Coming to the rescueGood Samaritans take risk to help strangers in distress
By Sue Dremann
The day before Halloween in 2007, Sunnyvale resident Fred Burgener got the fright of his life. As he pulled up to a stoplight on Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale, a grisly spectacle came running toward him: a terrified young girl, her face covered in blood, he said.
"I saw her running down the street. She was bleeding from her mouth and really shaken up," he said, recalling that she also had a black eye.
Jolted by what he saw, Burgener quickly stepped out of his car and made eye contact with her. He pointed to the vehicle, asking her if she wanted to get in. She did. Once she was inside, he tried to discern what had occurred.
"She just kept saying, 'Go fast, go fast,'" he said.
Burgener had happened upon the victim of a brutal sexual assault, beating and kidnapping that originated in Palo Alto.
He is one of hundreds of Bay Area residents who have come across acts of violence, accidents or lost and wandering persons and who stopped to help. These Good Samaritans could have turned away and not gotten involved — many times people do, said Cindy Hendrickson, Santa Clara County supervising deputy district attorney, who has prosecuted violent-crime cases in which people refused to aid victims and witnesses would not testify.
But people who have become rescuers instead stepped out of their comfort zones, in some cases risked their own lives in the process.
The 17-year-old Gunn High School student that Burgener helped had been kidnapped from her apartment-building garage. Her assailant — Todd David Burpee, a 2006 Palo Alto High School graduate — smashed her head on the pavement until she passed out, then dragged her into his gold, four-door, 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass and drove away. Beaten and sexually assaulted, she only escaped after he had parked his car and entered his Sunnyvale apartment. He assumed he had killed her during the attack, according to court papers.
He was later convicted of the crimes and received 43 years to life in prison.
Burgener testified at the trial. The day the girl ran toward him in many ways changed his life, he said. A self-described "ordinary guy with an ordinary life," he suddenly wound up in the media spotlight.
He also paid a significant price for his good deed. On the day of the incident, he lost his job as a Union Pacific Railroad engineer because he was distracted by the events. He was not paying attention to safety procedures, he said. It took 11/2 years — including a second tour of duty in Iraq — before the union successfully got his job back.
Though random events suddenly pulled Burgener and other Good Samaritans into strange and traumatic, life-changing scenarios, many rescuers said helping someone during a crisis was the right thing to do. Their actions left them with a mix of emotions ranging from lingering regret and sadness to deep satisfaction, but faced with a similar situation, they would help again, they said.
Burgener recalled that once in his car, the girl slipped in and out of consciousness. He had trouble understanding her story because she was distraught and English was not her primary language, he said. As he heeded her warning to drive away from the scene, he called 9-1-1, he said.
He was also scared for himself, he said. He was a middle-aged man with a bleeding teenage girl in his car, and he didn't want police to think he committed the crime.
He also feared the girl's attacker might assault him, he said.
"I thought that somebody was pretty mean to do this. Someone who hurts a kid like that must be crazy — they are so small. I was terrified.
"I did a tour in Iraq. It's more normal to fight in a war than to have what happened to her happen at home. It is just so far out there," Burgener, a father of three, said.
Later, some family members admonished him for getting involved. His mother was also worried that Burpee would come after him, he said.
But Burgener said he would want someone to help his daughters if they were in a similar situation.
As Burgener entered a Santa Clara County Superior Court elevator after his testimony, he came face to face with the victim for the first time since the incident. But he did not attempt to talk to the girl. As she had throughout the trial, she had covered her face with her long hair and was still visibly traumatized. But he introduced himself to a victim's advocate who had supported the girl while she testified. The woman embraced Burgener, he recalled.
Mountain View clerk
Hendrickson said prosecutors are frustrated when people won't help them prosecute crimes. Recently, "the sole eyewitness to a domestic violence (case) absolutely refused to testify. We had a long talk about following through," she said.
"I have seen cases where people turned victims away," she added.
At a 7-Eleven in Sunnyvale last year, the clerk refused to help a distraught sexual-assault victim, she said.
"The person said, 'Get out of my store.' He thought she was crazy," Hendrickson recalled.
But she praised Ferrolo Gagni, another convenience-store clerk, who did not turn away.
Working the graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven on Old Middlefield Way in Mountain View on Jan. 26, 2011, Gagni had plenty of reasons not to get involved with strangers. He has been the victim of three separate violent crimes in his 22 years working at 7-Eleven stores, he said.
Assailants pointed guns at him during two robberies. In the third, the thief pointed a 12-inch knife at his back.
"It was so long, I thought that if he stabs me here, I can see the knife if it goes through my stomach," he said.
But his life experiences have also given him reasons for compassion, he said.
When a hysterical woman in her 20s entered the store at 2:30 a.m. that January day, Gagni might have been forgiven for throwing her out. She was wearing only an oversized T-shirt and holding her shoes, he remembered.
Instead, he listened to what she said.
"Someone is trying to kill me," he recalled she said.
Gagni, 65, looked outside to make sure no one was following the woman. The car she had driven to get there had lost a tire, and she had been driving on the rim, he said.
He called 9-1-1.
"I had no doubt at all. It didn't enter my mind to push her out of the store," he said.
Gagni said he did not consider the consequences: He was responsible for doing his job, but he considered his greater duty to call the police and catch the criminal, he said.
A friendly, personable man, Gagni said he is never rough with customers. His is an occupation filled with late-night characters and people who get peeved when they can't buy beer after 2 a.m., he said.
Police later arrested 36-year-old Walter Ray Slone for rape, kidnapping, sexual penetration, oral copulation and threats to commit a crime resulting in death or great bodily injury against the 23-year-old mother of three. It was a date that had gone terribly wrong.
Slone assaulted her repeatedly in his girlfriend's car in a Milpitas apartment-complex garage. The victim escaped by taking the car and speeding away when he got out. She ran over his foot as she drove off, according to a police report.
Gagni was entirely accommodating when asked to testify in court, Hendrickson said.
He was the first person on the witness stand. From his seat at the defense table Slone tried to intimidate him throughout his testimony, Gagni recalled.
"The guy looked at me and stared at me, and I stared at him, too. I still remember his face. I will never forget his face," he said.
Slone was convicted on all counts last Sept. 23. He was sentenced to 325 years to life in prison, with terms to be served consecutively, according to court documents.
Gagni said he can't imagine not helping someone in need. But he had some advice for people when confronted with a crisis: It is important to remain calm.
Even if the scope of the problem seems beyond one's capabilities, one should give the impression of being capable of offering aid. Then call 9-1-1, he said.
"Make a quick decision so that she or he knows when they approach you that you can give them help. They don't have to feel afraid anymore if you give that kind of assurance," he said.