December 25, 2000 12:00 PM

Role Model

Julia Roberts played her in a hit movie, but this crusader hasn’t gone Hollywood

Soon after this spring’s premiere of Erin Brockovich—the story of a salty, cleavage-flashing legal researcher who in 1996 helped residents of Hinkley, Calif., win a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric for allegedly contaminating their water supply—the real-life model for the Julia Roberts role became embroiled in a more personal drama (PEOPLE, May 15). In April 40-year-old Erin Brockovich-Ellis (as she has been known since marrying actor Eric Ellis, 35, last year) joined forces with Ventura County authorities to nab a trio of accused blackmailers: her ex-husband Shawn Brown, 38, father of her two oldest children; her former boyfriend Jorg Halaby, 47; and their lawyer John Reiner, 53. The men had allegedly threatened to go public with stories that she was an unfit mother and had had an affair with boss Ed Masry, 68, unless she forked over $310,000—and with her aid, cops filmed them collecting the payoff. But while Reiner still faces counts of attempted extortion and conspiracy, charges against Brown and Halaby were dropped in October. Brockovich-Ellis admits to no disappointment with the results of her sting operation; in fact, she says, she’s “relieved” not to have to testify against her exes. “The real issue is corporations poisoning people,” she insists. “I stay focused on that and nothing else.” Her job certainly requires focus: As research director for L.A.’s Masry & Vititoe law firm, she oversees a staff of six that probes contamination cases across the country. Between 15-hour workdays and stints on the lecture circuit, she also tries to make up for lost time with her children—Matthew, 17, Katie, 15, and Elizabeth, 9 (with second husband Steven Brockovich). Brockovich-Ellis blames her divorce from Brown and her demanding schedule in part for the teenagers’ bouts with drug use and truancy, which led her to send them to boarding schools last year. She speaks proudly of their progress, boasting that newly graduated Matthew hopes to become an emergency medical technician, while Katie is keeping up a 4.0 grade average. “My kids are honestly the neatest human beings,” she says. “They’re going to have something to offer the world.” So is their mom, adds Masry: “I think the momentum is just now building for Erin. She has a lot more to do.”

Torn Apart

A Kosovo family mourns the daughter murdered by an American soldier

Almost a year after 11-year-old Merita Shabiu was raped and murdered by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Frank Ronghi, a member of the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo (PEOPLE, March 6), her book bag still hangs behind the front door of her parents’ two-room house in Debellde. Her mother’s eyes still well with tears at the mention of Merita’s name. And her youngest sibling, Sami, 10 (brothers Alim, 19, and Isuf, 17, and sisters Hysnije, 21, and Kimete, 14, complete the family), still waits for his beloved big sister to return—refusing to go to school without her, despite pleas from his parents and his teachers, who left him back for nonattendance. “He keeps visiting places where they would play together,” says the children’s father, Hamdi, 41. “He’ll find something and say it’s hers. He doesn’t feel or believe she’s dead.” Merita’s bloodied body was found on Jan. 13, just 10 days after her ethnic Albanian family fled Debellde (Serbian troops badly damaged their house) for the town of Vitina. Ronghi, now 36, had snuffed out her young life in an apartment-building basement, thrown her into a garbage bag and buried her in the woods. “I don’t know what went wrong that day,” he told a six-officer panel at his August court-martial in Würzburg, Germany. “I am still looking for answers myself.” Spared the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to premeditated murder, forced sodomy and performing an indecent act with a child, Ronghi received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Hamdi says he and his wife, Remzije, 36, are satisfied with that punishment and believe Ronghi accepts responsibility; nonetheless, they remain unmoved by his apology: “We could never forgive this man for anything. He destroyed our whole family.” The Army, for its part, “has taken this case really hard,” says Drita Perezic, the U.S. interpreter assigned to the family. Although the Shabius have received some financial assistance from the military (officials will not confirm an exact figure) as well as donations from sympathetic soldiers and civilians, they may yet sue the Army for compensatory damages. But it’s clear that nothing can truly compensate for their loss. “We don’t feel happy,” says Hamdi. “One of our children is missing.”

Mission of Mercy

Susan Krabacher steps up her drive to bring health and hope to Haiti

The past few months have been good to Susan Krabacher (PEOPLE, March 6)—and, by extension, to the desperately poor people of Haiti. “I feel like I’m sitting on God’s shoulders,” says the former Playboy cover girl (’84), whose Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing runs nine schools, four orphanages and a health-care clinic in the struggling Caribbean nation. In addition to 30,000 lbs. of donated food and medicine, flown down in a Boeing 757 provided by American Airlines, Krabacher’s organization has been flooded with checks. “I would hope that by the first of next year we’ll have a million dollars,” says the 37-year-old model turned Samaritan—enough to begin building a long-planned 20-acre complex that will include a hospital with a trauma unit. “We could not believe what she’d been able to do,” says Mary Cassidy, managing director of the Melville, N.Y.-based Pascucci Family Foundation, a charitable organization that has so far pledged $60,000. “Others could learn from her efficiency. She’s the real deal.” Krabacher spends at least two of every eight weeks away from the comfortable Aspen home she shares with husband Joe, 47, an attorney who hasn’t minded donating his wife (and $340,000 of their own money) to a compelling cause. “I believe we will play a huge role in not only helping the children of Haiti survive,” says Krabacher, “but to become educated and grow up to save their own country.”

A World Away

With a new job in a ravaged land, Princess Diana’s former bodyguard works to heal his own wounds

After the March publication of The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor, Trevor Rees-Jones (PEOPLE, March 27)—whose firsthand account of the events surrounding the 1997 collision that killed Princess Diana, Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul has sold nearly half a million copies—closed the book on his old life. First he visited Althorp, the estate where Diana is buried. There he met his former employer’s brother, Earl Spencer, for the first time. “They had a very positive discussion,” says a source close to Spencer. “It was good for both of them.” Then Rees-Jones, 32, bade farewell to family and friends back home in Oswestry (“Just a few parting drinks and wishing him the best,” says a pal) and embarked on a new career path—as a United Nations security officer in strife-torn East Timor. His arrival, in August, was as quiet as his departure. “I doubt any of the local people know who he is,” says the U.N. mission’s spokeswoman, Barbara Reis. According to his lawyer, Ian Lucas, Rees-Jones saw the yearlong posting as “an interesting job, involving travel and a challenge.” A challenge indeed: The village of Suai, in which Rees-Jones is stationed, remains under threat from the militiamen who massacred hundreds after East Timor voted to secede from Indonesia last year. The onetime paratrooper—who, like his fellow security officers, carries no weapon—is charged with protecting UN personnel and property. Lucas reports that Rees-Jones seems content with his latest line of work: “It’s his way of saying, ‘I am drawing a line under things and moving on.’ ”

Give Me Five

Marion Jones grabbed a fistful of medals at Sydney—and kept running

She shot for the sun, and she reached the moon. Despite a major distraction—charges that her shot-putter husband, C.J. Hunter, 32, had used steroids earlier in the year—track star Marion Jones, 25 (PEOPLE, May 8), came astonishingly close to fulfilling her vow to win five Olympic golds in Sydney, collecting three top honors and two third-place finishes. “I set my goals very high, and when I didn’t achieve everything that I wanted to, of course I was a bit disappointed,” she says. “On the other hand, not many people can say they won five medals in a single Olympics.” That’s an understatement: Before Jones the only track athlete ever to achieve that feat was Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, in 1924. And Jones—who ran in an event in the Arab state of Qatar right after the Olympics and before taking a much-deserved two-week beach vacation—shows no signs of slowing down. Since Sydney, the University of North Carolina grad has made promotional appearances for TAG Heuer and Nike, done a whirlwind tour of talk shows, coached (along with Hunter) a girls basketball team in her hometown of Chapel Hill and delivered speeches for Habitat for Humanity. Jones also finds time to maintain e-mail contact with a friend she last saw at Sydney: leukemia-stricken track starlet Mya Thompson, 11, who had been flown in with her family from Ithaca, N.Y., courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. “I like that she’s a nice person and good runner,” says Mya. Jones continues to stand by her embattled husband, who said in Sydney that he had already decided to retire from his sport when the doping allegations were leveled against him. “He is taking the necessary legal actions,” she says, “and is very confident that soon all this will be behind him.” In the meantime Jones is strategizing for her next racing season, which begins in the spring. Ron Rapoport, a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of her biography See How She Runs, predicts that Jones, already the second-fastest woman ever in the 100-meter sprint, will break the world record in the 200 meters next year. “If I had to sum her up in one word, it would be ‘driven,’ ” he says. “It makes me tired just to watch her work.” Jones’s former basketball coach at UNC Sylvia Hatchell is equally awed: “I’ve worked with all-Americans and the Olympic team, and Marion has focus like no other athlete I’ve ever seen.”

A Singular Scholar

Once homeless, Liz Murray settles in at Harvard

Even at Harvard, Liz Murray stands out. The 20-year-old freshman, whose drug-addicted parents had lost their home, finished high school in two years while camping out in New York City parks and subway stations (PEOPLE, July 24). The recipient of a scholarship from The New York Times, Murray now occupies a dorm single, her first steady lodging in four years. College life is “a little nerve-racking but mostly exciting,” she reports, adding that introductions to her privileged classmates can be awkward: “I’ve had people say, ‘You ate out of dumpsters?’ ” On the whole, though, Murray finds the student body to be “intelligent, opinionated, articulate and passionate”—and the respect is mutual. “She’s a smart, courageous girl,” says fellow frosh Shannon Christmas, 18. Murray is juggling academics with volunteer work for an AIDS-HIV organization (her mother, Jean, weakened by AIDS and tuberculosis, died in 1996 at age 42) and nationwide speaking engagements. “I’m doing some cramming,” she says, “but I get everything done.” Although she still has no home to visit on vacations, Murray keeps in phone contact with dad Peter, 58, now drug-free and living in Manhattan. “He was kind of nervous about me coming here,” she says. “He kept asking if I was happy.” And is she? Her answer is eloquent: “I feel at home.”

Dr. Defiance

A besieged abortion provider refuses to quit

Dr. LeRoy Carhart has never performed the particularly gruesome type of abortion that opponents label “partial birth.” Nonetheless, the retired Air Force surgeon feared that Nebraska’s 1997 statute banning the procedure was broad enough to criminalize almost all abortions—and as one of just three abortion providers in the state, he sought an injunction against the law. In June the U.S. Supreme Court took his side, ruling the statute unconstitutional (PEOPLE, July 17). Yet Carhart’s battles were far from over. Shortly before his court victory a group of antiabortion activists led by state Sen. D. Paul Hartnett bought the building in Bellevue (pop. 50,000) that houses Carhart’s clinic, and they’ve been trying to evict him ever since. “My main interest,” says Hartnett, “is to stop him in my community.” Bellevue’s mayor has declared that he wants Carhart, 59, out of town, and protesters outside the clinic occasionally drive patients away. But the doctor, long a target of death threats and vandalism—including a 1991 arson attack on his farm that killed 17 horses—remains undaunted. “I think it’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment to make a woman pregnant if she doesn’t want to be,” says Carhart, who witnessed the often lethal results of illegal abortions as a medical student in Philadelphia in the early ’70s. Carhart has won a temporary injunction against the eviction and vows to continue his work even if he has to move. “People have offered to build buildings for us,” he says. Carhart recently established a fund to aid other embattled abortion providers. “Lee is dedicated to his cause,” says wife Mary, 58, the clinic’s administrator. “He was in the military for years, and he’s not going to be turned away by terrorist tactics.”

Go, Granny, Go!

After surviving for three days in her wrecked car in a Florida swamp, Tillie Tooter is on the road to recovery

At 3 a.m. on Aug. 12 Tillie Tooter (PEOPLE, Sept. 4) was heading to pick up granddaughter Lori Simms, 28, at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when an alleged hit-and-run driver knocked her Toyota off a bridge and into a mangrove swamp. In pain and unable to move, the 83-year-old former bookkeeper survived on a cough drop, a mint and rainwater she drank from her steering-wheel cover. Before her ordeal Tooter—who has outlived three husbands—chauffeured fellow residents of her Pembroke Pines, Fla., retirement community to stores and restaurants, but these days they run errands for her. “Physically I’m feeling a lot better,” she says, “but my mind is not adjusted yet. I’m still having nightmares and flashbacks.” She’s still too weak to drive the new Corolla she was given by a local Toyota distributor. But Tooter’s daughter Linda Simms, 58, believes it’s just a matter of time: “Six months from now, I think my mother will be driving around Florida.” Meanwhile, Tooter is mulling over a lawsuit against local authorities for not finding her earlier—and grappling with her newfound fame. “People tell me I’m an inspiration,” she marvels. “I’ve been asked to write a book, but I’m taking things a day at a time.” Among Tooter’s rooters is Justin Vannelli, 16, the road-cleaning crew member who spotted her car. “I call her Grandma Tillie,” he says. She calls him a “sweetheart” and hopes he’ll decide to try college once his home-schooling is done. Tooter herself has a few lessons to impart to those in trouble: “Fight until you can’t fight anymore. And wear your seat belt, always.”

Tragedy in the Tropics

The families of two college students murdered in Costa Rica seek comfort—and justice

Little things remind Stephen Howell of his daughter Emily, 19, who was abducted and shot to death by bandits last spring along with former Antioch College classmate Emily Eagen, also 19, while driving near the Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica (PEOPLE, April 3). “It could be a song, a rainbow,” says Howell, 52, a landscape architect in Lexington, Ky. “I still cry every day.” Howell says that he and his wife, Kathy, 49, an art teacher, and son Jesse, 14, cope “mostly by keeping busy. We haven’t been able to straighten up her room. It’s too hard.” The other Emily’s loved ones, meanwhile, are channeling their grief into a quest for justice. In November the Eagens—middle school teacher Shirley, 52, and computer specialist Charles, 54, who live in Ann Arbor, Mich., and their daughter Sarah, 25, a law student in New York—traveled to Limón, Costa Rica, to attend a hearing for suspect Jorge Urbina Cisneros, whose trial has yet to be scheduled. “We are screaming like hell that we want the truth,” says Charles. The family has protested to Costa Rican and U.S. authorities over the fact that Urbina, 20, is charged only with murder and robbery, and not kidnapping or—as Emily Howell’s nude body might suggest—attempted rape; that the sole assailant convicted so far, a 16-year-old, was tried under relatively lenient juvenile laws, which limited his sentence to 15 years in prison (and forbade disclosing his name); and that a third suspect, a Nicaraguan minor, remains at large. Yet the Eagens also want to honor the love Emily felt for Costa Rica, where she spent her last weeks hanging out with Emily Howell and their college pal Shauna Sellers, who were working on off-campus study projects—and where she hoped to become a teacher. (Sellers, now 21, is building her own home in Puerto Viejo.) So the family’s November journey included a visit to three impoverished local schools, which will receive $6,000 worth of supplies courtesy of the memorial fund Charles and Shirley established in their daughter’s name. Says Charles: “It would make Emily very happy to know her death made a difference.”

Excellent Adventures

Swedish daredevil Göran Kropp keeps up his wild ways

Just because Göran Kropp (PEOPLE, Feb. 14) chose the title Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey for his book about his round-trip bicycle trek from Sweden to Nepal—with a climb of Mt. Everest in between—doesn’t mean that the adventurer from Jönköping has stopped looking for ways to top the experience. In February Kropp, 34, and fellow explorer Ola Skinnarmo, 28, set out to become the first Swedes to ski from the Russian island of Severnaya Zemlya to the North Pole. But disaster struck when the duo was attacked by a pair of polar bears, one of which Kropp fatally shot. “It was the last thing I wanted to do,” he says, “but there was no other solution.” (Although Swedish authorities indicted him on animal-cruelty charges, the case was eventually dropped.) Kropp, who had removed his glove to pull the trigger, later developed frostbite in his left thumb, prompting him to abandon his pursuit of the Pole. “I was proud that he had the courage to make that strong decision,” says his girlfriend, Renata Chlumska, 27. Kropp plans to reattempt the North Pole journey in the near future—and is taking sailing lessons to prepare for a 2005 or 2006 sail-and-ski trip from Sweden to the South Pole. “That,” he promises, “will be my last huge adventure.”

Living Online

Wedded to the Web, DotComGuy goes a year without leaving the house

Last New Year’s Day, after legally changing his name to DotComGuy, an Internet-addicted computer systems manager moved into a two-bedroom Dallas condo containing nothing but a laptop (PEOPLE, Jan. 24). To publicize the convenience of e-commerce, the former Mitch Maddox vowed to live for a year on what he could order online—from food to furniture—never leaving the premises. Now 27, DotComGuy has kept his word, as witnessed by the 24 cameras that track his activities for his Web site (dotcomguy.com) 24 hours a day. Although the stunt has required some sacrifices (“If I thought about it, I’m sure I could name several things I miss,” he says), it also stands to net him nearly $100,000 through the site, which is sponsored by advertisers such as UPS and Travelocity.com. And his confinement has hardly been solitary. DotComGuy gets regular visits from family and friends, as well as from R.D., a 14-year-old boy he mentors through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Crowds pack the DotCompound for charity parties and special Web casts (guest stars have included rising metal-rap group Incubus and Tonight Show vet Ed McMahon). Then there’s DotComDog, a beagle mix adopted from http://www.spca.org. “He’s holding up surprisingly well,” says Len Critcher, 26, CEO of DotComGuy, Inc., the Web site’s corporate parent. Still, DotComGuy is eager to reboot a normal life on Jan. 1. “I wouldn’t trade this year for anything,” he declares. “But I won’t lock myself up in a house again in 2001—that’s for sure.”

All-American Boy

In rural Iowa, a Vietnamese orphan finds a loving home

Come on horsey, go faster,” says 5-year-old Sam Donovan as he rides atop his adoptive father’s shoulders through a cornfield near Cascade, Iowa. “I’m trying,” says dad Mike, 43, “but I don’t want to fall.” If fate had taken a different twist, this scene might be set in a rice paddy near the Vietnamese village where Sam was born, with a water buffalo doing the legwork. But 13 months ago Mike and his wife, Judy, now 42, traveled 8,600 miles to make Sam—then called Phuoc—part of their family (PEOPLE, May 1). When the couple (who sought to avoid the long wait Americans over 40 often face when they adopt a child domestically) arrived at the orphanage near Ho Chi Minh City where Sam had landed at age 3, he was a skinny, sad-faced boy who spoke no English. Today he has grown 6 in. and gained nearly 20 lbs.—as well as a sunny smile and a new language. “I love Iowa,” says Sam. “I don’t want to go back to Vietnam.” Like many other kindergartners in Cascade (pop. 1,812), he struts around in cowboy boots and recently participated in his first kiddie tractor pull. “Everything has gone better than we expected,” says Judy, an office manager. Emulating his brother Adam, 18, Sam plays basketball and football, and he’s getting the hang of slang. “He says, ‘Cool, dude,’ or ‘Whassup?’ ” says Adam. “He copies everything I do.” With sister Andrea, 14, Sam relishes playing the pesky little brother. “He knows which buttons to push,” she says. The older Donovans encourage their youngest son to remember his roots and often join him in poring over photos from Vietnam. “I look to remind myself where he comes from,” says Mike, a paramedic, who plans to take Sam on periodic visits to his native country. Sam, however, is lobbying to bring a bit more of Vietnam to Iowa. “I want a little brother like me, with dark hair and dark eyes,” he tells his dad. “Okay?”

Aftermath of a Mauling

Jayton Tidwell lost his arm to a tiger—sending his divorced parents into battle over his custody and care

In March, after 4-year-old Jayton Tidwell had his right arm torn off by his aunt and uncle’s 400-lb. pet Bengal tiger Cheyenne, surgeons at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Children’s Hospital successfully reattached the limb (PEOPLE, April 3). But the incident—which occurred when Jayton left the adults gathered at Nancy and Larry Tidwell’s Channelview, Texas, home and ran into the backyard, where he stuck his arm through the animal’s chain-link enclosure—seems to have severed the last threads of his parents’ relationship. His mother, Jennifer Howell, 24, says she’s “very angry” that her son was injured while on a visit with his father, James Tidwell, 27, from whom she has been divorced since 1997. “Jayton associates the tiger with James,” says Howell, who has been granted a temporary order limiting Tidwell’s visitation rights and is suing to terminate them completely. “He thinks, ‘If I go back, something bad will happen to me.’ ” But Tidwell insists he is a good father and has countersued for sole custody. (A trial date has not yet been set.) “It eats me up that I can’t see Jayton,” he says. The couple are also fighting over the choice of doctors for their son’s rehabilitation program. Tidwell, who lives outside Houston, contends that Jayton, now 5, would be better off working with the team that treated him after his injury. But Howell, a child-care worker, prefers Jayton to have his physical-therapy sessions near the Jacksonville, Ark., home they share with her husband of eight months, meat cutter Kevin Howell, 27. Although Jayton is making progress (he has 50 percent use of his right elbow and could soon have some mobility in his hand and wrist), the formerly right-handed boy “will always have limited fine motor function and limited strength” in his damaged limb, says his current doctor, hand surgeon Andrew Markiewitz. The tiger’s owners, meanwhile, have sent her to live with friends who aren’t affected by a new local law, partly inspired by Jayton’s case, that prohibits housing an exotic animal within 1,000 feet of a residence or school. Nancy and Larry Tidwell, who paid a $500 fine for keeping Cheyenne without a permit, visit their pet several times a week. Says Nancy: “We don’t want Cheyenne to think we’ve abandoned her.”

Giant Steps

Prenatal surgery gives Baby Ethan a chance at a happier future

In September of 1999 a routine prenatal test brought Jennifer and Brian Buchkovich horrifying news: Their unborn baby, Ethan, was afflicted with spina bifida, a failure of the spine to close over the spinal cord (PEOPLE, May 8). The birth defect, which affects 2,000 children a year, usually leads to paralysis and cognitive delays. But doctors offered the Windber, Pa., couple a glimmer of hope1—an experimental operation designed to reduce the damage and to eliminate or delay the need for a surgically implanted shunt to drain excess fluid from the brain. The hitch: The surgery would have to be performed while Ethan was still inside Jennifer’s womb. The Buchkoviches decided to take a chance, and in October surgeons at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center closed the hole in Ethan’s spine. Jennifer, 31, who develops training courses for government employees, and Brian, 33, a computer systems engineer, believe the gamble has paid off. Ethan—born on Jan. 11 at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh—is still shunt-free (“We’re taking a wait-and-see approach,” says Pittsburgh neurologist Dr. Ian Pollack), and he’s learning to crawl just a bit behind schedule. “The only way he can go right now is backward,” says Jennifer. “He gets frustrated, but he’s, such a trouper.” In July Ethan underwent surgery to help correct his clubfeet; a defect that often accompanies spina bifida. According to pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Mendelson, who performed that operation, “We’re not yet sure what functions and what doesn’t, but there’s no question that he’ll be able to get up and around.” Studies are under way to show whether fetal surgery for spina bifida, a three-year-old procedure performed at only three U.S. hospitals, is as effective in practice as it is promising in theory. Ethan’s parents, however, are satisfied customers. “So far it’s been wonderful,” says Jennifer. “I definitely think it was a success.”

Dying to Live

As a boy fights cancer, his parents take on the FDA

In the summer of 1999 James and Donna Navarro faced an agonizing dilemma (PEOPLE, March 20). Their 4-year-old son Thomas was dying of brain cancer, and doctors said his only hope was a barrage of chemotherapy and radiation. But the Tucson couple were terrified by the possible side effects, including brain damage and blindness. “We might save him,” says James, 46, “but save him for what?” The Navarros wanted to try a gentler approach: antineoplaston therapy, an experimental treatment—more successful than conventional methods, according to its inventor, Houston physician Stanislaw Burzynski, 57—aimed at switching off the genes that cause cancer growth. The Food and Drug Administration would grant permission only if chemotherapy and radiation proved fruitless. When the Navarros refused to try either, Thomas’s oncologist filed charges of medical neglect with Arizona child-protection authorities. The family fled to a Houston hotel room, where they waited while lawyers and politicians—among them presidential candidates John McCain and Alan Keyes—attempted to change the FDA’s mind. Last August, after tumors spread to Thomas’s spine, his parents finally submitted him to chemo. It failed. Now the FDA is insisting that he undergo radiation as well, though Dr. Burzynski says it would prevent his therapy from working. “My authority over my child has been stolen from me,” says Donna, 34, who recently shuttered the law-enforcement supply company she ran with her husband. Since February Congress has been considering the Thomas Navarro FDA Patient Rights Act, which would allow patients (and their guardians) to choose treatments without FDA approval. But the Navarros, once again in hiding, won’t have an answer until next year—and for Thomas, now 5, that may be too late. “We’ve jumped through almost every hoop,” says Donna, “and my son’s life is still on the line.”

Short on Horsepower

Zippy Chippy’s perfect track record remains unblemished

When he blew his 86th consecutive run for the roses in September 1999, Zippy Chippy took home an un-coveted title: the losingest horse in racing history (PEOPLE, May 8). But on Aug. 17 bookies at Rochester, N.Y.’s Frontier Field gave the 9-year-old gelding 2-to-l odds against an unusual opponent—Jose Herrera, 27, center fielder for minor league baseball’s Rochester Red Wings. After all, even the speediest human (and Herrera, who spent two seasons with the Oakland A’s, is known for his fleetness) can’t match the average racehorse’s cruising velocity of about 40 mph. When the starting flag was dropped, however, Zippy proved once again that he is far from average. As is his habit, he hesitated. And by the time he got moving, Herrera had a 20-yard lead, crossing the finish line 4½ horse lengths ahead of the horse. “He wanted Jose to win,” theorizes owner Felix Monserrate, 57, who keeps Zippy—one of his four horses—at his Clifton Springs, N.Y., home (shared with wife Emily, 43) and trains another 24. Perhaps such generosity of spirit also explains Zippy’s performance in September, when he returned to the site of his record-breaking defeat, the Three-County Fair in Northampton, Mass., for losses number 87 and 88. In any case, Monserrate maintains a winning outlook: “Every time he runs, he comes back happy. I don’t get disappointed, no matter what.”

Unsinkable kid

Shot by pirates, Willem van Tuijl lost the use of his legs—but his spirit remains buoyant

Last March Jacco van Tuijl, 38, his wife, Jannie, 46, and their son Willem, 13, were winding up their five-year odyssey aboard the Hayat, a 44-ft. sailboat that Jacco built himself, when calamity struck (PEOPLE, April 24). Thirty miles off the coast of Honduras, the Dutch family was attacked by pirates—and Willem, shot in the hip, was instantly paralyzed from the waist down. With coaching from ham radio operators, his parents were able to keep him alive until he and Jannie were picked up 14 hours later by Honduran rescuers; other hams helped Jacco navigate the boat to safe harbor more than a day away. After hospital stints in Honduras and Dallas (the latter arranged by the president of the American Radio Relay League, Jim Haynie, 56), Willem and his family returned home to Enkhuizen, a small town 25 miles north of Amsterdam. Today the van Tuijls remain in e-mail contact with some of their radio saviors, including Ed Petzolt, 53, a telecommunications consultant in Hobe Sound, Fla., who says, “Willem is always upbeat and cheerful.” Reports the teen: “I’m like 10 times as strong as I ever was before. Being in a wheelchair isn’t that bad—I just can’t walk, that’s all.” Since the attack Willem has tried his hand at wheelchair tennis and sled hockey and has cycled up to 18 miles with a removable third wheel attached to his chair. (“I go just as fast as an ordinary bike,” he boasts.) But he has also suffered from leg pains and incontinence, and in November surgeons at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital attempted to allay those ills. The team, led by neurosurgeon Dr. Jim Guest, 41, performed the pioneering 18-hour operation free of charge. (Donations helped pay for related expenses.) First they untangled the knot of nerves and scar tissue responsible for Willem’s aches; then, in a bid to restore bowel and bladder control—and possibly some mobility in” his lower body—they grafted nerves from his legs to the tailbone area. “We restored things anatomically to the best of our ability,” says Guest. Although it will take at least a year to know how well the operation worked, he adds, Willem has a good prognosis.”

Jumping the Gun

Fired for resisting an armed robber, Antonio Feliciano starts over

It was a split-second decision that shattered his world. One day Antonio Feliciano, now 28, was an ambitious young man working the graveyard shift at the 7-Eleven on Route 9 in Martinsburg, W.Va., and happily doting on his wife, Carla, 26, and daughters Nereida, 4, and Ayana, 2. Then, at 4:10 a.m. on July 14, Feliciano, who has a second-degree black belt in aikido, foiled a robbery attempt by lunging at an armed crook—an act that violated company policy and led to his dismissal (PEOPLE, Aug. 21). “No amount of money is worth risking a life,” explains 7-Eleven spokeswoman Margaret Chabris. In the media firestorm that followed the firing, many called Feliciano a hero, but his own life went into a tailspin. He spent nearly two months out of work and says he didn’t have money “for the bills, the birthdays, the baby’s diapers, my daughter’s shoes.” He felt betrayed by his coworker and friend Moon Warren, who criticized him publicly for grabbing the gun at a moment when the masked robber (who turned out to be a woman) was aiming the sawed-off shotgun (which turned out to be unloaded) at her. “Antonio put me in jeopardy,” she says. “He deserved to lose, his job.” Worst of all, Feliciano laments, was the damage to his closest relationship: “My marriage is on the threat of ending. The stress has taken a tremendous toll on me and my wife.” Although Feliciano has found a job as a night stock clerk at the local Wal-Mart (which pays $2 per hour more than his old job) and still runs the private-eye service that he opened last year, the incident has scarred him, according to pal Norberto Rodriguez, 26. “He’s a very outgoing person,” says Rodriguez, a maintenance man, “but he seems like he doesn’t trust people anymore.” Feliciano hopes the $105,000 lawsuit he filed against his former employer in August will bring him vindication. But he would settle for an apology. “If they would come out and say, ‘We’re sorry, we know you were trying to save your life,’ ” he says, “I would drop the lawsuit in a heartbeat.”

Guardian of Angels

Weary of burying abandoned babies, a California mom aims to save their lives

Since 1996, when she was horrified by a news report of a baby found dead in a duffel bag by a freeway, homemaker Debi Faris—aided by private donations and some 20 volunteers—has named and buried 44 abandoned infants at Desert Lawn Cemetery in Calimesa, east of Los Angeles (PEOPLE, Jan. 24). Her mission begins with a trip to the county morgue and ends with a brief graveside ceremony in a plot she calls the Garden of Angels. “Does it ever get easier?” asks Faris, 45, who lives in nearby Yucaipa with her husband, Mark, 49, and daughter Jessica, 15. (Son Brandon, 23, is in the military and Ryan, 20, is away at college.) “No, it gets harder. I cry more.” In L.A. County alone, police find 10 to 20 tiny corpses each year on roadsides and in trash bins (nationwide, the figure may reach the hundreds), and for Faris tears are not enough. Thanks largely to her efforts, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill in September designed to make abandoning a baby—illegal until now under all circumstances—less likely to result in the infant’s death. The “Save a Baby” law, which takes effect Jan. 1, allows the mother of a child 72 hours or younger to surrender her infant anonymously at any hospital without fear of prosecution. (California is among more than a dozen states to have enacted such a law in the past 18 months.) “I hope that with the passage of this bill, we’ll see many more babies left to live,” says Faris. The legislation’s sponsor, state senate Republican leader Jim Brulte, agrees. “Debi asked me to help her put the Garden of Angels out of business,” he says. “What a wonderful woman! She has a heart the size of my Ford Expedition.”

A Measure of Freedom

College allows Jeffrey Galli to explore a world beyond his wheelchair

Two years ago, when Jeffrey Galli, now 20, was left unconscious and quadriplegic after a diving accident at a friend’s pool, his despairing parents—Richard, 54, and Toby, 53—debated taking him off life support (PEOPLE, June 26). Today they know they made the right choice. “We may not be able to defeat paralysis,” says Richard, whose chronicle of his son’s rehabilitation, Rescuing Jeffrey, was published in June, “but there is no reason to let it defeat or define us.” A distinctly undefeated Jeffrey has just completed his first semester at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus, a 25-minute van ride from the family’s home in East Greenwich. “It’s better than high school,” he reports. “The work is more interesting. And I like being on a large campus—the idea that I won’t meet everyone in the first two weeks.” Jeffrey, who attends most classes with a nurse or his father seated nearby, gets around school in a wheelchair customized by Richard—a litigation lawyer by trade and a tinkerer by avocation—to include a computer, a microphone and mouth-operated controls. “It’s been amazing for me to see how capable he is, and I think the students have learned a great deal as well,” says Prof. Kirsten Maar, who teaches public speaking, one of three courses Jeffrey took this fall. Come January, those students will include Richard Galli, who is returning to URI to complete the master’s degree in English he began pursuing in 1971 following a tour of duty in Vietnam. (Thinking he was too old, he left the program after a year. This time around his book will serve as his thesis.) “The biggest drawback of my being at school with Jeff is that he can’t slip the parental knot along with the rest of his generation,” admits Richard. “I try to keep out of his way as much as I can.” Jeffrey, for his part, insists he doesn’t mind having his dad as a classmate. “I don’t know of any drawbacks,” he says, “other than possible conflicts between our schedules.”

Bouncing Back

A basketball star rebounds for his first full season playing with a transplanted kidney

With his NBA contract up at the end of this year, Sean Elliott (PEOPLE, March 27) might seem a prime pick for retirement. At the age of 32, the San Antonio Spurs forward has just entered his 11th year in the league, having already collected a championship ring and two All-Star nods. But if Elliott remains reluctant to walk away from the game—”I might go out and have a very good year and want to continue to play,” he says—it’s because in the summer of 1999 the game was almost taken from him. Focal glomerulosclerosis, an ailment that causes chronic scarring of the kidneys, had left Elliott, a divorced father of two daughters (Jada, 8, and Jordyn, 2), in need of a transplant. Luckily his brother Noel, 34, a Tucson stock clerk, offered to donate one of his kidneys. In March Elliott became the first major-league athlete to return to action after receiving a new organ. Now the hoopster—who still takes seven pills a day to prevent rejection—hopes to have a slam-dunk season. “I feel strong; I feel light,” Elliott says. “The only thing that will hold me back is my conditioning,” he adds, explaining that he was forced to go months without working out. His teammates aren’t worried. “He’s head and shoulders over what you saw last year,” enthuses Spurs center-forward Tim Duncan, 24. Also hitting a “higher level,” says Elliott, is his relationship with his brother. “I didn’t think I could feel any closer to Sean,” says Noel, “but we feel closer. Every day, when I see the scar on my stomach, I think of what I did.”

A Dog’s Life

Sara McBurnett struggles with depression after a mad motorist kills her pet

It was a road-rage scene that shocked the nation (PEOPLE, March 27), and one that Sara McBurnett wishes she could forget: the driver reaching into her car after a minor fender bender, grabbing her 10-year-old bichon frise, Leo, and fatally hurling the dog into oncoming traffic. “I don’t think she’ll ever be totally over it,” says her husband, Patrick, an airline pilot. Since the February incident McBurnett, 39, has sought therapy, taken antidepressants and even considered suicide, she says, “just to get away from the pain.” Once a full-time real estate agent, she now works only part-time from her Incline Village, Nev., home—with her new bichon frise, Stormy, by her side. McBurnett has also suspended the fertility treatments she was undergoing in a quest to have a child. “My psyche needs to heal quite a bit further,” she explains. Seeking closure, she is using part of a $120,000 reward fund (most of it donated by fellow animal lovers) to pay a private detective—but despite some 1,000 tips to authorities in San Jose, Calif., where the crime occurred, the case remains stalled. “With no new evidence, there’s an extremely slim chance of finding the killer,” says San Jose police officer Rubens Dalaison. That’s a reality McBurnett is just beginning to accept. “I still remember the horror of Leo’s death,” she says. “But I’m trying to recall the joy of his life more.”

Mother of Miracles

The triplets born to 54-year-old Amelia Garcia are doing fine, but their parents’ marriage isn’t

Arcelia Garcia, a fruit picker, mother of eight and grandmother of 13 in Sunnyside, Wash., stunned the world in January by giving birth to triplet girls at age 54—without ever having taken fertility drugs (PEOPLE, Jan. 24). Eleven months later Brianna (the feisty one), Cecilia (the calm one) and Arianna (the in-betweener) “seem to be doing beautifully,” says Dr. Diana Smigaj, the Yakima perinatologist who delivered them. They can already stand, and the betting is that Brianna, the largest at 22 lbs., will walk first. “I’m enjoying my little treasures,” says Garcia, now 55, who juggles her babies with the energy of a mom 20 years younger. “They’re my joy.” Unfortunately, she can no longer share that pleasure with the girls’ father. She and Guillermo, 61—Garcia’s childhood sweetheart in Michoacan, Mexico, and her husband of 38 years—split up in September, and the two haven’t spoken since. Garcia says the separation was caused by long-standing problems and not the birth of the triplets. “It has hurt,” she says. “When I was pregnant, I thought we were going to be happy because we were going to have a baby in the house.” Although Garcia has received donations of cash and baby gear from around the country, finances have gotten tighter. She plans to rent out her two-acre plot of land to a tenant farmer next year. Meanwhile, she has gone back to work—picking cherries in summer and apples in autumn and pruning grapevines in winter. The girls spend weekdays in daycare, and Garcia’s sons who still live at home (Felix, 17, Robert, 23, and Francisco Javier, 35) often babysit, intervening when the triplets engage in tugs-of-war over the cordless phone. Garcia loves to take the babies shopping—pushing one stroller and pulling another, often surrounded by a crowd of cooing strangers. “She hasn’t let her age slow her down,” says daughter Rafaela, 31. “Super-woman? That’s an understatement.”

Big Mane on Campus

A house-horse follows her owner to law school

Jackie Tresl wishes everyone’s home life were as happy as hers. So the former nurse, who shares a one-room log cabin in New Concord, Ohio, with her husband, Mark, 41, and Misha, 14, a chestnut mare (PEOPLE, Jan. 31), wrote a book extolling the pleasures of cohabitation with a creature that weighs 1,340 lbs. “I hoped people would say, ‘Geez, if she could do this with her horse, maybe we could be a little kinder to our horse or dog,’ ” she explains. After publishing Who Ever Heard of a Horse in the House? in March (the book has sold 4,000 copies), Jackie, 42, embarked on Phase 2 of her plan to make the world a better place for beasts and those who love them: She wrangled a full scholarship to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where in her first year, she’s working to set up an animal rights program. “Jackie has the passion and courage it will take to fight the battles for animals,” says Prof. Melody White. To manage the 100-mile commute to Cleveland, Jackie spends three nights a week at her mother’s home near the college—a separation that’s stressful for Misha, who has eaten at the Tresls’ table, lounged on their carpet and slept on their porch since she was 5 months old. Fortunately, the horse is “an excellent traveler,” according to Mark, a part-time mechanic who makes the round trip to Cleveland with Misha (and the family dog Rodent) most Tuesdays in a converted bakery truck. “At first Misha was a little nervous, but now she loves the crowds,” says Jackie. Not to mention the eats. While Jackie is in class, Misha grazes on the grassy campus. Adds Mark: “Her nostrils flare a little when she passes the hot dog cart.” Jackie has made a special arrangement with the college so that she can attend classes four days a week and spend Fridays at home with Misha. After all, she says, “life with a house-horse always means putting the horse’s needs first.”

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