Fort Wayne man who died 32 years after shooting lived well

2013-03-30T00:00:00Z Fort Wayne man who died 32 years after shooting lived wellJeff Wiehe The Journal Gazette nwitimes.com
March 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

FORT WAYNE, Ind. | The two bullets did their damage, but they were slow killers. It took more than three decades to finish the job.

From the crack of a .22-caliber rifle, they pierced David A. Thornsley's back on July 10, 1980, and threw him from his bicycle, leaving him on the pavement at Rudisill Boulevard and Smith Street unable to move his legs.

He heard a laugh come from a white van as it sped into the darkness.

Those bullets took away Thornsley's use of his legs and, ultimately, his life.

But that came later — way later. What they couldn't do was keep Thornsley from making the most of the time he had left, which totaled more than 32 years.

He went on to have children and grandchildren. He played basketball, coached baseball, finished an art degree and took up pottery.

The bullets didn't stop Thornsley from driving his prized Monte Carlo.

They may have bound him to a wheelchair, but they didn't keep him from working a job traveling the area to fit people for wheelchairs of their own.

And what those bullets could never do, what was impossible for them to do, was infuse him with a sense of bitterness or crushing despair that would be so easy to fall into.

"If anything, I feel like him being injured made him feel thankful to be alive," Jill Crabill, one of his daughters, told The Journal Gazette in phone and email interviews.

Thornsley, 53, died this month from the injuries he suffered more than 32 years ago. His death was ruled a homicide by the Allen County coroner.

They killed him, but the bullets didn't slow him down.

"He still lived his life just as anyone else," his daughter said.

Some of Jill Crabill's first memories of her father involve wheelchair racing.

There was always an extra wheelchair, if not a few, around the house, she said. All three of her siblings learned how to use one, and soon enough they were doing tricks.

Just like their dad.

"We would race him," said Crabill, who is now 26. "Uphill we would win, downhill he would win."

The shooting happened before any of Thornsley's four kids were born, so they never saw their father walk. They never looked at him as different from anyone else, either, Crabill said.

"To us, he was normal, and we treated him just like he could walk," his daughter said. "I remember when we were little and people would point and stare, and I always wished they would have known why he was like that."

Thornsley never said much about what happened to him, Crabill said. She and her siblings all knew how he came to be in the wheelchair, but he never got "deep" about the shooting.

He did say that the police told him either a pair or group of brothers were the main suspects in the case, Crabill said, but there was never enough evidence to make an arrest.

Her father never thought he was targeted. Rather, he believed he might have been the victim of someone who just decided to go out shooting one night.

"They probably thought it was funny," Crabill said. "I don't think they were after my dad. It was more like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Her father went on to earn an art degree from Defiance College after the shooting, and at one time worked for a company in Fort Wayne where he fit people for their wheelchairs.

It was the most rewarding job he ever had, Crabill said, because of the connection he felt with those he helped.

Her father was also fiercely independent. He wanted no help with any task, even if it took him longer to do himself. It didn't matter how simple it was.

If something was on a high shelf, he'd find a way to get it himself, she said. If he needed to get up some stairs, he'd find a way.

After his kids became adults, he never wanted to worry them about the times he had to go the hospital, which were frequent. So he wouldn't always tell them.

"He was very strong-willed, very independent and very stubborn," Crabill said.

There was always pain.

Despite his paralysis, Thornsley had massive pain in his legs. He was constantly on medication, which would help for a time, then wear off, according to Crabill.

This led to hospital visits, hospital stays and surgeries, all of which turned out to be futile attempts to alleviate the hurt in his legs.

Still, Thornsley never lost his sense of humor.

"I am sure if you ask any nurse he ever had they could tell you he gave them a hard time," Crabill said.

In the past year, he had not been feeling well, his daughter said.

The complaints of pain grew. So did the complaints about the medication, which did not seem to work like it once did.

"He'd been taking pain medications for 30 years," Crabill said. "Not just a little amount helped. It was like he had become immune to it."

Crabill, who lives in Fishers, received a call one day early this month from a hospital her father had been checked into after experiencing shortness of breath and chest pains.

It was later determined he had suffered a mild heart attack.

At first, Crabill wrote in the email, she was thinking this was just another hospital stay, that her dad was a fighter and that he would pull through, just as he has always done.

But then the doctors said family should come.

When Crabill arrived at the hospital, her father had been placed on a ventilator and was hooked up to more IVs than she had ever seen.

He had been placed on life support.

The doctors told Crabill her father's lungs and kidneys were failing, along with just about every other organ in his body. They said they couldn't treat anything until his heart and lungs stabilized, she wrote.

"I was in shock," she said. "I had talked to him the week before because it was his birthday and (my) kids had called to sing him happy birthday."

Still, it's not clear to her exactly how he died.

Her father had developed a sore from his wheelchair use, she said, one that she suspects became infected. This infection worsened and spread into his bone. It ultimately caused his body to go "haywire," according to Crabill.

Initially, Thornsley showed improvements after his family came to the hospital. The doctor laid out a treatment plan and warned his children there'd be a long road to recovery, Crabill said.

The family got together and decided that as long as he showed encouraging signs they'd keep him on life support.

The next day, after Crabill took a trip back to Fishers to see her kids, he took a turn for the worse.

"We knew he would not like to live like that," she wrote. "So we made the trip back up that night, and he passed away the next day."

That was March 11.

Sometimes you can tell the life a person lives by those who show up at the person's funeral.

Among those who showed up at Thornsley's memorial service was the woman who found him lying in the middle of the street and called emergency dispatchers the night he was shot.

So did a nurse who first treated him at the hospital, a woman who would stay and play board games with him long after her shift was over.

"They both said he had amazing character," Crabill said. "They said they would never forget him."

His neighbors were there, as well, ones who he had helped throughout the years and who had helped him with whatever he needed.

Crabill said they were like a family to him.

Who killed Thornsley, and who fired those two bullets that took his life, will probably never be known. His case has long gone cold and, until his death, had been largely forgotten.

Even his family was surprised to learn it had been declared a homicide, Crabill said.

But while those bullets provided a defining moment in his life, they never defined him, and while they would eventually kill him, he never let that get in the way of living his life.

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