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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: A grim anniversary for Queena

Queena smiled when I wished her a happy birthday this week.

Smile is not even the right word. She opened her mouth in what would be a joyous laugh except there was no sound. And although I'm pretty sure she was responding to my words, to be honest I don't know.

Queena turned 24 this week. She is a beautiful young woman, propped up in her bed in a south Hillsborough County subdivision, sometimes looking at you but most of the time not.

I almost hate to recount her story. It has been six years since she was attacked, and today not just her life but her entire family's lives have changed forever.

It was April 24, 2008, the night she pulled up to the Bloomingdale Library to return some books. It was late, about 10:30 p.m. Kendrick Morris came out of nowhere. He dragged her off from the book return, beat and raped her and left her to die before apparently going off to the movies.

Today Morris is incarcerated at the Wakulla Correctional Facility, about 20 miles outside of Tallahassee. He was convicted of a prior attack on another woman and sentenced to 65 years in prison. His scheduled release date is July 4, 2072. With any luck, that never will happen.

Queena just had turned 18. She was graduating with honors and heading to the University of Florida on a full scholarship. Everything was in front of her.

I walked into her room, which is in a house near Riverview. From the outside, the house looks like the hundreds of others in the development. Inside, the house has been configured to move her around. It has a cool, antiseptic feel to it.

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Go into her room and it is all pink and blue. Pink is her color, and she is clutching a pink stuffed critter. The LPN who is part of a team that is always there is sitting by her side.

The walls are cluttered with messages and pictures from her high school friends. There are also photographs of Florida Gators who have been involved with fundraisers and appearances on her behalf.

There's a picture of quarterback Tim Tebow and another of basketball coach Billy Donovan. There's a team picture of the Gators baseball team.

It's not as if she is isolated in the room. There is frequent therapy.

On this day, there is a water exercise, during which she is put into some sort of external skeletal device that allows her to move around in the water. There is music therapy with a professional who comes in with a guitar and works on rhythms and patterns. There is art, and there are doctors and other skilled professionals.

What you don't know is how much of it is effective. You don't really know what's happening inside this fragile woman.

A friend brought a pair of audiobooks for her birthday, and Queena appears to enjoy listening, but you don't really know.

What you do know is that she has been robbed of so much, and time doesn't heal that part.

I drive back to Tampa thinking of this girl — now a woman — lying in bed. Then I think about her assailant sitting in a Florida prison, and realize that is not enough.

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