Even today, his body bearing scars of witness to what happened that night, Desmond Casey cannot say why he headed down Coming Street instead of going his usual way home.
He had finished a shift washing dishes at Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen in downtown Charleston and went out with coworkers for a bit. When they headed to an after-party, the 21-year-old bowed out. It was after 2 a.m., and work beckoned the next day.
He headed home. As he walked, he heard arguing up ahead and saw a man gripping a woman by the shoulders, screaming. It looked like he was going to hit her.
Now, Casey knew the streets. He knew its drugs and violence and the hardships of near homelessness. But he also knew: You don’t hit a woman.
He approached to break it up, he says. The man, Chad Stalnaker, turned on Casey and called him a racial slur.
They fought, and a neighbor came to help. Stalnaker huffed off to his apartment. Casey figured that was the end of it.
But then the 29-year-old leaped off a second-floor balcony with a butcher knife and attacked Casey, a police report says. He was slashed over and over across his back, all over his face, slicing his tongue, knocking out teeth and puncturing a lung. As he tried to block the blade, it gouged deeply into his forearm, forever severing critical nerves to the young man’s right hand.
Casey took off. He ran seven or eight blocks, collapsed onto a white truck and slid into a bush, his blood flowing onto the street.
It was May 17. Casey lay bleeding from 17 stab wounds.
He hadn’t realized he was being stabbed. He thought the guy was punching him. He recalls running and passing out in the bush. He recalls hearing sirens.
He remembers lying in an ambulance, staring up at its interior light and wondering if it was the white light people see before they die.
He doesn’t remember much else — and tries not to.
When Casey woke up three days later, he was in the intensive care unit at Medical University Hospital. His family gathered around, filling him with happiness. “Somebody does care,” he thought.
For 10 days, he recovered in the hospital. He’d been stabbed seven times in the face, six times in the back and four times in the arm. A cast engulfed his right arm. More than 150 stitches and 45 staples crisscrossed his body, he says.
At first, he couldn’t move his right hand, the one he used for things like writing and brushing his teeth. Months of therapy followed to teach him to form legible letters with his left hand and to recoup as much use as possible from his dominant right hand.
“Why I got to do all this?” he’d think angrily. “I didn’t stab myself.”
Until the Affordable Care Act kicked in, he had no health insurance. The bills amassed.
But his co-workers at Lee Lee’s stepped in, setting up a Facebook page to raise thousands so he could buy medications and pay bills. Where doctors saved his physical body, Lee Lee’s kept him alive financially.
But what kind of work could he do for the rest of his life?
Suddenly, he was dependent on his 86-year-old grandmother, a retired nursing assistant in West Ashley who cleaned his wounds and read him Bible verses.
“I was worried nobody would take me with my hand like this,” he says, glancing down at thin fingers that still cannot curl into a fist. “I couldn’t do anything no more.”
While he recovered, four friends were shot, three of them killed, in Myrtle Beach. With staples still holding his flesh together, Casey trudged to the funerals wondering if life truly was hopeless.
Then something strange happened. As he healed, as he could move his fingers a bit more, as he realized he still was very much alive, Casey felt more hopeful than ever before.
“I started feeling better about myself,” he recalls. “But I had to trust people again. I’d just gotten stabbed in the back.”
Literally. Today, his back bears the slicing scars of that day, including one thick stretch a good nine or 10 inches long. Scars cross his face and arm, too.
That he lived is shocking.
Just recently, he was eating and realized a jabbing sensation he had felt in his mouth was shards of the metal blade working their way out of his gums.
It hasn’t been tough just physically. Recently, he was talking to some girls when one started laughing at his missing teeth, knocked out during the attack. He tries to brush it off.
“I’m still working on myself,” Casey says. “I almost didn’t get to see my 22nd birthday.”
Since the stabbing, he has heard that the woman he tried to protect might have suffered minor wounds trying to protect him. He’s not sure if that’s true, but the possibility encourages him.
He also knows that Stalnaker, charged with attempted murder, is out on bond. Casey tries not to think about that.
Instead, he sees God at work in his life.
“God was bringing me back,” he says. “I was away from church, but everything happened in order.”
That order began with a beloved friend, J.R. Daniels.
Today, Casey never removes a grey rubber bracelet that bears Daniels’ name on one side. The other reads “Jeremiah 29:11.”
He recites the verse from memory. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Daniels was a former Marine and one-time felon leading young men down better paths, as he had done with his own life. That included working to help young people who’d been incarcerated re-enter the world and find productive work.
“He was like a big brother, a mentor, a friend,” Casey recalls.
Daniels also was about to start his own business weatherizing homes. He had learned the trade through the Sustainability Institute’s Energy Conservation Corps. The local AmeriCorps-affiliated program trains at-risk young adults to work in the energy-efficiency industry.
The nonprofit recruits people to serve six-month to one-year terms. It pays a stipend and connects participants, mostly young men, with mentors and a range of work and life skills. Participants give back through community service.
“It’s not just teaching guys to make homes more energy efficient,” says Jay Bell, program manager. “It’s a lot of individual development.”
Daniels had excelled and become a leader in the program. He mentioned it to Casey, told him how it had changed his life and encouraged him to check it out. Casey wasn’t sure.
Then, on Nov. 2 came shocking news: Daniels had died suddenly. He was just 33.
Two days later, Casey showed up on the Corps’ doorstep.
Today, Casey is in the midst of his first six months with the program. He has a life coach and is working to handle tools like a caulk gun with his injured hand. He hopes to open his own business one day.
“I don’t know how he pulls it off, but he overcomes it,” Bell says. “Desmond has leadership potential.”
Casey says it’s due to having a new life, one with purpose.
His mom used to have to drag him to church. Today, he goes on his own, volunteering to drive a golf cart to shuttle worshippers. He goes out with a group of men from Charity Missionary Baptist in North Charleston to spread the gospel and reach other guys. He’s joined the NAACP and National Action Network. He’s working with Project Unity to reduce crime.
He’s also joined Real MAD, a local nonprofit that fights domestic violence.
Once his job is stable, Casey hopes to marry. He wants to be an active father, unlike his own, one who’s there to guide and nurture his kids. He wants to teach them to hope and have goals, things he lacked for too long.
“I’ve had so many friends dying, I’m just glad I wised up before it was too late. The streets aren’t a good place to be,” he says. “Now, the sky is the limit.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.