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A year after unsolved shooting, lesbian Texas teen makes heroic recovery

Erin Trieb / for NBC News

Kristene Chapa, 19, is rebuilding her life after surviving being shot in the head on June 23, 2012, in a quiet South Texas park. Her girlfriend, Mollie Judith Olgin, 19, was killed in the unsolved attack.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A teenager who was shot in a brutal attack that claimed her girlfriend's life has learned to sit, walk and even smile again one year after the couple's assailant left them for dead in a quiet bayside park.

But Kristene Chapa, 19, is struggling in many ways with the enormity of what happened last June 23: While out with her girlfriend, Mollie Judith Olgin, a man with a gun forced the pair down a steep incline in the park, bound them and shot them in the head.

On the anniversary of the attack on Sunday, Chapa plans to lay flowers at the site in the park though her other visits there have resurfaced the pain and fear of that night.

“I want them to hurry up and find the person because ... there are still times where I find myself scared, wondering if they're going to come after me,” she told NBC News earlier in June. “I'm always looking around, seeing if I recognize anyone. There's still a part of me that's scared.”

Police have zeroed in on a potential suspect, who is incarcerated in another state, but haven't made an arrest. Authorities tested DNA samples and fingerprints from a large area extending out from the park that generated up to 250 names before they honed in on one man.

They don't believe the attack was a hate crime, but they haven't established a motive, said Sgt. Roland Chavez of the Portland Police Department.

"You wish you could expedite things but … you've got to let it take its course and get it right,” he said of the investigation. “Ultimately, she's just victimized again if we can't make a solid case."

Chapa has been seeking closure from that Friday night, when she went with 19-year-old Olgin to Violet Andrews Park in Portland outside Corpus Christi to see where her girlfriend had been baptized. 

She can't say much about the attack since it's an open investigation, but she spoke about her struggle to get help afterward. She couldn't sit or stand, with the bullet piercing the part of her brain controlling movements on her left side.

“I felt every cut, every thorn go through my hand,” she said of the brush she fought to get out of, showing a reporter the scars tracking up her arms. “I kept thinking, 'I've got to get help.'”

Police believe the girls were shot with a .45 caliber gun between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. A couple out birdwatching found them at around 8:30 a.m.

Investigators don't think their suspect knew the girls, nor did he have a criminal history suggesting that he was building up to this type of violent crime, Chavez said.

"That's what makes the danger of it -- these are just two complete strangers,” he said. “It could have been any other person and that's what makes it scary for the public.”

Chapa was rushed to a local hospital where she underwent surgery to remove skull fragments and part of her brain. As she prepared to leave two weeks later for the Texas NeuroRehab Center in Austin, her loved ones gathered with Olgin's family and the police to tell her the hard news: her girlfriend didn't survive.

“Everything stopped. I went blank. I couldn't think. ... and then I just started crying,” she said.

The work of recovery
Since those tough early days, Chapa has spent months battling to relearn some of the most basic functions of life: balancing, speaking without a stutter, making facial expressions, as well as sitting, standing and walking. 

"I went from being independent to back to a toddler,” she said.

Chapa eventually graduated from a recliner to a wheelchair to a cane as she took her first steps in Austin, where she spent nearly four months in rehabilitation. She can walk, but she has a limp. 

“Relearning to walk and use my muscles was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to learn – or that I am still learning,” she said. “I had to work through my headaches, too, because when I work really hard … I get really bad headaches.”

Portland Texas Police Dept.

Credit: Portland, Tex., policeCaption: Texas Rangers released a refined artist sketch of the suspect in the shooting murder of Mollie Judith Olgin on June 22, 2012, in Portland, Tex, at a park. They worked with Mary Kristene Chapa, who survived the attack, to create the sketch.

She is also focused on her hand, which remains clenched perpetually in a fist. A doctor has given her dozens of botox injections in a bid to loosen it.

“Just being able to open up my fingers is what I'm dying to do,” she said.

But Chapa has made tremendous strides from when she was first rushed to CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial, said Dr. Osbert Blow, medical director of trauma and surgical critical care services.

“I don't believe anyone would expect her to regain complete function but it is miraculous the amount of function that she has regained considering the amount of destruction to her motor cortex. She has done an exceptional job in terms of her recovery,” Blow said.

“She is behaving like someone who had a (left-sided) stroke,” he noted. “As those neurons in the brain tissue heal, then it's like rewiring circuitry, so that's why you don't really know the full extent of the recovery until sometimes years later.”

“I feel like I proved a lot of people wrong, Chapa said, “the doctors who didn't think I was going to make it and the guy who tried to kill me.”

Chapa's parents have used their savings to pay for her care, since insurance doesn't cover everything, like a brace she wears on her lower left calf. She also needs a hearing aid for her right ear, but her plan doesn’t pay for that, either. 

“We're just going from check to check,” said her mom, Grace. “It's crazy. All these organizations are willing to help but at the same time they don't … there's a lot of red tape involved.”

“We're just pretty much on our own now,” she added.

Healing words 
While the physical recovery is nearly all-consuming, Chapa has also grappled with a flood of emotions – anger, sadness and denial – since the attack.

She grieves for Olgin, and laments that they fought that night over Olgin wanting to meet her parents. Chapa wasn't ready yet: she hadn't told her parents she was a lesbian – a fact they learned when the police informed them of the attack, and said their daughter had been with her girlfriend.

“Every day I think about her,” Chapa said of Olgin. “I pray for her, just for her to watch over me.”

Chapa has also reached out to other victims of tragedies or their families, penning notes to a track star paralyzed in an accident as well as to the aunt of a girl who died in the Newtown school shooting.

“I opened up myself to them and just told them how my story is similar, I just put my feelings in there,” she said, adding that she wants “to meet more victims who have been shot because we relate. I'm pretty sure we've been through a lot of the same things and have felt the same ways.”

She also said it helped to “reach out to people that have been hurt or need help or just need comfort. It helps me any little bit. It's the healing process.”

Chapa is looking to the future as she awaits the arrest of her attacker. She thinks about taking one college course, which will require a notetaker and some tutoring since she struggles with headaches that develop as she concentrates, and the hearing as well as vision loss to both eyes.

“I just want to get better,” she said. “I just tell myself it's forward from here on out, there's no going back. … I've come a long way and I know I won't be 100 percent again, but I'll be pretty close to it.”

How to help: To donate to Chapa, her family set up this fund