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From the archives: ‘He’s the lowest of the low,’ Natasha’s father said

 NatashMcShane

Natasha McShane

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Originally published on May 2, 2010:

When Natasha McShane was a little girl in rural Northern Ireland, her blue-eyed father often sang to her:

“There’s a brown girl in the ring/ Tra la la la la/ Brown girl in the ring/ Tra la la la la. She looks like a sugar in a plum.”

Finally, on Friday with her parents holding vigil alongside her hospital bed, Natasha opened her brown eyes.

It was the first time they had seen any sign of life in their oldest daughter since rushing to her bedside following the brutal Bucktown mugging that left her fighting for her life.

In the early hours of April 23, Natasha and friend Stacy Jurich were attacked, allegedly by a baseball-bat wielding gang-banger who beat both women unconscious and stole their purses.

Natasha — who is just 4 feet 9 inches tall — got the worst of it. She was beaten so badly — struck several times on the head — that she doesn’t resemble the ambitious, free-spirited girl who left Ireland in January to study urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“She was such a beautiful girl, and for her to be lying there like this. . . ,’’ her mother, Sheila McShane , said Friday.

“Her lovely face is cut around her nose and mouth. There’s staples — 60 staples — across the top of her head. She’s so swollen, and there’s lacerations where he hit her.”

Natasha’s parents know that those few minutes Natasha’s eyes opened as doctors slowly pulled her from a drug-induced coma are far from the recovery they’re praying for. Still, they hope against hope.

“I’m trying to think positive. There’s nothing you can do but think positive,” Sheila McShane said. “You know, I do believe in the power of prayer. . . . Deep down in the back of my mind . . . I just have a good feeling. I’m praying that she does make a full recovery.”

“Just a miracle,” said her father, Liam McShane , his thick working hands trembling as he and his wife spoke publicly for the first time. “Just a miracle. Just a miracle.”

‘BONNY BABY’

On Sept. 12, 1986, the McShanes welcomed their firstborn — a “round, fat-faced,” gorgeous baby girl with a healthy head of dark hair and swarthy skin. “She was a knockout,” her mother says.

She won the “Bonny Baby” — a contest for the best-looking kid around — and grew up a farm girl, the oldest of five kids. When she was about 7, Liam even bought Natasha a “wee pony” that she rode around grandpa’s dairy farm.

Natasha got good marks in school -- loads of “A stars.” She was a talented Irish dancer, too. At least until she became a teenager -- and decided she’d rather dance at the disco, her mother said.

The night Natasha was attacked, she was out dancing with Jurich, who also suffered multiple injuries in the attack but was transferred from intensive care to rehab last week.

Jurich, a financial planner, had received a good job review. Natasha was excited about an internship she hadn’t even won yet. They were celebrating.

That’s the McShanes’ girl — a go-getter who always believed in herself.

“She’s a positive thinker,” her dad said.

‘SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED’

On April 23, Sheila sipped tea with neighbor ladies who were getting their hair done at her daughter Karla’s house in the rural town of Silverbridge.

Karla, 20, a hairdresser, was working at home because local terrorists had detonated a bomb near her salon in Newtownhamilton, Northern Ireland, the day before.

Then, the phone rang. It was Joseph, Sheila and Liam’s son.

“You better go to the house,” Karla relayed to Sheila. “Something has happened to Natasha.”

Sheila connected with Natasha’s roommate on the Internet video chat program Skype -- the same way she would chat with her daughter every week.

Natasha’s roommate was panicked. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, [Natasha] has been hit over the head with a baseball bat,’ “ Sheila said. “My legs almost fell from under me. . . . All I heard was baseball bat. Hospital. We had to be beside her. She’s our daughter.”

Sheila went to her husband, who was working on his father’s farm. Liam was frozen in a blank stare.

While Sheila booked their flight to Chicago, Liam and his 18-year-old son Conor went to St. Brigid’s Shrine in Faughart -- a holy wall where pilgrims go to pray for miracles, on a country lane not far from their hometown of Silverbridge.

Liam stood before the “head stone” -- a curved rock that some believe cures head injuries.

“I put my head in the stone, and said it was for Natasha,” Liam said. “I was praying that it make her better. That her injuries would not be severe.”

Back home, the McShanes talked to a doctor at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, who explained how Natasha was being treated. A flap of Natasha’s skull had been removed. Surgeons also took out part of her brain in an area that affects speech. The doctors told the McShanes they had to make as much room in her skull as possible to relieve the pressure caused by swelling.

The next 48 hours were critical to Natasha’s survival. No one knew if she would make it.

“That’s when I just fell apart,” said Liam. “It’s like someone is ripping your stomach out.”

Sheila, who is usually the one to crumble under pressure, saw her family in a panic.

“I knew someone had to be strong to get us on the plane,” she said.

On the long flight to Chicago, Sheila and Liam didn’t speak a word.

‘SHE’S STILL WITH US’

When they arrived at O’Hare Airport last weekend, Liam and Sheila spotted a priest waiting in the terminal. He was holding a small paper sign with their family name written on it.

Sheila’s heart sank. As the priest approached them, she thought the worst.

“He touched my shoulder,” Sheila said. “He said, ‘She’s still with us.’ “

They rushed to Illinois Masonic to be with Natasha, who was in critical condition, breathing with the help of a ventilator.

AN AL CAPONE LESSON

Sheila had long planned a spring trip to Chicago, but not like this.

She and her youngest daughter, Caitlin, 9, were supposed to arrive in town for a visit this Tuesday.

Natasha, whom her mom calls “Tash,” already had their eight-day trip all planned out. They’d take a boat ride on the Chicago River. Go to a Cubs game. Eat at fancy restaurants. And even tour Chicago’s notorious mob landmarks.

Natasha sent a text to her mom telling her “to watch a gangster movie,” Sheila said. “She said, ‘I’m taking you to learn about Al Capone.’ “

Natasha loves Chicago -- the big buildings, the history. The city planner in her -- that’s what she aspired to be one day -- appreciated how Chicago was rebuilt on a landfill with alleys for garbage collection. She couldn’t wait to show her mom.

DAD’S PREPARED FOR SETBACKS

Liam and Sheila take turns now watching over Natasha in intensive care. For days, they haven’t slept much. They’ve refused to check in to a hotel and are living out of a suitcase at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Natasha was transferred last week at the family’s request.

Liam keeps his eye on the device monitoring the pressure in his daughter’s brain. There’s a “bolt” in her skull that also acts as a vent. If the pressure on her brain increases, doctors will have to put Natasha, back into a drug-induced coma, her parents say.

Liam is prepared for setbacks. Just the other day, Natasha’s lung collapsed. With this type of traumatic brain injury, recovery is often “two steps forward, one step back,” the doctors have told him. He prays hard.

And many Chicagoans — sickened by the brutal attack — are praying, too.

Many have donated money for medical bills and offered up their apartments and airline miles to the McShanes. One man brought them an authentic Irish supper of potatoes, cabbage and boiled ham.

Another family gave the McShanes a small oval broach containing a relic of Sir Oliver Plunkett — a martyred Irish saint — that’s now pinned to Natasha’s hospital gown. Some believe the relic can bring a miracle. It’s there next to a photo of Natasha with her sisters and her great-grandmother’s rosary beads.

Sheila talks softly to her daughter, urging her to wake up, to give her hand a squeeze or offer a thumbs-up.

“I say, ‘Natasha, are you gonna wake up because you told me you were handing in your last assignment on the 3rd of May, so we . . . can have fun in Chicago,’ “ Sheila says. “Or I say, ‘Come on, it’s a lovely day. . . . I’d like to go out for a walk.’ At home we’d walk around the track.”

So far, Natasha remains still.

“She’s not responding,” Liam said. “It’s her body. . . . Natasha’s not there.”

It’s hard to take.

“If Natasha doesn’t have her full facilities, her full brilliant brain that she always had, she would be devastated to be left like this,” her mom said. “When she comes around, this will devastate her. If there’s any impairment, that’s going to devastate her because there’s so much she wants to do.’’

STIFFER CHARGES URGED

After the McShanes arrived in Chicago, police arrested two people allegedly responsible for hurting their daughter and her friend.

Heriberto Viramontes, 30, and Marcy Cruz, 25, were charged with aggravated battery and armed robbery.

Natasha’s parents have stared at their mug shots in the newspaper.

“He’s not a man. He’s not a coward. He’s the lowest of the low. The lowest you ever could be,” Liam said of Viramontes, who prosecutors say hit Natasha on the head until she crumpled into a pool of her own blood. “He’s not a man.

“He’s supposed to be some part of a gang. The Cobras or whatever. If that’s what his gang is all about, they’re not Cobras. They’re cowards.”

And Sheila agrees with prosecutors who alleged Cruz is just as culpable as Viramontes.

“The mind just boggles to think, a mother herself, could actually sit back there and know his violent history, knowing what he’s capable of doing, and she let him walk away with the bat in his hand,” Sheila said. “She knew what he was going to do.”

Even more disturbing, the McShanes said, was watching video footage of the alleged muggers acting so casual and inhumane after “leaving two young girls fighting for their lives” while using the stolen credit cards at a gas station near the attack.

“Natasha had a bright future. She had a plan. And it was taken away from her by this animal,” Sheila said. “That’s all he is.”

And when the accused get their day in court, they should be “hammered” for what they did, the parents said.

In fact, attorney John D. Colbert, who is representing the McShanes pro bono, called on police to up the charges against Cruz and Viramontes to attempted murder.

“Because of the egregious nature of this inhumane crime, the most serious of charges should be levied against these people,” Colbert said.

‘OVERWHELMED BY GENEROSITY’

All of the McShanes’ anger is focused on the alleged attackers.

Liam and Sheila say they don’t harbor any hate for Chicago, or its residents.

“We want to thank the people of Chicago,” Sheila said. “We’re overwhelmed by the generosity of people, the kindness of people we don’t even know. . . . You wouldn’t get as much in Ireland, the generosity they give here. I think it’s very sincere and genuine.”

A Hispanic woman approached Sheila on Thursday in the hospital lobby. She gave her a woven religious bracelet to put on Natasha’s wrist.

“She said she was so disappointed. . . . She said, ‘There’s some lovely people in Chicago,’ “ Sheila said. “I told her I know that. It’s very clear to me.”



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