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Man's recovery from beating seen as 'miracle'

SALEM — Rosendo Garcia Jr. stands up in the Ike Box Coffee Shop on a Monday morning and does a little dance.

He shakes his hips to the left and to the right and snaps his fingers to a song in his head. He calls it his "victory dance."

His mother smiles. People at nearby tables smile.

Four years ago, he wouldn't have been caught dead dancing like this in a public place. But, of course, that was before he was nearly beaten to death by Salem-area gang members on a summer afternoon. That was before his brain was bruised and battered so badly that he didn't know who he was when he woke up months later. That was before his entire face had to be reconstructed; before he was blind.

Rosendo, once shy and reserved, would never have acted silly in front of strangers before, his mother, Alma Cooper, says. But he is a much different person today.

If you speak toward the right side of his head, Rosendo can answer questions just fine. He is deaf in his left ear and talks loudly so he can hear his own voice, turning heads at nearby tables.

One of his eyelids is permanently shut, and the bridge of his nose is a nucleus of scars. The 23-year-old uses a white cane when he walks, a miracle in itself because he was told he would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his life. His pace is slow, and he holds onto his mother's arm for support.

Rosendo still is recovering emotionally and physically, though he has made much progress since that summer day in 2009. His face is perpetually swollen, but it can't keep his smile away. When asked about growing up in Keizer, a big, crooked grin spreads across his face. "Whenever my dad would get under a car to do mechanic work I was right there beside him, watching him and helping him," Rosendo says, his speech heavy and slow, but intensely clear.

Alma speaks of her son only as a good kid who helped out around the house. He loved family camping trips and was quiet and somewhat withdrawn, she says, nothing like he is now.

Yet Rosendo remembers himself as a troublemaker who dropped out of high school his freshman year at McNary and was running with the wrong crowd. "But I never did nothing to deserve something like this," he says. "No one deserves something like this."

June 3, 2009: It's a date Rosendo will never forget and a day he can hardly remember. Police reports, witnesses and family members have filled in the details, and he repeats them as if he's watching the events of that late afternoon unfold in real time.

He was 19 then and looking for an apartment so he could move out on his own. He was on his way home from work in his father's new 2009 Dodge Charger when he happened upon a car full of gang members out for a joy ride. They flashed gang signs and obscene gestures at him and chucked a beer bottle at his vehicle. Rosendo lost his temper. "The reason why I got out of the car was because they were throwing beer bottles and it wasn't my car, it was my dad's car," Rosendo says, "His '09 Charger, the car of the year at that time."

He grabbed a bat in the Charger and began waving it at the gang members, trailing behind them. He had no way of knowing that they were making plans for him. They led him to McRae Park in northeast Salem, calling a cousin on the way there and requesting baseball bats.

When Rosendo arrived at the park, he got out of his father's car and confronted the gang members.

He remembers nothing after that. But witnesses saw it all.

One bat connected with his chin and another struck the back of his head, knocking Rosendo to the ground. When he tried to get up, the gang members hit him again and again, until he was limp and unconscious. They beat him until his skull was caved in. They beat him so severely, one of the bats split in two. "They broke a wooden bat over my head," Rosendo says. "Over my head."

Later, in the courtroom, prosecutors described how a gang member smashed a 40-ounce beer bottle into Rosendo's face like a football player spiking a ball.

It was a teenage girl who finally dialed 911, the family was told. "She's the only one who had the guts to dial 911," he says. "I heard she was crying."

Rosendo was taken to Oregon Health & Science University, where he was not expected to live more than a few days. As he tells this part of his story, his voice gains volume. "Don't talk so loud," his mother whispers, gently tapping his arm.

At the hospital, Rosendo's head was a swollen orb, basketball size at least. He was in a coma for more than two months. "He didn't feel anything, I feel everything," Alma says, her face tensing. "I see everything that's going on."

"My dad was heartbroken," Rosendo says.

"Everyone was," his mother adds.

The day Rosendo woke up, his family had to remind him who he was. He suffered severe brain damage, was blind, deaf and confused.

His face was rebuilt during 28 hours of reconstructive surgeries; his new nose was fashioned from rib cartilage. His left arm had been broken, but his head injuries were so severe it went unnoticed for some time.

Following his extended hospital stay, he spent another two months in care facilities, undergoing hours of rehabilitation. His mother played family videos of camping trips so he could listen to his siblings' voices and remember happiness.

Rosendo thought he had been in a car wreck. He didn't have time to be angry when he learned the truth because he had so much to relearn — how to eat, how to walk, how to live without sight.

Today, his weeks still are crowded with appointments, but he has a spirited sense of humor and is more outgoing than ever. He sees a counselor who helps him cope with his emotions and what lies ahead.

Music — mostly rap and hip-hop — is what gets Rosendo through his days. He has a 1972 white Coupe de Ville with a black top. He sits in the passenger's seat, pops in a CD and lets the bass embrace him.

Today, Rosendo lives with his mother and stepfather in west Salem. He spends weekends in Keizer with his dad. On a good day, his routine is solid: showering, appointments, listening to music, eating dinner, taking his pills.

He summarizes his bad days with one word: "Anger."

The gang members who made Rosendo who he is today were sentenced to 15 years apiece in prison in November 2009. Gustavo Joaquin Chavez-Ramos, Marcos Xavier Rodriguez and Roy Regalado — ranging in age from 16 to 20 at the time — pleaded guilty to attempted murder and first-degree assault. It was a random attack; Rosendo did not know them.

The fact that he survived is the closest he has to a happy ending, so far. He has goals but can't always remember them. "I have none," he says at the Ike Box.

And then, moments later: "Oh yeah, find a girl who will stay with me through ups and downs ... and live life again."

"He's a remarkable young man," says Rosendo's therapist, Rick Swope. "He's really made great progress and has worked really hard to overcome post-traumatic stress related to (the attack)."

Rosendo wants to pursue his GED. When he's ready, he might move into his own place. It's only been four years and he still is deep in recovery. He and his family want to thank the medical professionals who saved his life.

And Rosendo thinks about that teenage girl who dialed 911; her name he doesn't know. Another goal enters his mind: "I would like to meet her someday."