By Richard Jerome
April 17, 2000 12:00 PM

Diana Smeltzer was quietly writing a note to her mother on Dec. 27, 1996. She and Brent, her husband of nearly 30 years and father of their four grown children, were about to leave their Westminster, Colo., home for a weekend in Telluride. For three years, Brent, a machinery salesman, then 55, had been battling depression and alcoholism, and Diana was happy to be getting away. But then she heard a noise from the family room, walked in and found Brent smashing her CDs. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” she recalls. ” ‘That’s my stuff.’ ”

The scene she describes next was right out of The Shining: “His eyes were like pin dots. He said, ‘I’ll give you what’s yours.’ ” Brent then slashed his wife with a broken CD, punched her and choked her into unconsciousness. Then he set fire to the house. Fortunately, Diana came to as the flames spread and was able to crawl to safety.

Brent was sentenced to 25 years in prison for arson and lesser crimes. But Diana, now 53, a homemaker, was left destitute. Because the fire was arson, her insurance company at first refused to pay but finally settled for $48,000. Even that was only half the lowest bid to rebuild her home. The situation seemed hopeless until Smeltzer was introduced by a friend to Ben Carter, 60, head of the Home Builders Foundation of Metro Denver. Since 1997 he and the group have remodeled and rebuilt housing for crime and accident victims—free of charge. In just four months, they had replaced Smeltzer’s 2,000-sq.-ft. home. “If this man told me I could fly, I would do it,” she says. “He’s a true hero.”

Since its founding, the group has constructed or refitted eight homes at a total cost of $500,000. In three cases they made homes wheelchair-accessible for students paralyzed by last year’s shootings at Columbine High. “In terms of scope, it’s the only program of its kind,” notes William Young of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, D.C. Carter credits the group’s 250 volunteer builders and contractors. “We are helping people with what we do best,” he says. “Which is much better than if we just give some money.”

Carter, a Louisiana native and West Point graduate, served in Vietnam and has spent his entire career in the building industry. Living near Denver with his wife, Pat, 59, the owner of a garden design business and mother of their two grown children, he has for more than 20 years run Carter Development Corp., which plans residential communities.

His foundation was casting around for ideas for charity work when members heard about Jeannie Van Velkinburgh, a Denver nursing home assistant. Then 36, she had been shot and paralyzed after witnessing the murder of Oumar Dia, a West African immigrant gunned down by a skinhead in 1997. Members quickly agreed to refit her apartment and later did the same for Columbine casualties Sean Graves, 16, Anne Marie Hochhalter, 18, and Richard Castaldo, 18. “There is so much reward that comes out of this,” says Phil Lindemer, who retrofitted Castaldo’s home with a bedroom, bathroom and a lift in the garage. “The voice-activated stuff is cool,” adds Castaldo, referring to lights, a shower and other amenities. Notes his mother, Connie Michalik: “This has made our lives livable.”

A few of Carter’s clients have had initial reservations. “Some worry about a ramp,” he says, “which lets people know someone in the family is handicapped.” But most are like Smeltzer, who scratched a thank-you note in her newly laid sidewalk. “I never wanted to forget,” she says. “We can face just about anything, can’t we, if at the end we can go home?”

Richard Jerome

Vickie Bane in Denver