Sunday, January 30, 2011

1/31 Sunday feature Akron Beacon Journal

Victim's forgiveness
Ex-Barberton foundation director loses job, house after attack, but instead of anger, he finds compassion for his assailant

By Marilyn Miller
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Sunday, Jan 30, 2011

Two books sit on a table as Chuck Sandstrom talks about his plans to meet the man who attacked him during an interview at his home in Barberton. Sandstrom, the former executive director of the Barberton Community Foundation, was beaten in to a coma by neighbor Michael Ayers because Sandstrom had Ayers' car towed away from an apartment building Sandstrom owned. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)
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BARBERTON: When Chuck Sandstrom talks about love and forgiveness for the man who left him near death, drowning in his own pool of blood, people say the attack must have affected his brain.

''Sometimes people say I'm not in my right mind because of the brain injury, but that has nothing to do with it,'' he said. ''It's bigger than that. It's not about the injury. It's not about the crime. It's about the individual and his family. It's something we have to straighten out between us, not with the state.''

Sandstrom, 60, is speech impaired and it sometimes takes him awhile to get his words out, but he insists his mind is intact and so is his heart.

He has been struggling to get his life back since the July 1, 2009, attack. The traumatic brain injury left him in a coma for eight weeks.

The attack cost him his dream job as the executive director of the Barberton Community Foundation with an annual salary of $95,000. He left the position on disability leave just 10 months after his appointment.

Sandstrom also lost the house he purchased in Barberton. He and his new wife were finally going to settle into a home after a long-distance marriage from Findlay.

They didn't get a chance to move in together until after he was hospitalized, but the attack has drawn them even closer.

''We got rid of the unnecessary baggage . . . the bottom line is to keep love, affection and laughter in our lives and just find wherever the open doors are going to be and just go through them,'' Auburn Sandstrom said. ''It's been a good formula for a happy marriage and a good life.''

Chuck Sandstrom is now trying to reinvent himself. He stopped medical physical therapy and is in a more aggressive therapy that has him lifting weights and training for 5K races.

''This is the new and improved me,'' he
said in an interview from the rented ranch house they now call home. ''I'd be in a nursing home if I didn't try to do more. I don't want to be a dependent. I want to be a guy who can help someone else be all that they can be.''

The couple no longer have medical insurance, but say they are both healthy.

He preaches part time and is gearing up for a new business venture in public speaking. Sandstrom has several speaking engagements lined up, with topics that include how to get back up after difficult times and how to resurrect a struggling organization.

Sandstrom was instrumental in many fundraising efforts prior to his attack.

Violent attack

The assault that put Sandstrom in a coma was over a towed vehicle. The assailant's car was parked in the driveway of a four-unit apartment building, which Sandstrom owns, on Grand Avenue in Akron.

The car had been there for three months. The car's owner, Michael D. Ayers, who lived across the street, parked the car there for his sister to use. His sister and mother were tenants in Sandstrom's apartment building.

''If I had known that his sister had use of the car, I never would have had it towed,'' Sandstrom said. ''I didn't know.''

Ayers, now 34, had been drinking that night and was upset over the tow. He confronted Sandstrom and the tow truck driver twice, then came back a third time after police left to throw punches at Sandstrom.

One of the punches caused Sandstrom to strike his head on a brick stoop.

Neighbors, who are the parents of Ayers' girlfriend, called 911. They cradled Sandstrom's neck until the ambulance arrived.

Ayers went into hiding. He was a fugitive for 15 months before his arrest.

Sandstrom and his wife went to the initial court hearing.

''I was just looking at him. There was a moment in the courtroom where we exchanged glances. No words were spoken, but I think we understood each other,'' Sandstrom said. ''I was able to see some compassion in his eyes and he could see forgiveness in mine.''

Sandstrom, who is also an ordained minister, was not always so forgiving.

''My mother was the victim of assault. Her second husband killed her. Initially I was the one who was really holding him accountable. I was very angry at the judge and the whole court process, because they didn't do anything to him.''

He said the laws in New York protected his mother's killer.

''In New York when someone has any type of mental illness they are guilty, but not responsible. I was too concerned about vengeance. I wanted to be the avenger, but not this time.''

That was nearly 30 years ago. Sandstrom has learned that time heals the scars of the past.

Finding forgiveness

Now he says he shares some of the responsibility for his attack, because no one is perfect.

He said he cannot find it in his heart to condemn someone when he thinks of his own faults or flaws.

''And that's the kind of thing people think is nuts,'' Auburn Sandstrom said. ''Chuck has never been one to be bullied, and I would expect that Chuck had some edge in his voice that night. He probably was firm in what he was doing, but I also know he doesn't talk trash to anyone.''

She said she'd like to know someday what actually happened.

''Chuck has no memory of it. But it still doesn't justify Michael's actions,'' his wife said. ''What we have is a stupid situation that resulted in lifelong repercussions.''

Sandstrom never appeared in court again with Ayers. He turned down the invitation from the prosecutor's office to lash out at Ayers at sentencing. By then he had gotten to know the Ayers' family, including Ayers' three children.

''Chuck Sandstrom is a very forgiving person,'' said Brad Gessner, the chief Summit County assistant prosecutor. ''He talked to prosecutors, victim advocates and sent letters to the judge saying he didn't see any benefit in sending Ayers to prison.''

Auburn Sandstrom said: ''We weren't interested in being portrayed as the good guys and Michael as the bad guy. It's convenient but not honest.''

In a plea agreement, Ayers pleaded guilty on Jan. 19 to one count of felonious assault and was sentenced to four years in prison. The maximum time for a second-degree felony is eight years. This was his fourth conviction. He was on probation from a suspended sentence on a domestic violence charge.

Although Ayers can request an early judicial release before his four years are up, Gessner said the prosecution will oppose his requests due to the violent nature of the attack.

Assailant apologizes

Michael D. Ayers wrote a letter to the Sandstroms that his girlfriend read Jan. 2 from the pulpit of the Sandstroms' church, the Goodyear Heights Presbyterian Church.

''It was a sincere, heartfelt letter,'' Auburn Sandstrom said. ''Michael didn't just say he was sorry, but that he was speechless and didn't know how to speak to Chuck about forgiveness and was trying to understand what it all meant.''

She said Ayers wrote that her husband's compassion was a new experience for him and that he wanted to live up to Sandstrom's expectations.

''He has communicated many times through his family that he just wants to talk to Chuck, man to man,'' she said. ''He has also said he will welcome any members from Chuck's family to visit.''

Auburn Sandstrom said her husband's brother and sisters aren't ready to forgive and wrote scathing letters urging the court to put Ayers away for a very long time. Letters the Sandstroms never submitted to the court.

She admits she was not as forgiving as her husband at first.

''I checked around and found out that Michael is a dedicated father to his three children and a good provider. Every crime he has ever committed was under the influence of alcohol,'' she said. ''He's probably a better person when he's sober, but the influence of alcohol and rage is an untreated problem in prison. It just prohibits him. I know that someone behind bars can mean with all their heart that they are going to change.

''I'm a recovered alcoholic and I don't have a lot of illusions about that.''

Auburn Sandstrom said she and her husband would like to receive some input about how Ayers' Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are going once he is released from prison.

They are pleased that Ayers has taken responsibility for the assault.

Plans to visit

Since the sentencing, Sandstrom has been trying to visit Ayers. The judge barred any visits between the two until after the case was closed.

The Sandstroms set up a meeting with Ayers at the Summit County Jail after the sentencing. First the day was moved, then the time was changed. Then what they feared most, Ayers was moved.

There was no guarantee Ayers would remain at the facility before being transferred to Lorain. He was relocated Jan. 25.

''Wherever he goes we know we will see him,''Chuck Sandstrom said.

His wife agrees that there needs to be a meeting between her husband and Ayers.

''I don't know if we'll be in his life and pursue other visits, that's impossible to predict right now,'' she said. ''I know that we need to see it through for our own sakes, and what degree we pursue it after that is really an open-ended question.''

Auburn Sandstrom said their lives are so radically different now that they just roll with what comes their way.

''I have a deep-down calm feeling that everything is unfolding exactly as it should and when it should. This isn't something that has to happen overnight,'' she said. ''This will be a process. We are continuing to get to know his family. And the day will come when Chuck will sit down with Michael.''

Chuck Sandstrom said he won't have a prepared speech when he finally meets Ayers face to face.

''I think I'll find the words when I see him and whatever I say will come from the heart,'' Sandstrom said. ''I just want him to know that he is 100 percent forgiven. I want him to see that in my eyes and hear it in my voice.''

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or


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