Seth Qubeck sees a future teaching in South America, but sharp back pains bring back a horrifying memory.
Christine Neperud finds inspiration each day in the energy and innocence of her first-grade students. But every once in a while, the sight of some lanky young man wearing a baseball cap backward reopens deep wounds.
And though Ta'Juan Hall is devoted to helping raise his 9-year-old nephew, the boy is a constant reminder of the brother Hall lost.
The thread connecting the three is a brutal attack 10 years ago in Florida that left two college students from Howard County dead. Neperud's son, Matthew Wichita, and Hall's brother, Kevans, were killed in the assault by seven local men. Qubeck was stabbed 17 times and left for dead.
In the decade since, the three Marylanders have traveled a painful road. Unanswered questions about what happened the night of the attack torment Neperud. Anxiety overtakes Qubeck when he's around new people or large groups. The effect on the development of Justin, his 9-year-old nephew, worries Hall, whose older brother did not know he was going to be a father.
"It is a wound in my heart that will never, never heal," said Neperud, a 59-year-old Columbia resident. "Some days it is wounding and festering. Some days it is scabbed over, but it has never really healed."
Yet in their different ways, they have strived to carry on, while remaining resolute that the memories of their lost loved ones not fade away.
"I was real angry about the whole thing for a while," Qubeck said. "I still am, but I have to move on with my life."
Ta'Juan Hall had been friends with Qubeck and Wichita since middle school. The three played football together during their senior year at Oakland Mills High School. The Hall brothers were nearly inseparable, resulting in the friendship between Kevans Hall and the group.
The men, who were students at Howard Community College, chose New Smyrna Beach for a 10-day spring break trip on the recommendation of Kevans Hall, who had vacationed in Florida the year before. Along with two other friends, they settled on the Ocean Palms Beach Club, an 18-unit time-share resort.
On Thursday, April 16, 1998, the Howard County men stepped in to defuse a quarrel between the father of a 14-year-old girl and a group of local men. A fistfight ensued and the police arrived. No one was arrested, but one of the Florida men was heard threatening to return to kill the Marylanders.
That evening, a group of men with knives, baseball bats and a sock weighted with a cue ball attacked Qubeck as he emerged from a room in the complex. Qubeck fell to the ground and was stabbed repeatedly in the back. Both of his lungs were punctured and collapsed.
Wichita was stabbed 19 times. His throat was slashed and he suffered numerous wounds to his back and face. The 21-year-old died at the scene.
Hall was stabbed three times, and collapsed after running a short distance. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, at age 23.
Qubeck also was rushed to a hospital, where doctors told his mother that they did not expect him to survive. But after a three-week stay, he was discharged.
"I'm very lucky," he said. "It's amazing that I am alive."
Ta'Juan Hall traveled to Florida for the trial. Qubeck and Neperud also attended the entire three-month proceeding in Daytona Beach. All seven of the Volusia County men were convicted for their roles in the attack, though only one, Jonathan Trull, was convicted of murder.
Today, Hall, 30, continues to try to distance himself from the memories of his brother's killers. It's been hard, especially when his nephew asks what happened to his father.
"I told him his father died trying to help people," said Hall, who lives in Ellicott City and works in the shipping and receiving operation of a Columbia jewelry company.
But pointing out that Kevans Hall acted courageously does little to ease the child's pain, Hall said. He suspects that some disciplinary issues Justin has had in school are attributed to the absence of his father.
"He says he's messing up because he doesn't have anyone there," Hall said, adding that the boy also has nightmares.
Hall does his best to provide a strong male presence, routinely taking Justin to baseball and karate practice. In a sense, he is mimicking the role that his older brother showed him when they were growing up.
"My brother was my best friend," Hall said. "We would always help each other out. It was the closest that one could get."
The killings hit Hall's mother hard. Jill Carter turned to drugs after her son's death, Hall said, and went to a rehabilitation facility in Philadelphia. Shortly after completing a treatment program, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. She died late last year.
Qubeck has suffered back pain for years and experiences asthma-like symptoms when he exercises strenuously. But the longest-lasting effect has been emotional.
"The thing that affects me the most are not what happened to me, it's that my two friends are gone and they were robbed of their lives," he said. "I struggle emotionally. Seeing my friend's mom or not having them here is probably the worst thing."
Qubeck stays busy with his job as a barback and bartender at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. He has lived in the city for three years and plans to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore in the fall to study political science and Spanish. He eventually hopes to teach English in Argentina.
"I heard good things about Buenos Aires," he said with a laugh. "Why not?"
For Neperud, it has taken not only time, but therapy and medication to help make progress.
"It took me several years to become some semblance of what I was," Neperud said. She also credits her husband, Peter. "He's my rock," she said.
Neperud visits Matthew's grave at Meadowridge Memorial Park in Elkridge every year on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death. She kept her tradition last week, taking along a bouquet of his favorite flowers: star gazer lilies.
"He had so much potential," she said. "I often wonder what he would be. I have many, many fond memories."
Qubeck said he planned to visit the graves of his two friends this weekend. On Wednesday, Hall visited his brother's grave at the cemetery in Arbutus where his mother is also buried.
Qubeck and Neperud rarely see each other, but both went to Oakland Mills High last weekend for an annual fundraiser that benefits a scholarship dedicated to Wichita and Hall. Established in 2000, the program provides $500 scholarships to two students who exhibit leadership and service.
"It was bittersweet," Neperud said of the event. "I was extremely grateful to be there and see all of the students and adults there to support this."
Neperud did not know Qubeck would be there, but said she was uplifted by seeing him.
"It was wonderful hearing his voice and knowing that he's on his way to making his dreams come true," she said. "He looks exactly the same, only more mature."
Qubeck said he, too, was moved.
"She said that she was proud of me and that she loved me," he said. "It was really heartbreaking for me to see her. It is hard to verbalize. It's very emotional for me to see her. I'm glad that I did."
1998 Fla. attack was 'unheard-of'
The April 1998 attack that left two Howard County men dead rocked the relatively peaceful community of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.
"It was unheard-of," Detective Dan Kennedy of the New Smyrna Beach Police Department said last week. Kennedy was the lead investigator in the case.
"We would have a murder on occasion," he said, "but nothing to this magnitude."
Seven men, including three brothers, were convicted in the attack and received sentences of varying lengths.
Jonathan Trull, the eldest of the three brothers, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.
Christopher Trull was found guilty of aggravated assault and sentenced to less than five years. He was released after two years and has since disappeared, violating his parole, police said. An open warrant for his arrest has been issued.
Joshua Trull, the youngest brother, was convicted of aggravated assault and aggravated battery and sentenced to 15 years. He is scheduled for release in June 2011.
Danny Beard pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder and agreed to testify against the Trulls. Beard was placed in the same holding cell as Jonathan and Joshua Trull, who assaulted him after he testified. Five years was added to each brother's sentence. Beard was sentenced to 6 1/2 years.
Danny Osborne pleaded no contest to attempted first-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years. He was released on May 1, 2007, and is on probation until 2027.
Neil Kirkland pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder, and was sentenced to seven years. He was released in November 2003 and is on probation until 2028.
Jim Kirkland pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and was sentenced to three years. He was released in April 2007 and has completed probation.
The Ocean Palms Beach Club was damaged by three hurricanes in 2004 and was condemned in 2005.
Source: New Smyrna Beach Police Department and news accounts