- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - Page Stearns went through some bad teen times. She went all Goth to set herself apart and in that self-inflicted distance, there was just one younger kid who felt like her friend.

She’s 15, the boy just 12, but they could talk and relate to each other.

They drifted apart and she had made another friend, a boy her own age. But when the younger boy called late at night, on April 18, she said, she agreed to sneak out of the house to drive around with him.

He and another boy waited at the mailbox at the end of the drive, she got in the front seat and they drove away, out of the subdivision and out to U.S. Highway 2, not far from the house.

The boy had his dad’s pickup and Stearns said she told him if he got stopped, she didn’t want to lose her driver’s permit.

He told her to shut up, she said. She repeated that she didn’t want to lose her permit.

“He picked up the gun and said if I didn’t shut up, he’d shoot me. I said, ‘All right, just do it.’ I thought he was joking,” Page told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/S3A4Eb ).

Except, she said, he wasn’t.

He put the .22 caliber handgun that his dad kept in the pickup up to her face and pulled the trigger, she said.

The bullet demolished two of Page’s front teeth, tore through her tongue, went through the back of her throat and lodged between two upper vertebrae in her neck.

She flew into the truck dashboard and before her mouth filled with too much blood to talk, she asked, “Why did you do that?”

She heard him say, “I’m so going to juvie for this.”

The other boy was crying and panicking, mumbling “Oh, my God,” over and over, she said.

Williams County Sheriff’s Department investigator Caleb Fry said the young shooter has been cited for felony reckless endangerment and because of his age, will be facing the citation as a juvenile, not an adult.

Fry investigated the shooting and said it wasn’t malicious and the boy didn’t intend to shoot Page.

“It was a preventable accident. It was reckless,” he said. The other boy was a witness and is not implicated.

Fry said no drugs or alcohol were involved.

In the minutes after the shooting, Page said, she used her cellphone to call her boyfriend’s father and talked briefly to her boyfriend.

“I said, ‘I love you.’ It was getting hard for me to breathe, I felt like I was going to die,” she said.

The father called 911 and called Kandi Stearns, who was sleeping without any knowledge that the oldest of her three girls had left the house. Five minutes passed between the time when Page snuck out of the house and the call into 911.

Kandi Stearns caught up with the situation at the Williston hospital emergency room, shortly before a helicopter arrived to whisk her daughter to the Minot hospital.

“It was pure hell,” she recalled.

Page said her throat was swelling from the bullet trauma and she felt like she was choking on her own blood.

In surgery, tooth fragments were cleaned up and Page’s tongue hastily repaired. The bullet was removed, though fragments remain perilously close to an artery that supplies blood to her brain.

“The bullet was in the worst spot it could have hit. Thank God - because she could be brain dead. It could have and should have happened, but it didn’t,” Kandi Stearns said.

Page will be on a tracheotomy tube for three months to assist her breathing while her throat heals and on feeding tubes into her stomach. Another line snakes into a vein on her arm so her mother, who went from being an employed office worker for an oil field company to a full-time nurse almost overnight, can administer antibiotics.

Their home, a rambling ranch in a new subdivision, has boxes of medical supplies, flowers and get well cards taking space in the kitchen area. Kandi Stearns said she isn’t sure how far her insurance will spread to cover what are likely to be enormous bills, especially now that she had to leave her job to care for her daughter.

If she does what doctors tell her, Page will forever have to avoid situations like four-wheeling, athletics - anything that could cause more damage or move the fragments still in her vertebrae.

She was in intensive care for a week and remained hospitalized a week longer, before being transported to Fargo for a week of therapy to teach her and her mom how to manage her care at home.

They returned to Williston on Tuesday night.

If nothing else, Page says, she sees her mom in a new light. They quarreled over the usual teenage stuff; how late to stay out, clean her room, do the dishes, be responsible.

Those fights are over, Page said.

“I’ll be more happy with the people in my life,’ she said.

Kandi Stearns said she is heartbroken by what happened to her daughter at the same time she is grateful, especially now that Page’s voice is returning and it appears she’ll have her daughter again, for the most part.

“I can’t imagine what I would do without her,” she said.

But there’s more inside.

“I’m confused and angry. How dare you do this to a kid. I’m angry at his family and I can’t imagine being his mother,” Page’s mother said.

It boggles her mind that the shooter is still in school and was at the same cafeteria table as her middle daughter, until she called and complained.

She said his mother apologized to her through Facebook, but that apology and a charge of reckless endangerment don’t seem like enough to her.

“I’d like to see him pay for what he did. It was horrific. Even an 8-year-old would know more than to click back the trigger and lock and load,” she said.

Fry said all three of the young people in that pickup should have been at home at that hour, instead of sneaking out. He said he is convinced, though the Stearnses aren’t satisfied, that the boy didn’t mean to actually shoot Page. He said the sheriff’s department has no control over the juvenile process and the boy can’t be denied his right to an education.

Fry recalled the scene that night.

“They were all very traumatized; they all were,” he said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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