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Why would I be afraid?: Autistic man expresses compassion and forgiveness for his attack

Upon learning that three teen boys had assaulted a young autistic man and well-known store helper last Sunday, community members took to social media and responded to the incident with shock, anger and even a desire for vengeance.

The victim, 24-year-old Franklin Henry, however, could only feel concern for his attackers. Sure, his face and tooth were still hurting several days later, but he insisted he wasn’t mad and hoped that no one would be mean to the teens who clearly “didn’t know better.”

Franklin, who has difficulty communicating due to autism, was followed home just after 8 p.m. from Quality Market. In a video posted to social media by one of the boys, one teen corners Henry and begins hitting him in the face while another records the episode, and all are heard laughing.

A familiar face around the Rogue Valley, and especially east Medford where he lives and works, Henry is known for calling or visiting local businesses.

He knows the names of local media personnel, employees of various stores and is even on an email list to be apprised of new developments inside city limits.

The man’s father, Joe Henry, said the attack was shocking. Though his son spends hours each day walking a designated perimeter around the neighborhood, his family uses GPS and texts or calls every few minutes to make sure he’s OK.

“Myself and my wife were playing cards. When Franklin is out on one of his walks, I text him every 15 minutes. At about 8:15 p.m., he was perfectly fine. And at 8:30 p.m. I get a phone call and it’s from a lady who says she found Franklin either on the ground or very distraught and that he had been assaulted,” said the father.

“She asked him if she should call the police and told him to call his parents. When we got there, we loaded him into the car and tried to look for the boys. He remembered there being three — on a bicycle, skateboard and scooter. We drove around to find the kids. We reported the incident, but we starting looking right away, thinking we would have a better chance finding the kids if we started to look instead of waiting.”

Unable to find the teens, both parents posted about the attack on the Jackson County Scanner Facebook page Monday morning. Within hours, 1,500 community members had shared the posts, urging witnesses to come forward and neighbors to check security cameras for evidence.

Aside from expressing outrage, hundreds recounted stories of Franklin being kind or making them laugh. More shocking than the attack was that one of the boys shared the video to Snapchat.

“It was pretty surprising they would do what they did, but even more so that they videoed it and posted it,” said Joe Henry. In the video, Franklin is standing near a front yard near Roosevelt Elementary when one of the boys begins to video, exclaiming with laughter, “round one” while another boy hits Henry in the face, knocking him to the ground.

In the video, Franklin cries, out, “Call the police,” as the boys laugh.

Almost as soon as the video surfaced, the boys were identified, although the Mail Tribune does not identify minors involved in crimes. The three 14-year-olds were arrested for the incident, with at least two being held until a September court date.

Quality Market store manager Kim Parker said she was heartbroken over the attack on Franklin. On a positive note, Parker said several people had stopped by to offer their support, spurring Henry to inform her that he is now “famous like Forest Gump.”

“He’s really a character. He knows everyone. And if he doesn’t know you, he’s going to get to know you. He’s just very kind to everybody, so for somebody to do that, I can’t even say what I thought when I saw the video,” Parker said.

“Even after what they did, he said he wants to have lunch with them so they can apologize. He’s a really good example of the way people are supposed to be. To be kind to people who beat him up, that’s how Franklin is, though.”

Joe Henry said his family is focusing on forgiveness and hoping for the teens to get some help. He urged community members to follow his son’s example rather than respond with anger. Henry said he received photos on social media after one of the boys was beat up in retaliation.

“Franklin’s feelings, when I ask him about it, is he’s sad for the people that did it and he wants to see them get better. He’s very concerned for them and would like to meet them one day and maybe have lunch with them,” said the father.

Henry said his son, while beloved by many, had a difficult time with his emotions as a teenager, which helps the family to now empathize with the parents of his attackers.

“We hold no animosity toward the parents of these boys. Good parents have kids who don’t always act properly, too. The Franklin that everybody loves in this valley was a process. It wasn’t instant. If Franklin was able to go through some positive changes and become someone that everybody loves, maybe those three kids can go through some of those same changes and make people love them just as much.”

Henry said empathy and understanding was warranted in the current climate of unrest with pandemic restrictions and other stressors.

“Who knows what the background of these kids are? We understand very well the sorrows and pain of raising anybody to adulthood in this day and age. The kids who did this to Franklin, in a way, have a different kind of disability and a different perception of how the world works,” Henry said.

“What’s wonderful is that Franklin isn’t scared to keep walking around the neighborhood. It’s not like when somebody gets mugged and they’re afraid to ever go out again. Him showing forgiveness to someone who beat him is incredible. It’s like when an alcoholic drives drunk and wrecks a car. Sure, it’s unfortunate they wrecked the car, but if they end up getting help, then there was a silver lining.”

Asked by his father if he was afraid to go on his walks or still be part of his community, Franklin chuckled, “I’m not afraid. Why would I be afraid?”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Franklin Henry stocks the ice at Quality Market in Medford Friday morning. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)