with I deal with and my family deals with on a regular base, on a daily basis. I'd be very happy to hand it right over.
Hana Gartner: NOBODY BEGRUDGED YOU THE MONEY, NOBODY. YOU DESERVE THAT AND MORE.
Louise Russo:That money was only for cost analysis for my care, not my daughter's, my care, my future cost care. Not for pain and suffering.
Hana Gartner: SINCE THAT NIGHT, WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND OUT ABOUT THAT MAN WHO LEANED OVER YOU AND KEPT ASKING YOU - ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?
Louise Russo:We found out through the court proceedings and through my detective that he was the one who put it together, who organized the meeting there. And I guess he organized the hit there. But, I found out he was the agent who turned informer after.
Hana Gartner: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT RAFFAELE DELLE DONNE NOW?
Louise Russo: I'm not really sure why he chose to do what he did that night and he must have his own reasons and ... he just has his own reasons I guess for doing what he chose to do and to turn against them.
Hana Gartner: HE SAID IT WAS YOU. HE SAID - I SAW THAT LADY, AN INNOCENT PERSON, WASN'T SUPPOSED TO GET SHOT, HE FELT RESPONSIBLE. HE SAID IT WAS YOU THAT MADE HIM DO IT?
Louise Russo: He had to look deep within himself and I guess what he witnessed that night turned him around.
Hana Gartner: DO YOU THINK THERE IS REDEMPTION FOR THE BAD GUY, LIKE THAT?
Louise Russo: I just know it's up to God to forgive him.
Hana Gartner: YOU HAVE TO HAVE VERY CONFLICTED FEELINGS ABOUT THIS GUY, RIGHT?
Louise Russo: I do. Because he's the one, you know, he was with them and he's the one who organized ...
Hana Gartner: IF HE DIDN'T LEAD THE SHOOTERS TO THAT RESTAURANT THAT NIGHT, YOU WOULD NOT BE SITTING IN THIS CHAIR?
Hana Gartner: Absolutely, yes. But he also that night for whatever reason, I guess he realized when an innocent victim got in the crossfires, that he decided to turn informer that night. And I do appreciate him stepping up to the plate that night.
Hana Gartner: IT IS COMPLICATED?
Hana Gartner: Very complicated, no, it's not as black and white as people think..
Hana Gartner: HOW HAS THIS ALTERED YOUR LIFE? WHAT HAVE YOU LOST?
Louise Russo: Every single aspect of my life has become more complicated. For example, I can't still turn in bed by myself. My husband has to help me. I need help getting dressed. A simple meal to make has become complex. I can't do shopping for my family the way I used to. Going out and just you know, something spontaneous, that's all been taken away from me. I'm working on my independence and trying to get as much back as I can. But it'll never be the way it used to be.
Hana Gartner: YOU MADE A VICTIM'S IMPACT STATEMENT. YOU GAVE A STATEMENT. YOU WERE IN COURT LOOKING AT THOSE MEN?
Louise Russo: Yes.
Hana Gartner: DID YOU WANT TO LOOK AT THEM? DID YOU WANT TO LOOK IN THEIR EYES?
Louise Russo: Yes.
Hana Gartner: WHY?
Louise Russo: I needed to see who they were. I just needed to put some closure in that chapter for myself and my family.
Hana Gartner: AND WHAT DID YOU NEED TO TELL THEM?
Louise Russo: I just said one sentence in that whole impact statement towards them and I said - I hope to one day forgive the accused for their callous conduct. And that's all I said about them. They need to live with what they've done. They're living with what they've done. If they care.
Hana Gartner: YOU MUST HAVE BEEN SCREAMING, RAILING?
Louise Russo: It's done, there's nothing I can ... nothing will change. I'm the one with the life sentence, nothing's going to change here. And I just don't want to dwell on it too much anymore. I just need to move forward. I refuse to be a prisoner in my own body that way and just dwell on that night and dwell on them. I just want to move forward.
Hana Gartner: IN THOSE QUIET TIMES, HOW DO YOU MAKE SENSE FOR YOURSELF? WHAT HAPPENED? GIVE ME A SENSE OF THAT.
Louise Russo: There is no sense to it because what I was doing was something that everybody does on a daily basis, I mean all of a sudden to have your whole life altered because of a single act of violent crime.
I try not to dwell on it too much, it's too hard and painful. And what I work on is doing something positive with my life. And changing it and that's why we started the Walk Against Violence which we call The Wave. It's the Louise Russo Wave. And what we're doing is we're giving awards out to young people who exemplify respect, responsibility, role of leadership and helping to end and curb the violence in the schools and the community. Along with great sponsors we have on board.