'What more could happen?'
Unthinkable accident ... more misfortune ... yet Mansfield man counts his blessings
MANSFIELD — Paul Reynolds loves to jump on a dirt bike and zoom around his rural Mansfield farm like a little kid. He lives for hopping in a helicopter and flying for hours, like he did during his two-year stint in Desert Storm.
And that's what has made the past eight months all the more agonizing for the victim of one of the area's most unthinkable crimes of 2013.
Reynolds, 46, is rarely without pain after the life-threatening injuries he suffered in May when he was run over — twice — by a panicked teenager in a pickup who didn't stop to help him.
It still hurts just to sit up, lie down, stand.
And yet, Reynolds says, "I hate to even mention it. I am so thankful to be alive and thankful for my family and thankful for the health that I do have that it doesn't seem right to complain. I knew I was blessed before, but I know for sure I'm blessed now."
The self-employed pilot, husband and father of seven has a remarkable tale of hardship, determination and forgiveness.
"It's kind of like a Lifetime movie," he says. "It's crazy."
Man with a plan
Ever since graduating from high school in Farmer City, Reynolds knew he wanted to go into business for himself.
"I've been prepared to own my own business since I was 18," he said. "I joined the military to learn to fly. I spent eight years in the Army learning how to fly."
After the service and college, he worked in the private sector, saving enough money to start his own business using his flying skills.
Along the way, he became a dad, got married to a woman who had her own children, and then they had some more of their own. The blended family of Paul and Kimberly Reynolds features six girls and one boy ranging in age from 7 to 23. They've been together 16 years.
Nine years ago, Reynolds got the itch to start his own helicopter crop-dusting service.
"I got hold of the Service Corps of Retired Executives," he said. "I asked for someone to help me write a business plan and they gave me Dick Foley."
Foley had been co-owner of Felmley-Dickerson, a top construction firm known for numerous University of Illinois landmarks, including the Assembly Hall. The two became fast friends and remained so until July when Foley died at age 87.
"He helped me write my plan and it took me two years to start," Reynolds said. "I met with Dick once a month ever since. He was a very good Christian man and not only cared about my business but me as a person. If I could be half the man Dick was ..." Reynolds said, his voice trailing.
With Foley's guidance, Reynolds and his oldest daughter, Kelsy, now 23, got Reynolds Aerial Service off the ground in 2009.
'Dad, are you dead?'
Last May 8, a Wednesday, Reynolds was getting equipment in order for an out-of-state contract that represented about half of his annual income.
"We were two days from going to Oklahoma for our Oklahoma season," he said. "I had to run to Mahomet to pick up parts for brakes on the vehicle. I took my wife's motorcycle."
Reynolds was about two miles from his home, headed south in the 2700 block of Piatt County Road 1500 E, the road that divides Piatt and Champaign counties. He saw an oncoming pickup truck veer into his lane.
"I could see he was looking right past me. He wasn't seeing me," Reynolds said. "I started moving to the center because he was in my lane coming at me."
To avoid being hit upright, Reynolds put the cycle into a skid.
"I was skidding down the road on my side and went under the front passenger tire of his truck. I skidded maybe 10 to 15 yards. He continued on and I went under the back wheel of the truck and then under the two tires of his trailer."
Even though it was a warm spring day, Reynolds was wearing a helmet and a leather jacket, which he's now convinced saved his life.
"The jacket got hooked under the trailer," which was too low to the ground to pass over him. The lack of clearance also caused his body to roll.
He was being dragged on his stomach.
"He continued up the road dragging me and pulled into Ron Bartlett's residence. It's a gravel driveway with potholes. When the trailer went over the potholes, it jiggled me off."
Lying in the driveway on his back, Reynolds heard the truck engine shut off.
"I start yelling, 'Come help me.' I thought it was my time. I thought I was going to die. I was trying to make peace and regain my composure. I started yelling and no one came. It's getting hard to breathe because my lung collapsed," he said.
After lying there another two to three minutes — Reynolds is sure he never lost consciousness — he heard the truck engine start back up.
"It came across Bartlett's yard and I could hear the engine speed up and peel out. He drove the truck beside me but he drove the trailer over the top of me. I got run over again by the trailer. That was a head to toe thing.
"After I got run over the second time in the driveway, now I know it is not my time."
Gravel in his mouth, dust and blood in his eyes, shoulders dislocated, pelvis crushed and vertebrae broken, Reynolds somehow mustered the strength to sit up enough to look at the departing pickup, an older truck painted with primer gray. On the back of its trailer was a plywood sign that read "lawn services, aeration, mowing."
Reynolds lay back down, trying to breathe with one good lung.
"I laid there 10 to 15 minutes. Bill Jay from Mahomet was driving down the road on a four-wheeler and saw the motorcycle out in the road but didn't see me. He got off his four-wheeler and started looking around. I heard him come up to me and say, 'Are you all right?' I said 'no' and he called 911."
He had Jay call his father-in-law and two oldest daughters, Kelsy and Kalyn, 21, who were all back at the hangar working.
Kelsy made it to her father before the ambulance did.
"She said, 'Dad, are you dead?' She said, 'OK. We are going to get through this,'" Reynolds recalls.
It didn't take long for Piatt County Chief Deputy Mark Huckstep, a 23-year cop, to figure out who was responsible for Reynolds' injuries. Between the victim's detailed description of the truck and Ron Bartlett giving him the name of the person who was supposed to mow his property that day, Huckstep made his way — seven hours after the crash — to the Champaign home of Wesley Luster.
In his incident report, Huckstep said the 19-year-old wondered aloud why the deputy was at his house.
Huckstep told Luster he needed to be honest about what had happened and suggested that people make mistakes. Luster denied being in Mansfield that day.
Huckstep then looked at Luster's truck and trailer. The truck was painted primer gray, missing a chrome-colored wheel ring similar to one found on Bartlett's property, and dented near the bottom of the passenger side door.
The trailer had a hand-painted plywood sign reading "rolling, aerating, dethatching, mowing, general landscaping and much more."
"I advised Wesley that the victim had almost told me verbatim what the sign read," Huckstep wrote. "Wesley at that time stated, 'I freaked out. I don't want to go to jail.'"
Road to recovery
In Carle Hospital's emergency room, Reynolds knew from his pain that his injuries were serious. He had another hint, too.
"When the chaplain comes to pray over you two to three times," he said, "you know he's not bringing a card."
Surgeries started the following day — one to fix his left pelvis, one to replace his right hip, another to reconstruct his right pelvis and femur. He'd lost a lot of blood as well.
The doctor doing the repair work told Reynolds he'd probably be able to walk again — with the help of a walker.
"I kind of figured if he said, 'You can walk with a walker' that I'll be walking on my own," Reynolds said. "I'm 46 and spent eight years in the Army learning how to fly and then worked in the private sector. I finally saved enough to start my own business. I thought, 'This cannot stop.' This coming year, five of my seven kids are either in college or starting college."
After three full weeks in the hospital, Reynolds was given the option of going to a nursing home or to Carle's rehabilitation unit. He chose the latter.
The professionals said he'd probably be there another three weeks.
"I said, 'Tell me what I need to do to go home. We'll write them down and when all the things are done, I'll go home,'" he said. "It took me a week."
"No, it wasn't my time," he said for the umpteenth time since May 8.
Among the tasks he had to accomplish: standing, moving himself from the bed to the wheelchair, and getting into the shower.
He was released to go home the week of Memorial Day, way ahead of schedule.
Help from a friend
Hans Schacht has known Reynolds about 15 years. He lives one acreage over.
"Paul's always been the kind of guy that if the kids were down at the creek with a four-wheeler, he'd grab a dirt bike and be down there with them," Schacht said. "He enjoys anything outdoors."
After seeing his feisty neighbor in the hospital, Schacht wondered if he'd ever walk without a cane. A home builder, Schacht thought nothing of putting a wheelchair ramp on Reynolds' home.
"It was the only thing stopping him from getting out of the hospital," Schacht said.
Schacht and a co-worker had it done in a day.
A few weeks later, Reynolds and daughters were helping Schacht bale straw. Reynolds supervised from a Gator, which was the same height as his wheelchair.
Schacht remembers, "You could tell he was hurting. We had a community meal. We had to carry him on to the porch to have his meal.
"About three to four weeks later, he pulled back in my driveway and by God, that guy got out of the truck, stood up and walked toward me. My jaw hit the ground. I could not believe what I was seeing."
Schacht wasn't the only one.
"I would describe it as a remarkable recovery," Huckstep, the deputy, said this week, the memory still fresh of arriving at the ER to see Reynolds for the first time and being "very surprised he was conscious, alert and able to give me a statement."
"I think Paul's probably lucky he's in the physical condition he was in prior to the accident," Huckstep says now. "It probably helped his recovery. If he was older or more obese, he probably would have been killed (from being dragged under the trailer)."
Right or wrong, Reynolds decided he had to go to Oklahoma with his daughters to supervise the spraying. He hired a pilot to fly the helicopter.
"Three days after the hospital, I hopped in the RV," he said. "To get in the RV, I had to pull myself in. It was stupid."
Reynolds was still in his wheelchair, his physical therapy yet to begin. His father-in-law, Bill Williams, drove the RV. Kelsy and Kalyn, though licensed pilots, were not quite ready to fly the helicopter but were there to drive the nurse truck.
"These girls are so unbelievably dedicated to our business," said the proud father.
Feeling the pressure of keeping his business going, Reynolds said they spent about a month in Oklahoma.
"We had a rough time training a new person on the team. Things didn't go very well. We ended up making about a fifth of the money we normally make," Reynolds said.
Reynolds brought his family back to Illinois to get the equipment ready for area customers and sent the pilot home for a break.
The pilot returned a short while later and was doing a job on North Mattis Avenue, across from St. Thomas More, when things turned bad — again.
Reynolds clearly remembers the date: July 24, 2013.
"He had an accident in my helicopter and destroyed it. He didn't get hurt but all the money we were going to be earning was now gone."
A friend from Oklahoma came in and flew for some of Reynolds' customers but that didn't translate to income for the family.
Although Reynolds had insurance on the helicopter, the money didn't even cover the repairs.
"We still don't have a new one," Reynolds said. "I'm hoping to get one before April so I can go to Oklahoma again."
As grueling as the weeks before had been physically, the summer of 2013 took a toll on Reynolds financially, then emotionally.
While the pilot he'd hired was still in Champaign, Reynolds said, the man left their home one night and accidentally ran over the family Weimaraner, a dog they'd had for eight years.
They had to have the dog euthanized early the next morning.
When they returned home, their other dog, a Dalmatian, was so sick that it also had to be put down the same day.
"It was like," Reynolds said, "'What more could happen?'"
'I'm so thankful'
About the time they returned from Oklahoma, Reynolds went back to the doctor.
"They asked me if I had been cheating, putting weight on my hips," he remembered.
"I stood up about two months early," Reynolds said, crying at the memory.
"I used that walker about three weeks. Then I started with a cane. Then I got rid of the cane and I'm walking by myself now."
Reynolds has been ambulatory since August and is working with "wonderful people" at Carle's therapy services to walk without a limp.
While his business has been depressed, to put it mildly, Reynolds has been trying to find the bright side.
"Every time something bad has happened, I'm thinking how thankful I am," he said. "I'm so thankful to be alive and thankful to be walking and thankful for my family."
He's grateful to Schacht for the wheelchair ramp, to the person who anonymously paid for liquid propane to heat the family home this winter, to the person who gave the family a debit card for groceries, to those customers who've started calling again, promising business come spring.
Reynolds is even grateful for his bankers despite losing an estimated $700,000 worth of business in 2013.
"Technically, I'm bankrupt," he said. "The bank has told me they want to work with me. Because I wasn't flying and I had to have two new pilots and (daughter) Kelsy on my insurance, my insurance bill alone was $80,000. And then we lost the helicopter."
He's most anxious to get back to flying — and to the way things used to be, before May 8.
For Reynolds, that means forgiving Wesley Luster, leaning on friends and counting his blessings.
"I know the Lord has a plan for me," he says. "I just hope when he says what it is, I'm smart enough to listen and hear it — because he hasn't told me yet."
Headed to court
The next chapter of Paul Reynolds' life-changing ordeal comes Thursday in a Piatt County courtroom in Monticello.
The accused: Wesley Luster, 19, of Champaign, who failed to stop and render aid within 30 minutes of the man he'd run over.
The charge: Aggravated leaving the scene of a personal injury accident, a Class 2 felony. He was arrested May 8 and spent nearly a month in the Piatt County jail.
The plea: Luster pleaded guilty last month in Piatt County Circuit Court. He's been free since posting $2,500 cash bond in early June.
The penalties: Luster's possible punishment ranges from probation to three to seven years in prison.