SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Kayleigh Ballantyne saw the knife in the stranger’s hand. Do you want my money, she asked? Instead of answering, the man stabbed the 21-year-old college student from Gorham again and again. For reasons known only to her assailant, he wanted her life.
Kayleigh wouldn’t give it to him. She fought back.
This is her story, told nearly five months after the violent assault in South Boston. She was stabbed nine times. One wound missed her heart by less than an inch. Another punctured a lung. Five stabs of the knife damaged nerves and muscle in her left arm, which she used to deflect his attack and shield her heart. Two more stabs cut into both sides of her mouth as the man tried to stop her screams for help.
Kayleigh wouldn’t give up. During the violence, Edwin Alemany, her alleged attacker, was cut badly by his own knife. He ran off, leaving Kayleigh to pick up the pieces of a life that had been altered so quickly. In one moment she was the girl next door, full of energy and excitement. In the next, she was on the floor at her apartment building’s entrance, bleeding and struggling to breathe.
On Wednesday, she celebrated Christmas at home in Gorham. “It’s my favorite holiday, just being in the presence of my family,” she said last week, curled in a chair in the office of her field hockey coach at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
She was a star player for Gorham through much of her high school career. The sport was one of her passions. She was named Bryant’s sole captain before summer began. This fall, that passion helped her mind and body to mend. So did the gifts of love, support and understanding from her family and friends.
The gift of life, Kayleigh Ballantyne gave to herself through her strength and her faith.
“For some reason, God has given me these challenges to be stronger,” she said. “I’m really blessed.”
THE CHALLENGE: TO SURVIVE
On July 24, Kayleigh’s challenge was survival. It was past midnight and she was alone, walking from a public transportation stop to the apartment she shared with recent Bryant graduates in South Boston. She was returning from her summer job as a hostess at a restaurant in Cambridge. Her assailant followed her and pushed his way into the building when she opened the door.
Kayleigh is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and slender. Alemany is an inch or two taller, heavier and seven years older. But he wasn’t the college athlete preparing for a senior season.
Kayleigh played forward, was Bryant’s leading scorer the year before with seven goals and 10 assists, and wanted to end her college career with a flourish. She was fit, physically and emotionally.
Her attacker may have cut himself when she kicked at him. All she knows is that he was gone. Her lung was collapsing and she couldn’t stand. She crawled to the elevator, reached her floor and crawled to her apartment. Her key was in her pocket. She reached up to open the door and called to the two roommates who were there that night.
“I didn’t know how many times I was stabbed or exactly where. I told them to get towels (to stanch the bleeding) and call 911. My roommates were scared, there was so much blood everywhere. I can’t imagine what they were seeing.
“Once I knew I had help, I started to cry. I was praying. It wasn’t in my hands anymore. If (God) wants me, he’ll take me. If it’s my time, it’s my time. I thought there was a reason I was still alive,” she said.
The paramedics arrived and took her to nearby Tufts Medical Center. Kayleigh gave them a description of her attacker. Amazingly, Alemany walked into the emergency room at the same hospital for his badly cut hand. He was recognized and arrested. Soon, he was linked to the kidnapping and murder of Amy Lord, only 18 hours earlier. He is accused of attacking a third woman that day but letting her go. He has since been charged with an assault on a fourth woman, in 2012.
Lord was 24, from the small Massachusetts town of Wilbraham and a graduate of Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. The ferocity of her murder affected even hardened Boston police.
“The attacks were all blitz-style physical assaults where the victims were immediately overwhelmed by violence,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley at a news conference. Lord was stabbed and strangled. Her killing was called brutal and savage by Assistant District Attorney John Pappas.
Kayleigh didn’t know Lord and hadn’t heard of her death when she left the Brick and Mortar restaurant that night. “People say, ‘You’re a hero because you’re the reason they caught him.’ God helped me,” Kayleigh said. “(Alemany’s) showing up at the same hospital wasn’t my doing. I am thankful. I think he would have killed again.”
NO STRANGERS TO TRAUMA
When her family gathered at her hospital bed in July, it wasn’t the first time they prayed for their daughter and sister. She suffered a fractured skull more than 10 years ago in the Gorham Elementary School gym when a basketball hoop fell on her. She was unresponsive, in critical condition, and needed surgery.
Years later, during the spring of her sophomore year at Bryant, she fell during field hockey practice and was hit on the head by the butt end of a stick. She was in great pain, suffering a traumatic brain injury, or severe concussion. The stick had hit the part of her skull where bone had been removed for the surgery. When she returned to field hockey, she wore a helmet.
In fact, the Ballantyne family has endured more than its share of traumatic events. Kayleigh’s father, Bruce, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 8. He has survived three major surgeries, the most recent of them last spring.
Big brother Kendrick, 30, was airlifted from the University of Maine to a Boston hospital in the middle of the night about 10 years ago with a baseball-size clot in his lung. He had been hurt earlier in the day playing tight end for the Maine football team. He also suffered several traumatic brain injuries in his football career.
Both parents are close to their three children, including Keegan, 26, who also was a star athlete at Gorham High. Neither parent approved of Kayleigh spending the summer in South Boston, although Kendrick had transferred from Maine to Northeastern University and Keegan attended Emmanuel College, both in the heart of Boston. Kayleigh wanted a bit of the same experience living in the city. She was 21 and an adult and won the discussion.
After the assault, her parents and brothers quickly rallied to her side. Kim Ballantyne is a nurse practitioner and a former colonel in the Maine Army National Guard, working with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. En route to Boston with a friend, she called fellow nurse practitioners she knew in the Boston area. At 2 a.m. she reached two, asking both to get to the hospital and be her eyes and ears.
“I knew the police wouldn’t tell me on the phone if my daughter was dead,” Kim said. “I wanted people I knew there.” She called the hospital, insisting she speak to her daughter. That wasn’t possible, she was told. The wounds around Kayleigh’s mouth were being stitched. From another phone call, Kim learned that the hospital was in lockdown. The suspect had been spotted and caught.
When Kim arrived, she saw the tube in her daughter’s chest, the oxygen and IVs and her daughter’s eyes looking at her. She relaxed. Kayleigh was going to make it.
Keegan, a deep sleeper, was awakened by a friend telling him he had about six missed calls from his mother. “You assume the worst,” said Keegan, who lives in the Portland area. “It was kind of surreal to wake up to.”
He made his own phone calls. Soon, he and Kendrick, who lives in Gorham, were on the road. They met their father in Portsmouth, N.H. All three rode together, harboring fear and anger.
‘I FELT TOTALLY USELESS’
Kayleigh was assaulted early on a Wednesday morning. By Friday, she was at home in Gorham. Two weeks later, she walked around the cul-de-sac at the end of her street, leaning on her father. She walked slowly, once around the circle. Soon, it was twice around, then three times. Sometimes she walked with her father, other times with her brothers and mother.
“It was a long time to be home, sitting and eating,” Kayleigh said. “It was unfair. I’m here because of someone else. (Alemany) is taking my senior year away. He tried to take my life.”
Her father struggled with his frustration. He grew up in the small central Maine town of Palermo, a three-sport athlete at Erskine Academy in South China, not too far from Hallowell, where Kim Boothby grew up and played three sports. He was an officer in the Maine Air National Guard and is now part of FairPoint Communications’ management team in Maine. He’s used to leadership and being the answer guy.
“As a parent, every time my children got into a situation, I was always going back to my own childhood, thinking of something similar that happened to me so I could relate,” Bruce said. “In this, I felt totally useless. You always have to hear that someone believes in you. That’s all I was doing, telling her she could get through this because of everything else she’s been through.”
In April, Bruce was in Maine Medical Center in Portland for 30 days after another surgery. Kayleigh was by her father’s side as he walked the halls of the hospital, regaining his strength.
“I’m writing a Christmas letter to each of my kids,” Bruce said, four days before the holiday. “The boys rallied around her. Those boys never left her side that week. I’m proud of them for how they’ve handled all the tough things in our lives. We’ve taken it and worked through it.”
THE ROAD BACK
As the August days slipped by, Kayleigh fought to regain control of her life, weaning herself from pain medication and rebuilding her stamina and strength. She returned to Bryant for preseason practices. She was on campus in Smithfield, R.I., for Opening Convocation for the nearly 1,000 freshman during the first week of September.
Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley presented her with the university’s Character Award, recognizing her resolve. It was an emotional moment in a summer of emotional days.
“I knew, going back to school, everyone would know what happened to me,” Kayleigh said. “I felt a lot stares. ‘Wow, you’re back.’ ”
Classmates and fellow students would initiate conversation but sometimes didn’t know what to say. They tried, but couldn’t relate. Kayleigh felt most secure around her field hockey teammates, including senior triplets Mallory, McKayla and Megan Hancock from Skowhegan. “When my teammates asked questions, they knew me. They understood.”
Coach Shaunessey Saucier grew up in Old Town and was a student at the University of Maine when Kendrick was there. They knew each other. In fact, Saucier knew that Kendrick rushed from Orono to Portland when Kayleigh suffered her head injury.
When Saucier met Kayleigh, the Gorham High graduate, she didn’t make the family connection at first. When she did, she was stunned.
Saucier rushed to Kayleigh’s bedside soon after she learned of the attack. They held hands, and Kayleigh cried. “Coach, I won’t be able to play for you this year.”
Saucier looked at her captain. Medical personnel were still tending to her wounds. “They didn’t have a chance to clean her up. There was still blood in her hair. But she was going to make it. That’s all that mattered.”
When Saucier met with her shaken players, she told them they weren’t dedicating the season to Kayleigh because she was assaulted so brutally. They would dedicate the season to the example Kayleigh set by fighting back. That resonated with young women who easily saw themselves in their wounded teammate.
WORRIES AND A MESSAGE
Kayleigh was cleared medically for full participation with her field hockey team on Sept. 18, two weeks into the season. The next day, she was on the flight taking the Bryant team to St. Louis for a weekend of games. Kim was there. Seeing her daughter play again so soon after the attack wasn’t so much a surprise as confirmation of Kayleigh’s resiliency.
Kayleigh’s left arm hurt. Her stamina lagged but she played, if not every minute. The high point of her season came at UMaine in early October. She scored a goal and assisted on another, although Bryant lost, 3-2, in overtime. Her family and friends were there that day. It was the best homecoming.
She did have episodes when the pressure of juggling schoolwork, field hockey, pain and memories of the attack were too much. Her teammates’ understanding was their gift to her.
“I get nervous around strangers,” Kayleigh said. “I want to know who’s behind me. I worry about my family, what might happen to them. I have to learn to trust people again.”
Most of all, she didn’t want others to think she was vulnerable. She didn’t want to bother anyone with her problems. “I had to be told, it’s OK to be sad. I had tried to act like this was just a bump in the road. I had to realize I’m really not OK. Someone tried to take my life and not because I did anything wrong.”
Bryant qualified for its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. The week before the first game was difficult. “I had a lot on my plate,” she said. “I was the team captain. I had no time to sit and relax and take everything in. Right before the tournament I had a presentation to make in one class and an exam in another. I left practice crying. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I called my mom. I said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m coming home.’ ”
Her mother told her she couldn’t. They would work through it like everything else that’s happened in their lives. They did. Kayleigh is on track to graduate in the spring with a major in communications. She thinks about becoming a motivational speaker, telling women, especially, that they can fight back.
‘I NEEDED TO SEE THAT’
On Dec. 11 in a South Boston courtroom, Alemany answered 20 counts of an indictment that included kidnapping, murder and armed assault with intent to murder. He pleaded not guilty. He will go to trial in 2014. He has been held at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, undergoing psychological evaluations.
Kayleigh, Keegan and Kim Ballantyne were in the small courtroom, along with Saucier and a couple of Kayleigh’s closest friends. About 30 members of Amy Lord’s family were also there.
“I was told I didn’t have to be there,” said Kayleigh, who had not seen Alemany since the assault. “Everyone said it was OK if I didn’t go. I had to go. I saw (Alemany) in handcuffs and the guards around him. I needed to see that.”
She sobbed, and a Boston detective working the case came to her side and asked if he could help her from the courtroom. No, said Kayleigh. “I’m just crying. I’m fine.”
Kim had her own emotions. “It was horrific to see the person who did this. It was a tough day but a good day,” she said. “I thought it was empowering for Kayleigh.”
Their hearts went out to Lord’s family. They think about Amy’s parents often, and their grief.
Bruce and Kendrick did not make the trip. “I have a temper,” Bruce said simply. “And Kendrick is a lot like me.”
His mind was with his daughter.
“She has shared with us the deep and dark side of what fear really is and what it’s like to experience,” he said. “At the same time, she’s shown us how one’s strength, courage and willingness to live another day can overcome that fear.”
That’s Kayleigh Ballantyne’s gift to us.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: