Ray Widstrand doesn’t remember what happened the night he tried to walk through a crowd of teenagers near his St. Paul apartment this summer.
But he’s already forgiven the five teens who nearly beat him to death on Aug. 4.
While out for a walk Widstrand, then 26, was caught in the middle of what authorities said was a gang confrontation. He was knocked down, kicked and stomped, leaving him fighting for his life with potentially fatal brain swelling.
The horror of the brutal, random beating galvanized residents of St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood into demanding that police provide extra patrols to stop a rising tide of violence by young people that included the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old not long before Widstrand was attacked.
For a time, St. Paul police dedicated 30 extra officers to patrol the area, looking for large groups of roaming youths that were causing problems. That effort, called Operation Blue Wave, is now winding down. But in a separate sweep Wednesday, police arrested 16 members of the East Side Boyz, a violent gang authorities believe may have been involved in the fight that ensnared Widstrand.
Still, residents remain concerned about safety in the area.
Five people, one adult and four juveniles, have been charged in the assault on Widstrand. The jury trial for Issac Maiden, 19, who faces first-degree assault and aggravated robbery charges as well as two counts of gang-related crimes, will start Monday. The four juveniles face similar charges.
Even without the memory of the assault, Widstrand said he didn’t think the beating was a reflection of the community.
Widstrand also said he never felt threatened or unsafe in the neighborhood.
“That was just a freak accident,” said Widstrand, who is now 27. “It was just young kids lashing out. I was a young kid once. I lashed out.”
Widstrand is getting back to basics at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.
The injuries left him in a wheelchair. They make it difficult for him to speak and left him unable to do everyday tasks like shave or use the bathroom alone.
After months of hospitalization, Widstrand has started physical, speech and occupational therapy.
He needs to wear a helmet, complete with a Superman sticker on the back, to protect his head from further trauma. He gets help with everyday tasks such as the shaving and use of the bathroom.
As part of his list of long-term goals, Widstrand hopes to eventually drive again, return to his job as a programming assistant in suburban cable television and move back to the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
“My dad was right. He said there are more builders than there are tearers down. … The world is a good place if you just give it a chance,” Widstrand said as he sat in his room at the rehab center accompanied by his mother and sister.
The support of his family and the community continues to give him strength, Widstrand said. Last Saturday, Widstrand got to see that support firsthand at a Maplewood fundraiser in his name.
“I have people praying for me. I have to go the extra mile,” he said.
Widstrand will undergo more surgery in November to have the bone flaps on his head put back into place. He could be at the rehabilitation center until December or longer, his family said. “Every day is an improvement,” said Widstrand’s sister, Alice.
Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo Bank to “Ray’s Fund.”