Two years after attack, victim walks tall where she almost died

SALEM, Ore. (AP) She still is a victim today, but one who has healed and who knows that good can come from evil.

She is aware there are other women who have not been as fortunate and it's for that reason, in part, that she and her husband, Chuck, wanted to organize an event to raise money for victims of violent crimes. The gathering will take place Tuesday at Riverfront Park, where Mary's life nearly ended in tragedy the morning of Jan. 1, 2011.

She had set off that day like so many other people with a New Year's resolution in mind.

"It was just a matter of owning healthiness, and choosing a healthy lifestyle," she said. "And I wanted to enjoy the beauty at Riverfront Park."

The park wasn't where she usually walked, but she was in the mood for change. She remembers it as a breathtaking day with blue sky overhead. There were others out jogging and exercising as well.

She was following the path underneath the Center Street Bridge when she heard footsteps behind her.

She remembers feeling the lock of a choke hold, and twisting her neck to look into the eyes of the person holding her. She had time to utter four words before she was dragged down an embankment.

"Do I know you?"

In 2011, the Marion County District Attorney Victim Assistance Division served 4,294 victims of violent crimes, according to Molly Hawkins, sexual assault program coordinator. Mary Lucas fit into that statistic when she was attacked at Riverfront Park.

She remembers the day as if it were yesterday.

Shortly after she was forced down the embankment, she noticed a knife at her neck. She looked again into the eyes of her captor, who told her to stop screaming, and let out one final bloodcurdling plea: "Lord, help me please!"

Three men, who happened to be doing community service at the park that morning, heard her cry and came to her rescue. She calls them her guardian angels and still keeps in touch with one of the men.

They pulled her to safety and called 911. Police apprehended Mary's attacker and she learned later he was an out-of-state sex offender named Jeffrey Brian Smith. His plan, he confessed to police, was to rape and murder a woman that morning.

Smith was sentenced to 18 years and four months in prison for the crime.

Following the attack, Mary recovered from her physical injuries and began the gradual process of emotional healing. She didn't want to live her life paralyzed by fear. She had a strong support system to lean on, including family, friends, faith and the Marion County District Attorney Assistance Division.

The program provides support for victims of violent and traumatic crimes. Volunteer advocates are trained to offer services in a variety of ways, from attending court hearings with victims to serving as a liaison between the victim and the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. Mary's advocate sat with her during Smith's hearing.

"Oftentimes we'll have victims call and they just want to talk," Hawkins said. "Sometimes they just need to vent if they're frustrated, and we're a safe way to do that."

Mary had her chance in the courtroom to tell Smith how she felt and she forgave him.

Her husband also was given the opportunity to speak.

"I said, 'Mary has moved on this path of forgiveness a little further than I have,'" Chuck said Friday as he and his wife walked at Riverfront Park toward the spot where she had been attacked.

Smith had staked out the location in advance. The hum of a generator would mask screams. The bridge overhead would cloak the crime.

Friday was Mary's second visit there. The 58-year-old went in May 2011 with a group of friends but hadn't been back since. Today, she is still an avid walker, but she is much more aware of her surroundings. She has had to build some barriers in her mind; she doesn't let herself sink into the "could haves" of that beautiful bluebird morning.

On Jan. 1 of 2012, Mary and Chuck invited friends to join them on a walk to mark the anniversary of the incident. Twenty-three people showed up, and the Lucases decided it should be an annual event. They named it CrossWalk to represent Mary's journey of faith and courage.

"(Riverfront Park) is a place where we should all feel safe and be able to enjoy each other's company and bring in the new year in a way that's celebratory," Mary said.

There is a registration fee, and proceeds will support Marion County District Victim Assistance Division's efforts to help victims of violent crimes.

Most important, Chuck said, CrossWalk sends a powerful message: The bad guy didn't win.

"Amen!" Mary said with a little skip.

She set off two years ago with a New Year's resolution in mind, and she's sticking to it.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press