TOLEDO, Ohio - Thinking back, John VanBuskirk remembers little about the day he should have died.
Except when he’s asked to recount the moment he decided to step in front of a shotgun-wielding robber aiming his weapon at VanBuskirk’s 20-year-old daughter.
Then, his memory is clear as glass.
‘This weird feeling’
Samantha “Sam” VanBuskirk had had enough.
She’d been living with her boyfriend, Christopher Green, and their 4-month-old daughter, Leah, in a house on Lodge Street in South Toledo.
On April 7, 2010, during an argument, Green grabbed Sam around the neck and choked her. Bruises on her neck and chest viewed by Toledo police confirmed the altercation.
That night, a Wednesday, Sam decided to leave Green. The following morning, her decision became clearer when Green poured water on her as she lay in bed with their daughter.
When Green left, Sam called her family and asked them to help her move. Her mother, John’s ex-wife Penny VanBuskirk, and sisters, Andrea and Amanda VanBuskirk, arrived late that morning. Green returned while the women were packing and, upset with what he saw happening, began yelling obscenities at Sam before leaving.
Meanwhile, earlier that morning, Coryana McGhee and her boyfriend, 27-year-old Alonzo Anderson, turned up to see Sam on two occasions. McGhee, 18, a former classmate of Sam’s and a friend of Sam’s next-door neighbor, had visited the night before and called Sam that morning, asking if she could help with the move. It was during the Wednesday night visit that Green showed McGhee a stash of marijuana he kept in a vacuum cleaner. When McGhee and Anderson arrived unexpectedly the next morning under the pretense of helping her move, McGhee asked Sam during the second visit if she would sell her the marijuana. Sam told McGhee no: The pot was not her business and all she wanted to do was pack and leave. McGhee told Sam she was stupid and left with Anderson.
Soon after, Green’s brother, Ramone Preston, arrived. Green had asked him to collect the marijuana. By then, Sam’s brother, Zach, had arrived. As Preston left the house, carrying the vacuum cleaner holding the pot, he turned and said, “I hope you guys are safe.”
That got Zach’s attention.
He headed to his truck where he kept a 12-gauge shotgun recently bought for him by his father for hunting. He loaded the gun with three shells.
Samantha and John VanBuskirk, photographed May 18 by Lad Strayer.
“I just had this weird feeling,” Zach said.
After McGhee and Anderson left Sam’s house the second time, they went to Weiler Homes in Central Toledo. There, around 11 a.m., Anderson met a friend, Anthony Cardell. Anderson asked Cardell if he wanted to hit a lick — a street term for robbery — at a house in South Toledo, where there was a stash of marijuana and likely cash. Only two women were there so it would be an easy score, Anderson told Cardell. He said he couldn’t do it because he would be recognized.
With McGhee driving a white Lincoln, the threesome headed to the Lodge Street address. Cardell was sitting in the backseat with a shotgun given to him by McGhee and Anderson. While she drove, McGhee said she had been at the house the previous night and had seen the marijuana stashed in the vacuum cleaner.
McGhee drove into an alley behind the house. As Cardell left the car, McGhee and Anderson told him they would park in another alley one block away.
It was just after 2 p.m. when Cardell walked through the front door and into the living room. Instead of finding two women, he was stunned to see seven members of the VanBuskirk family scattered about the first floor, including Leah, sitting in a baby swing. Another was 46-year-old John VanBuskirk, who had arrived minutes earlier.
Cardell pointed the shotgun at the VanBuskirks and shouted, “Where’s the weed?” As Cardell moved forward, Penny screamed. Zach, who was near the back of the house, quickly moved his mother, Amanda and Andrea to a rear hall and out of sight. That left Sam and John with Cardell.
Cardell walked up to Sam, stopping two feet away. The gun was in her face.
“I just stood there for a second,” she said. “I thought, ‘Is this really happening right now?’ I looked over and saw my mom, my sisters and my brother run. I glanced at Leah in her swing.”
John was behind Sam, on his knees. He had been picking up trash when he first saw Cardell. Initially, he didn’t see the gun and assumed he was Sam’s friend.
“Then, I heard, ‘Daddy, he’s got a gun. I’ll never forget the sound of her voice.”
John, inching closer to Sam, calmly tried to get Cardell to lower the gun, but he did not budge.
“I could see his trigger finger,” John said. “I knew he was going to shoot.”
At that moment, John knew what he was going to do.
“I just got this warm feeling,” he said. “I’ve never been so calm and relaxed in my life. I knew I was going to die. I knew that before I stood up.”
John leaped toward Sam. He grabbed her sweatshirt hood with his right hand, pulled her down toward him and raised his left hand, which held his cell phone, in front of his face, just as Cardell pulled the trigger.
“I remember the shot,” John said. “I remember what it felt like. It was massive.”
Choking on his own blood
Zach had his hand on the backdoor knob when Cardell fired. He wanted to retrieve his shotgun. He kept going.
Sam, in shock, ran into the bathroom. Her sisters and mother were in the attic. Somehow, Leah remained asleep in the swing, Sam recalled.
Cardell ran out the front door and headed south on Lodge. The white Lincoln was not in the alley; when McGhee and Anderson heard the gunshot, they fled. Zach grabbed his shotgun and took off after Cardell. He fired three shots, missing each time. The police arrived. Zach sent them in Cardell’s direction. By then, neighbors were in the street. One carried a handgun. Cardell scared him off with the shotgun, which he soon discarded. He eluded police for about 30 minutes before being captured without incident.
Back at the house, Zach tended to his father. Amazingly, John remained on his feet. Blindly, he had been picking up what he thought were pieces of his skull but were, in fact, teeth and denture fragments. He put them in his pocket.
“I couldn’t believe he was standing up,” Zach said. “His whole face was just blood. I thought he was fatally shot.”
John asked Zach to take him to the bathroom.
“I wanted to look in the mirror and see how much of my head was gone,” he said.
Zach then took John to the bedroom, where he lay on a bed. John remembers choking on his blood.
Figuring he was dying, John said to himself just before passing out: “The hell with it. Let’s just go with it.”
Hot on their trail
Cardell was charged with aggravated burglary and felonious assault with a firearms specification. At the time of his arrest, he did not implicate McGhee or Anderson.
After initially thinking her boyfriend, Christopher Green, set up the shooting with her as the intended target, Sam turned her attention to McGhee. She did not know her well and, recalling the odd phone call and visits that morning along with her interest in the pot, it was clear to Sam she was somehow involved.
Toledo Police Detective Kermit Quinn had a similar feeling. He interviewed McGhee and Anderson on April 13, 2010. They admitted knowing Cardell and giving him a ride to the Lodge Street neighborhood the day of the shooting. But, they said, they did not know his intention. Quinn did not believe them.
McGhee and Anderson went into hiding, but they were still seen around Toledo.
“They were well aware we were hot on their trail,” Quinn said. “They just evaded us for a while.”
Meanwhile, first Jeff Lingo and, later, Lindsay Navarre of the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, worked on the case against Cardell. Nearly a year went by, and Cardell declined to finger McGhee and Anderson. Finally, on Feb. 27, the day before his trial was set to begin, Cardell agreed to a deal with prosecutors. He would give up McGhee and Anderson in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Centimeters from death
The day John VanBuskirk was shot, his physician, Dr. George Blossom, saw the report on the evening news. He had delivered John 46 years earlier, when he first began practicing medicine.
“I thought he was a goner,” Blossom said.
In fact, John’s injury appeared worse than it was.
As he lay in the emergency room at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the most critical early issue was whether any of the several hundred pellets that struck John in the face and neck had penetrated his brain.
To his amazement, Dr. Daniel Gaudin, a UT Medical Center neurosurgeon, found that only a single pellet was life-threatening. That pellet went through John’s left eye and lodged just inside the surface of his brain.
A few centimeters more and the injury would have been fatal, Gaudin said. He believes John’s hand and cell phone likely deflected and slowed the pellets, preventing more serious injuries or even saving his life.
Still, there was plenty of damage and serious medical issues. The eyesight in John’s left eye was gone. His mouth was badly damaged. Most of his teeth were gone. His left hand was mangled. The hundreds of pellets embedded in his previously handsome face and neck swelled his head into the size of a pumpkin.
Doctors induced a coma to stabilize John’s vital signs and inserted a breathing tube into his lungs.
When John woke, a week later, the life-threatening issues had passed. After he was released, the task of recovery began.
For months, it seemed, he had medical appointments every day. Speech therapists. Ophthalmologists. Oral surgeons. John couldn’t drive, so his daughter, Amanda, took him from office to office.
The job of removing some of the reachable pellets in his face and hand fell to Dr. A. Thomas Dalagiannis, a plastic surgeon. One day, while waiting for the doctor, John began counting all the pellets he saw in an X-ray of his face.
“I got to 175 of them and quit. I wasn’t even halfway,” he said.
Last week, John underwent 12 hours of dental surgery performed by Dr. Paul Kozy, a reconstructive implant dentist. The difficult and costly procedure included 18 implants and 28 fixed crowns, but John walked out with new teeth as real as his own.
Like many of the doctors who have worked with John, Kozy took it personally.
“As a father of three daughters, you don’t envision this happening to yourself. I wanted to make him whole again,” he said.
Although he remains self-conscious about the scars on his face and neck, John has regained some of his good looks. More troubling is the constant pain numbed only by the pills he consumes every day. The pain had been there before, the result of two back surgeries. Now he has pain from two sources.
Although his hand has improved, he has yet to regain full movement. As a result, he worries that his working days are over — he has 27-and-half years at Chrysler, only two-and-a-half years short of earning his pension.
Blossom, amazed by John’s recovery, concedes John might not be able to return to work unless they give him a desk job rather than the more strenuous utility work he performs.
Physically, Blossom said, John is fine.
“I don’t think anything that is going on right now is going to shorten his life span,” he said.
The larger issue is how John deals with what has happened and the nagging pellets that will remain.
“In fact,” Blossom said, “it’s sad that he’s going to be dealing with this for another 30 or 40 years.”
For his part, John is happy to still be around. And he’s thankful for the doctors who have, literally, put him back together. On the occasion that he thinks about the day he was shot, he finds it hard to believe he survived.
“How my head is still attached, I don’t know,” he said.
‘He’s my hero’
John’s actions that day have awed all of those involved.
“Without hesitation, John literally took a bullet to protect his daughter,” said Lindsay Navarre, the prosecutor.
Most significant, to John at least, is how Sam feels. After she watched her father step in front of Cardell, she thought: “I have never loved someone so much in my life.”
She went on, “My dad has always been there for me my entire life. He’s a good dad and a good person. He’s my hero.”
Sam said she has turned her life around. She has a good job and has made a decent home for herself and Leah, now 15 months old. (Two other children, Joseph, 5, and Jayden, 4, are being raised by her mother.) The shooting still haunts her but less than before as a result of therapy. She’s working hard to mend her wounds.
When the subject returns to her father, Sam is certain of one thing: “He would do it again.”
Ordeal not over
McGhee and Anderson were arrested on Feb. 27, not long after Cardell implicated them in the shooting of John VanBuskirk.
John called it a happy day. He described the uncertainty he and his family had felt during the year the investigation continued, and then said, “It felt like a 1,000-pound weight had been lifted off my back.”
Cardell was sentenced March 30 to a reduced sentence of 14 years in state prison.
McGhee and Anderson were charged with aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and felonious assault. All of the charges carried gun specifications, which carry a prison term of 6 to 31 years. Both have been in the Lucas County Jail since their arrests.
On May 18, the VanBuskirks were jolted when they found out McGhee had negotiated a plea with the prosecutor’s office in exchange for testifying against Anderson.
Navarre said prosecutors didn’t think the Cardell’s testimony alone was strong enough to convict McGhee and Anderson. They determined they had a better chance of convicting Anderson if McGhee testified against him.
Under the terms of the agreement, the charges against McGhee will be reduced to second-degree felony robbery. The sentence for that charge is 2 to eight years. She was awaiting release on bond May 19 that will require her to wear an electronic monitoring device.
Sam and John were livid at the news.
“It disgusts me,” Sam said. “If it wasn’t for her, none of this would have happened.”
Added John, “The guy who shot me should get out before either of them.”
In their minds, it’s not over.
It may never be.
Reported by George J. Tanber firstname.lastname@example.org