Trail attack survivor says she's still fighting

Vanessa Ursini says she still battles trauma; man sentenced to 90 years to life

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Vanessa Ursini is still fighting.

Nearly a year and a half after Ursini, 30, fought off a brutal attack by Johnny Dewayne Harris in the woods next to the Mary Carter Greenway trail in Littleton, she stood near him in court at his sentencing, describing in heartbreaking terms the battle she's still waging.

Since the day Harris threw a rope around her neck, dragged her into the woods, stripped her clothes and hogtied her before she was able to fight her way free, Ursini said her life has been upended.

She lost interest in making new friends, Ursini told Judge Michael Spear in Arapahoe County District Court on Dec. 20. Her relationship with her husband has been strained. The rope and her screams damaged her throat so badly she can no longer run or bike.

“I live in fear, and I hate it,” Ursini told Judge Michael Spear in Arapahoe County District Court on Dec. 20. “How many times will I obsessively glance over my shoulder? How many sounds will startle me as I walk down the street? How many men will pass me while I'm walking my dog that I immediately assume are going to hurt me?”

Harris, 49, was convicted of kidnapping, attempted sexual assault, assault and unlawful sexual conduct after a three-day trial in September. Harris' criminal record includes three prior sex assaults, one on a 15-year-old girl, as well as failure to register as a sex offender and indecent exposure.

Harris hung his head as Ursini, her husband, brother and friends described the impact the assault had on her.

Dianne Hammer, a Denver rare book dealer, described the day Harris sexually assaulted her on the floor of a South Broadway bookstore, four months before Ursini's attack. Harris pleaded guilty to Hammer's assault in May.

During the attack, Harris held Hammer at knifepoint. Hammer grabbed the knife by the blade, cutting her hand deeply. She doesn't remember what happened after that, saying her brain won't allow her to remember, but she received multiple injuries. Hammer lived in fear for months after her attack, she said, because Harris was still on the loose. She said she collapsed in her backyard when she saw Harris' photo in a news story about Ursini's attack.

Hammer, like Ursini, said she's forever changed. She said she struggles with being touched, and for months after the assault struggled to go out in public alone.

“My world has become smaller,” Hammer told the judge. “My husband has a different wife, my daughter has a different mother and my grandson has a different grandma.”

After consulting with his attorneys, Harris declined to speak. Spear sentenced him to 90 years to life, to run consecutively after a 25-year sentence stemming from Hammer's attack.

Despite the ongoing trauma, Ursini told reporters outside the courtroom the sentencing was an important turning point in her healing process.

“This won't ever go away, but now we can at least start to move on and stop worrying about court dates, seeing him, or sharing my energy with him ever again,” Ursini said. “I'm not scared of him anymore. He's so pathetic.”

Ursini said she wouldn't be where she is today without the steadfast love and support of her husband, family and friends. She was joined in the courtroom by more than a dozen supporters, including the man who cut the rope from Ursini's neck after the July 25, 2018 attack, and the bicyclist who tackled Harris.

Perhaps the most profound relationship she's developed, Ursini said, is with Hammer. The two of them share a bond that's hard to describe, Hammer said.

“I've been craving this for so long,” Hammer said of her friendship with Ursini. “We have this experience in common that nobody else can quite understand. Though we've been supported by family and friends, it's an extremely lonely experience.”

Ursini said she and Hammer aren't alone — she's discovered how many of her loved ones have endured sexual trauma.

“It makes me so angry,” Ursini said. “A lot of them don't feel comfortable talking about it. I want to help give voice to those women, and say sexual abuse won't be tolerated.”

Hammer said going through the court process was retraumatizing, because she had to relive her attack so many times.

“I couldn't have done it without the support of people in my life,” Hammer said. “You can't do it by yourself. You need your people — your army. Be an army for the people in your life going through this.”

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