Her Spirit Unbroken — (Ohio Beacon Journal)

Original article no longer available

Ohio Beacon Journal

Posted on Thu, Jul. 14, 2005

By Kim Hone-McMahan, Beacon Journal staff writer

Becky Slabaugh vows not to feel shame

It had been 50 days since William F. Slabaugh sprayed his wife with nitric acid, erasing her face. And though Becky knew what to expect when she looked into a mirror, she still winced.

Sometimes the anger that bubbled up inside was so great, she struggled to get a deep breath. Stress can do that — make even the simplest of things difficult.

But as much as she despised Bill Slabaugh, she dreaded even more the thought of spending a lifetime filled with hate.

She had always kept in terrific shape. Even now, Pilates and yoga had returned to her daily routine. Still, she needed something else to help burn off steam — and, perhaps, serve as a reminder that she was lucky to be alive.

She reasoned that jotting down her most private thoughts in her journal might help diminish the loathing.

“Today, I felt alone and ugly. I must continue to live one day at a time, moment by moment, and pray for insight, the ability to see the beautiful in life,” she wrote.

Since the attack, she had fought off infection, endured dreadful scrubbings to remove dead skin, and tolerated painful dressing changes. The hospital staff in the Akron Children’s Hospital burn unit had become pals, folks she trusted and looked to for encouragement. That’s why she listened so closely to their instructions in the days leading up to her discharge, some six weeks after the assault.

To help reduce scarring, they told her, you must wear head-to-toe pressure garments. And, they added, a mask — 23 hours a day.

At night, she would be required to sleep in a tight hood made of stretchy material with holes cut out for eyes, nostrils, ears and mouth. It’s something that she pledged “no human” would ever see her in.

During the day, she would slip on a clear plastic mask. On her head, beneath a baseball cap, she would tuck her short salt-and-pepper hair.

She knew that there would be days when she felt like a freak, particularly when strangers gawked. But she vowed never to feel ashamed. Becky was not a frail, beaten woman. She was strong and determined.

Though it would likely be a long time before she was at peace with her reflection, she refused to let Bill Slabaugh conquer her. Her body remained broken — her spirit was not.

It was a glorious summer day, the kind of morning God created to chase away gray thoughts. Pilot John Leask, and co-pilot Don Murphy, flew their orange and white, single-engine Cessna from Miller Field near Alliance to Akron Fulton International Airport. Cautiously, they helped Becky and her friend, Karen McKean, climb aboard.

Their destination was Hook Field Municipal Airport, south of Dayton. In nearby Germantown, she would visit Total Contact, a company that uses surface scanning technology to make molds for masks.

Leask belongs to Angel Flight, an international group that provides free private air transportation for medical patients who can’t afford to fly out of town for help. During the 90-minute flight, the men frequently twisted in their seats to check on their passengers.

“It feels like angels are holding up this plane,” Becky said of the smooth flight, looking at the sky, blue as a robin’s egg.

As the pilots prepared to land, she spotted two women from Total Contact sitting at a picnic table and waving. Becky smiled as she felt the glumness that had haunted her for weeks begin to lift.

While in Germantown for a few hours, she, Karen, and the pilots walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch. The hostess escorted the group to a table in the back of the room. But rather than hiding her face in the corner, Becky chose the seat facing the crowd.

She didn’t stop to think what others might be wondering. Instead, she welcomed the scents, the sights, and the conversation. It was her first outing since the attack.

I was reminded that there is truly beauty in the world,” she noted in her journal after returning home from Germantown. “I have met some of the most wonderful people… People who have truly reached out in love to me.”

Over the next several months, the mask was altered to reflect changes to Becky’s face due to the formation of new scar tissue and the loss of fluids. By spring, there was need for a new one; the mask wasn’t fitting as well as it had in the past and keeping pressure on the wounds was vitally important.

At Akron Children’s Hospital, occupational therapist Diane Woods and physical therapist June Kelley worked together to create a new mold. Unlike the scanning machine at Total Contact that rotated around Becky’s head, the women used their hands. They smeared a Vaseline-like substance on Becky’s hair to keep it from pulling, placed straws in her nose so she could breathe, and slathered on her face a mixture of water and dustless Alginate, the kind of stuff used to mold dentures. The oatmeal-like concoction smelled of mint.

While some people, particularly children or those who are claustrophobic, can’t stand the process, Becky didn’t flinch during the 20 minutes it took for the mixture to dry. And when Woods and Kelley removed the mold, Becky’s mascara,which she had begun wearing again in October to feel “human,” had left eyelash marks inside.

“Oh!” she said, giggling. “That’s kind of cute.”

Bill Slabaugh had seen his estranged wife one other time in the mask. Looking haggard in his jail-issued orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and shackles, he had exchanged glares with Becky during a September hearing in Canton.

“I saw her in the courtroom yesterday, and she looked pretty good,” Bill wrote to friends the day after that hearing. “She has had surgery to her face and has to wear a clear mask. But, I expected bandages… ”

Becky wasn’t permitted to address her attacker at that hearing to suppress evidence. But, months later, she would get the chance.

At the sentencing hearing in December, a handful of acquaintances, relatives and an attorney spoke on behalf of Bill, who had pleaded guilty to felonious assault and kidnapping, and relinquished his license to practice law.

They said the horrific actions Bill took on that fateful day in July didn’t reflect the man they knew. That perhaps his mental state, and a prescription anti-depressant he began taking eight days before the attack, marred his thinking.

When they were finished, it was time for the defendant to speak.

In the 239 words that spilled from Bill’s mouth, he apologized to Becky and their families — both his and hers. He told them, and the court, that he had prayed every day for forgiveness from his wife and from God.

“I accept responsibility for what I did, Your Honor, and I’m prepared to serve whatever time I get,” he said, sorrowfully. “I know what I’ve done is a serious offense, but I too, Your Honor, would like to have some few years left in my life to spend with my family.”

Sickened by his words, Becky rose to deliver her statement.

She told her husband, who has two grown children by a previous marriage, that he had broken her heart.

“… You were faithful to the church and did so much volunteer work. But do you think for one moment that you will be remembered for those things?

“From now on when someone hears the name Bill Slabaugh, they will think of the day you held down your wife and covered her in acid.”

Sixty-eight-year-old William F. Slabaugh was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or kmcmahan@thebeaconjournal.com