Pain, fear, doubt haunt wounded city teacher

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the after-school calm of her kindergarten classroom, teacher Julie Lombardi hung a banner of computer paper. Fat letters spelled out "Beary special bears." Smiling, computer-generated bear faces adorned both ends.

Two decades at Northwest Baltimore's Malcolm X Elementary School had not dulled Mrs. Lombardi's enthusiasm for teaching a new unit. Starting the next day, she would tell her students -- most of them from single-parent homes in an urban setting of drugs, crime and poverty -- about all kinds of bears. She thought about how excited the children would be when they saw that banner.

Outside lurked a teen-ager with a .45.

Minutes later on that February afternoon, the teacher and the gunman met in a carjacking gone bad, and a bullet tore through Julie Lombardi's face. The teen-ager, Xavier Cornelius Wilson, tried to steal the teacher's 1988 Acura Legend for parts for his own Acura, police and prosecutors would say later.

"In that one moment when he pulled that trigger, he shattered my whole life," Mrs. Lombardi says, in her first in-depth interview since Wilson's conviction last month.

Holding her husband's hand in the living room of their Timonium home, she says, "I try to make sense out of a very senseless act, and I can't. I struggle with that constantly. I think God has blessed me with so many wonderful people, and I think, 'Why did I have to meet this one terrible individual?' And there are no answers."

While Wilson sits in the Baltimore City Detention Center awaiting his sentence, Mrs. Lombardi, 42, suffers a different kind of incarceration.

She seeks the courage to drive her car any distance from home, to reclaim her mental health and her job. She endures constant physical pain, along with debilitating memories of the day she was shot while leaving the school she loved.

Worst of all, the shooting has rocked her commitment to the children of the Park Circle and Towanda-Grantley neighborhoods, a commitment that drove her to pass up jobs in safer neighborhoods and, instead, return year after year to Malcolm X. She must confront the fact that a child of those neighborhoods -- a former student of the school, if not of her class -- will go to prison for her shooting.

"I've cried over that, that I wanted to make such a difference and look how he turned out," she says. "People have said to me, 'Look at all the children where you did make a difference.' I guess I have to believe that."

Her left cheek is marred by the bullet's entry. Another scar on her right cheek marks its exit. Her rebuilt face, to her, feels distorted. Her mouth and teeth, she says, are distended.

She's seeing a psychiatrist for treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sitting in a car at a red light makes her anxious.

Her release comes in walking through the neighborhood, and confiding in a retired homebuilder she happened upon one day.

On a crisp December afternoon, she slips a pedometer onto the waistband of her black leggings and sets out. Soon, she sees her confidant, 86-year-old Carl F. Haug, emerging from his house. A smile flashes across her face and her eyes twinkle, and she suddenly looks like a peppy kindergarten teacher -- like the person she was before she was shot.

He asks her about her impending surgery, and she asks him about his wife's operation. They talk of God.

"She's a nice little girl," says Mr. Haug, leaning on his cane. "I sit there by the window and watch for her every day. She's my companion."

L "And you're mine," says Julie Lombardi. "You make me smile."

Drug gang

With vacant rowhouses, a maze of alleys and woods that lend cover for escapes across the railroad tracks, the neighborhoods near Malcolm X Elementary School provide an ideal landscape for drug dealing.

In this community, where more than one-third of the children live in poverty, Cornelius Wilson found his calling at an early age.

Police say Wilson, who lived two blocks from the school, was a member of the Park Heights Hustlers drug gang. By 14, he'd been charged as an adult with attempted murder. This year, he was charged in the robbery of two women on their way to church. He was 16 when arrested in Mrs. Lombardi's shooting.

For Julie Lombardi, teaching at Malcolm X in the neighborhood off Reisterstown Road was better than in Baltimore County, where as a student teacher she had noticed that the more privileged kids had the educational gadgets at home. At Malcolm X, something as simple as chopping vegetables for cooking was novel and enriching for the children of harried single mothers. She shared her son's clothing with some students. She took others shopping.

When she left school on Tuesday, Feb. 1, she employed her usual precautions -- leaving before nightfall, locking her car doors, watching for strangers. She noticed a teen-ager lurking near the school at the red light at Reisterstown Road and Shirley Avenue.

"He glared at me," she recalls. "He had such a very evil look about him that I immediately sensed I was in danger.

"I closed my eyes and I prayed to get home safely, and I thought of my husband and son and my father and my family. Then I heard the voice, and I guess it was a shock that somebody would say, 'Get out of your car.' "

Rather than comply, she drove off -- a mistake, prosecutor Donald Giblin would say later in court. She disagrees.

"I think if I had gotten out of that car I would not be here today," she says. "He shot five or six times, and he meant to kill me."

After being shot, she abandoned her car on Reisterstown Road.

"I don't remember feeling pain," she says. "When I got out I was drenched in blood, and I saw that, and I could feel pieces of bone in my mouth, so I knew I had been hurt. But I didn't know the extent."

She soon found out. Her face was reconstructed during a 10-hour operation in February. An infection lingered for months. She's had five root canal treatments. She's left with four of her original teeth.

For months, the family's meals were prepared by neighbors. At first, Mrs. Lombardi lived on a liquid diet, then her meals were blended into mush. She still can't chew with her front teeth.

She's scheduled for more oral surgery and another operation to graft bone from her hip to further rebuild her jaw.

In a city where shootings are daily fare, Mrs. Lombardi's case stood out. Her husband, Marty, who taught at the school for three years in the 1970s, thinks he knows why.

"Julie really touched the lives of many of these children," he says. "When a teacher gets injured it really does make people perk up and say, 'This is bad stuff. We've got to stop this.' "

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier personally announced an arrest in the case. Months later, he said he still could see Mrs. Lombardi's anguished family at the hospital the night of the shooting.

This was a stranger-to-stranger crime, the kind that heightens fear, he said, adding, "She is a care-giver, so to speak, and was victimized in a community she served."

The emotional wounds linger for Mrs. Lombardi, and show in small ways. Crowds make her nervous. She has an anxiety attack when someone crosses the street in front of her stopped car. She still hears those shots.

The Acura was too bullet-ridden to be salvaged, but the Lombardis didn't want it anyway. Too many bad memories. Mr. Lombardi looked for a different model for his wife.

"Isn't that crazy?" he says. "You can't drive the car you want."

'Look at me'

Testifying at trial last month, Julie Lombardi's eyes bored in on the accused, but Cornelius Wilson wouldn't look up.

She was unable to positively identify him as her assailant while under oath. But later, the more she saw of him, she knew he was the one.

The jury took less than two hours to convict Wilson on Nov. 17 of assault with intent to murder and other charges.

Minutes later, Mrs. Lombardi got another, unexpected chance to confront her attacker. Seeing Wilson in an elevator waiting to go back to the lockup, she yelled, "Look at me. Look what you've done."

Wilson raised his head briefly, and said nothing.

Wilson could receive as many as 100 years in prison at his sentencing, set for Jan. 11.

"I just feel that nobody should ever have to be a victim," Mrs. Lombardi says. "I'm not looking at it as a teacher who's a victim."

Her husband says, "They should look at the time she's put into that community, her life into that community and her heart and soul, and I think they should consider that." He hopes Wilson gets at least 50 years.

The staff of Malcolm X Elementary School made no mention to students of Wilson's trial.

"There are babies here. When something happens to a teacher it's like something happens to a member of their family," says Principal Myrtle Washington. "I just need to give my youngsters time to heal."

Mrs. Lombardi says she hopes to return to teaching, but she's not ready.

Mrs. Washington says, "Always, there's a place here for her."

Mrs. Lombardi says, "It would take me a long time for me to be able to go back to that situation."

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