A Friday night in early July. A cool summer breeze blows across the cornfields.
For a few hours in 2007, Bambi Shamhart, like other young people in this small southeastern Illinois town, cruised the countryside looking to have a good time.
At a gathering outside a farmhouse, a friend carried the 25-year-old woman, paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident, to a seat on the lowered tailgate of her pickup truck, the one with hand controls allowing her to drive. She weighed just 90 pounds.
Shamhart cherished times like these in the years after a motorcycle accident when she was 15 ended her ability to walk.
That night, she left her wheelchair at home. Perched on the tailgate, she had a chance to relax, talk with friends and just be a girl again.
It didn’t turn out that way. Sometime around 3 a.m., she found herself alone with a then 34-year-old man who showed up after a local bar had closed. He burned, punched and raped Shamhart, court documents state. More anguish and sorrow followed.
The legal system that she expected would punish her attacker instead would later punish her for minor crimes that she said stemmed from a drinking problem brought on by the assault and the court’s leniency toward her assailant.
Shamhart came away from that night out with a black eye, a bright red cigarette burn on her thigh that left a dime-sized scar, and nightmares about being knocked back into the truck bed and digitally violated by a man far stronger than she.
Larry E. Campbell Jr., of rural Newton, was identified as that man. A Jasper County grand jury indicted him on 13 felonies, including a Class X felony for criminal sexual assault of a handicapped person.
But nearly two years later Campbell was allowed to plead guilty to a single felony battery count. The dozen remaining felonies were dropped.
Campbell received probation. The court docket states he also paid $1,000 in victim restitution but Shamhart said she never received any of it. Campbell declined to comment for this story.
“I figured he would be punished but they let him go and now it’s me that’s hated in my own town,” Shamhart said. “It’s me they hate. Not him. Because I’m a Shamhart.”
One reason the felonies were dropped is buried deep in the voluminous court record in the case against Campbell. In a hard to read scrawl, a court clerk wrote, “Complaining witness is disabled and wheelchair-bound. Elevator fails. Repair time estimated at days.”
As that was being written on Jan. 12, 2009, Campbell’s trial for rape was about to begin its second day in a second-floor courtroom in the Jasper County Courthouse in Newton. A jury had been seated. Opening statements were set for that morning.
And then unexpectedly the trial judge declared a mistrial. The elevator in the courthouse was broken, and officials decided it would be unsafe to have deputies carry Shamhart in her wheelchair up a flight of stairs to the second floor courtroom.
Assured that another trial would be scheduled, Shamhart said she was shocked when four months later in May 2009, a special prosecutor, David Rands, told her during a phone call that Campbell had been allowed to plead guilty to a single count of aggravated battery.
“I was so shook up by that call I can’t even remember why he said there would be no trial. I just held the phone in my hand and started crying,” she said.
Shamhart said when she persisted in asking why there would be no trial, Rands hung up on her.
Rands did not respond to written questions sent to his Springfield office.
Another factor played a role in the case against Campbell and was the reason the local county prosecutor, William Hoffedietz, removed himself from the case. It involved a 16-year-old girl who had become homeless and was taken in by Shamhart’s family.
The girl had been at the gathering and was a potential witness. The judge ruled that any romantic relationship between Shamhart and the teenager could not be brought up at trial.
After learning that an improper relationship might have existed between Shamhart and the minor, Hoffedietz said he realized he might have to later prosecute Shamhart, so he asked for a special prosecutor to take over the Campbell case.
It was that special prosecutor, Rands, who recommended foregoing another trial and dropping the felony charges against Campbell.
Hoffedietz said, “It would not have been my intention to settle the case in that fashion had I been able to remain on the case.”
Shamhart was never charged in connection with any relationship with the 16-year-old girl.
Less than a year later, in March 2010, Shamhart’s father, Russell “Rusty” Shamhart, committed suicide at the family home. His wife, Sherri, said that he had become distraught after a prosecutor recommended and a judge agreed to dismiss the rape case against Campbell without first consulting them or their daughter.
Shamhart soon became locally notorious. She was arrested for trespassing at a local convenience store that she said suspected her of previously shoplifting alcohol. She also lost her driver’s license after a DUI conviction.
Shamhart once was arrested by police in the downtown section of Newton while riding her arm-powered bicycle. Rather than load the cumbersome device and Shamhart into a squad car, an officer told her to trail along behind the patrol car to the station for fingerprinting.
“It’s the saddest thing when they arrest her and make her pedal her bike behind the police car to the station,” Sherri Shamhart said. “Since all this happened with the court and everything, she’s been talking about killing herself. I’m scared to death that that’s what she’ll do.”
Bambi Shamhart said she began drinking heavily because of how the court system treated her, a woman in a wheelchair, a rape victim. She said she stopped drinking more than a year ago.
“It’s like I’m not worth anything,” she said. “I get raped and they let the guy go. Now I have to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder worrying about him.”
Today, Shamhart, 32, said she stays away from alcohol and has begun to turn her life around. But court records show that unlike the lenient treatment given her attacker, Shamhart is being held to strict provisions of law. She owes unpaid court fines and must pay a $500 reinstatement fee to get her driver’s license back.
Shamhart admits she may be spending too much time in her bedroom, under the eyes of her four cats, feeling sorry for herself.
“I don’t do anything but sleep, watch TV and cry a lot. I cry almost every day.” She said the teenage girl left her home years ago and she hasn’t seen her since.
Before the attack, Shamhart said she had big plans. She wanted to get a degree in therapy. She wanted romance, too.
She posted a photograph of herself online in her wheelchair, a smile on her face. She captioned the photo “I can wheel U away if U give me a chance.”
But there are days when she can still find joy, she said. That happens when she gets a lift to the public pool.
In the water, Shamhart said, she can control her life. She explained that after putting on a life jacket she has to be careful not to drift into the shallow end of the pool because she can’t feel her feet drag along the bottom, which could tear her skin.
“I’m not afraid of the deep end,” she said. “I just push off and drift away. It’s a great feeling.”