Calgary

Lethbridge victim of violent sexual attack says she's a 'survivor' but family details ongoing trauma

A young woman nearly killed when she was beaten with a metal pipe, raped and left for dead in a Lethbridge alley says she is a "survivor." But at a sentencing hearing for the attacker, her family members detailed the many lives derailed by the violence.

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details

Denzel Dre Colton Bird, 21, of Lethbridge pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault last year. He is currently in the middle of a sentencing hearing. (Facebook)

A young woman nearly killed when she was beaten with a metal pipe, raped and left for dead in a Lethbridge alley says she is a "survivor." But at a sentencing hearing for the attacker, her family members detailed the many lives derailed by the violence.

It is a source of constant conflict for the victim and her family; they celebrate her survival but also still deal with their own trauma while grieving the loss of her personality, independence and quality of life.

"At times I even wished [Denzel] Bird had finished me off but then I remember how strong I am and I don't want to give him that power over me," the victim wrote in a statement read aloud by a cousin. "I am a survivor."

Bird, 21, pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault in September 2017, a year after he attacked a young woman, leaving her for dead in a garbage bin. ​

A sentencing hearing took place in Lethbridge Wednesday; the prosecution is asking for a 20-year prison term while defence lawyer Tonii Roulstonargued for a six- to eight-year sentence. Judge Jerry LeGrandeur will set a date to deliver his sentence later this month. 

Bird offered a tearful apology at the end of the day: "I do pray each and every night for forgiveness, to have that girl heal."

Although the victim's husband is grateful for the progress she's made physically, he said "she has come back as someone else;" someone who can be mean and who lacks empathy.

He says her "beautiful personality" is gone and he's now taken on a role resembling a parent/child relationship. 

The victim and her family participated in the hearing from a remote room linked to the courtroom by closed-circuit TV in order to lessen the trauma of being in the same space as the man responsible for the brutal attack.

A 25-year-old newlywed at the time, the woman suffered a severe, traumatic brain injury and was in hospital for months, spending the first few weeks in a medically induced coma. She had to re-learn how to walk and speak. Her personality has completely changed. 

Bird hung his head in the prisoner's box as his victim and her family members delivered several tearful statements detailing how the attack has affected their lives. 

Husband 'fell apart'

Tension grew in the courtroom during the husband's statement, as he told people to look at Bird and then painstakingly detailed the gruesome, sexual violence the rapist had committed against his wife.

Her hair was so soaked in her own blood, the blond colour no longer visible, her body forced into the pavement, scraped and torn by gravel. 

Married just weeks before to his high school sweetheart, the husband said the woman he fell in love with is gone. 

Her family had been told she was just "inches from death," and if she survived, she'd likely live the rest of her days at a care facility.

The victim's husband, who has refused to leave his wife's side, says he feels lonely "even though she is always with me." He said he's lost and depressed.

The couple's dreams, freedoms and goals are on indefinite hold, said their loved ones. 

Once fiercely independent, the victim now relies completely on her husband and lives with his parents. His mother described watching her son "fall apart" in the days and weeks following the attack.

Her own parents are divorcing, the stress of dealing with the aftermath of the attack too much for their 22-year marriage to survive. 

They are two more of Bird's victims. 

'There really wasn't a hope at that time'

Other family members described the day she failed to show up at work — and the frantic hours spent searching afterwards — until police confirmed an injured, unidentified woman in hospital was their loved one. Medical staff warned them there was no guarantee she would survive her injuries.

"Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw," wrote the woman's stepfather about seeing her battered body hooked up to life support. In that moment he said, her mother collapsed on the floor. 

"Amid the blood, bruises, horrible swelling of her face and head, I could make out our little girl.… I wanted so badly to give her a hug but we couldn't touch her."

In his statement, the victim's father-in-law said "there really wasn't a hope at that time."

Passers-by found victim

When provincial court Judge Jerry LeGrandeur accepted Bird's guilty plea, the facts of the crime were read aloud by the prosecution.

Court heard that Bird was drunk and armed with a metal pipe when he attacked the young woman as she walked to work on the morning of Sept. 30, 2016. 

Bird was sitting at a bus stop at Sixth Avenue between 20th and 21st streets in the city's south end. When the victim walked past, he hit her over the head with the pipe. It's unclear how many times Bird hit the woman but she fell to the ground unconscious and ultimately suffered several skull fractures and broken bones in her face. 

The woman was then dragged into a nearby nearby alley, where Bird took off her pants and sexually assaulted her. Afterward, he tried to hide her body by stuffing her into a residential garbage can.

Two men heading to work spotted the victim and called 911 around 8 a.m. 

'So sorry for that poor girl'

The victim was near death by the time police and paramedics found her. She was partially naked, bloodied and face-down in a garbage bin in an alley. 

Bird showed up at a local homeless shelter later that morning with blood on his clothing. DNA testing would later determine it was the victim's.

During a police interrogation Bird confessed to the attack, telling officers he was "tired of lying." He also said he was "so sorry for that poor girl."

The victim continues to recover, continuing to struggle with memory loss and balance. She can not remember being attacked by Bird but says physical scars tell part of the story. 

"Now I have scars that remind me of how strong I have become," she wrote in her statement read aloud by a cousin.

"I am more alive than ever; he hasn't broken my spirit.… He hasn't taken away my will to live."

About the Author

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary.