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One year later

Cab driver says physical injuries have healed quickest, but the emotional damage lingers

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2005

Healing his body from the slashing wounds left by a knife-wielding attacker was the easy part, Eric Drake said a year after he was left for dead in his taxi.

A full head of hair has grown over many of the scars. He has no feeling in the tip of the ring finger on his left hand, and can't bend it. The natural crease at the base of his neck hides one of the longest scars. People who know what happened can see it if they look for it, he said.

"I'll never forget the feeling of getting my throat cut," he said.

The greater challenge facing Drake since he was robbed in his cab on Jan. 7, 2004, is recovering mentally, emotionally and economically. Although he was smiling, having just seen his therapist, he said there have been some bad, bad days.

His fiancee, Maria Miller, said it got so bad for her that she needed to start going to therapy last summer.

Drake will relive the attack again Friday at the sentencing hearings for Aaron St. Clair Jr. and his wife, Violet St. Clair. Both agreed to guilty pleas in the case.

He recalled a hearing he attended last year when he felt his anger surge in the courtroom. "I wanted to attack him," he said.

He plans to speak "from the heart" to his attacker, he said. He isn't sure what he'll say.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks could sentence Aaron St. Clair to as much as 99 years in prison for attempted first-degree murder. Drake, though, said he isn't happy with the agreement that kept the case from going to trial. He said people need to know what Aaron St. Clair did to him.

He also said he would have liked to have seen St. Clair held responsible for other crimes that won't be prosecuted because of the terms of the plea agreement.

"It's still hard for me to drive," he said last week at his Mendenhall Valley home. "I watch people more closely. I won't change big bills. If they complain, I tell them why."

He said passengers understand.

"Every time I look in his eyes, I know it was him," Drake said of St. Clair. "And every time, I remember what he told me - he's going to kill me."

Police arrested Aaron and Violet St. Clair about a month after the violent robbery. Last fall they separately entered plea agreements - the husband to attempted first-degree murder and the wife to a reduced charge of felony first-degree conspiracy to commit robbery.

On a snowy Wednesday night, Drake picked up the couple who called Juneau Taxi for a cab. Stopped in the Jordan Creek area, he was wearing his seat belt - "for safety," Miller said with disdain in her voice - when the man sitting in the back seat reached around and cut his throat.

The woman sat in the seat next to him as he was stabbed in the head, abdomen and legs. Drake grabbed the knife at one point, suffering cuts to his hands. He nearly lost his ring finger, and his engagement ring came off and was found later on the floor of the cab.

At Bartlett Regional Hospital, Drake was in surgery for from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Miller said that after the first three hours a surgeon came in to work on his hands.

"It was the longest wait of my life," said Miller, who also works for Juneau Taxi. She explained that she was working dispatch and taking a night off from driving when she sent Drake to pick up the St. Clairs.

"I thought I was doing them a favor," she said, noting there was already about seven inches of snow on the ground and more was coming down.

Drake said he didn't know how badly he was hurt, but he knew he was going to make it when they wheeled him into the emergency room.

He was out of the hospital in four days, but his hands spent the next 12 weeks in traction, Miller said.

To allow them to heal, Drake couldn't extend his fingers. The staff at Bartlett fashioned a device for each hand, with eyelets glued to his fingertips and rubber bands holding his fingers in a slack position at a 90-degree angle from his palm.

"We had to exercise them four times a day," Miller said.

"The first four months was the hardest," Drake said. "She had to do everything for me - fed me, dressed me, bathed me."

Later he had to go through strength training. Even when Drake was able to get back to work in July, holding a steering wheel hurt his hands, he said. There were limits to the luggage he could lift.

"I had an anxiety attack you can't imagine."

He only worked day shifts, and he couldn't complete the first one. After that first attempt at working, he waited a couple of weeks before going back.

"I had a lot of phobias when I saw ambulances," he said.

One day, he said, he picked up a young man who was going to see his friend Aaron St. Clair in jail and, without knowing who Drake was, discussed his misunderstanding of what happened.

"He thought it was a drug deal gone bad," Drake said. "I said, 'Let me introduce myself,' and his eyes got as big as saucers."

Drake said he pulled over and told the man what his friend had done to him. "He was in shock. He apologized."

Drake said Juneau is a small town. A couple of months ago, he learned that a grandmother of Aaron St. Clair was a step-sister of his grandmother.

"He's family," Drake said. He figures they're third cousins.

Because of the local attention the case has received, many people recognize him, Drake said. When he's shopping, out of the corner of his eye he can see people looking at him.

Miller recalled the first time Drake went shopping with her after the attack. People stopped and stared at them. A woman they didn't know came up to her and put money in her hand.

"People sent us checks," she said. "They were small checks, but they added up."

A benefit concert put on for them last February by people they didn't know covered a house payment, she added.

Money has been a big problem. At first Miller had to take care of Drake around the clock. His driving endurance is limited. Miller can't work now because she suffered a broken ankle last year. After it was initially diagnosed as a sprain, it didn't heal properly.

Despite the support that the community has shown for them at times, they have become more withdrawn, Miller said. They have a smaller circle of friends and don't go out as much.

"This is our safety zone," she said, motioning around her living room.

"The way Eric and I need to talk to people, people can't handle it," she said. "Our feelings are so graphic and anger shows through."

As Drake and Miller worked on their written victim-impact statements for the judge to consider before sentencing, Drake said he wants the hearing to be graphic. He wants to see pictures of what happened to him blown up in the courtroom so people know how serious the crime was.

The pain he feels in his joints when it gets cold is something he said he can live with. He said he can feel the cold deeper in the places where he got cut.

"Like I lost insulation," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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