When Shelli Hopkins smiles, the left side of her face rises slightly higher than the right side.
But she does smile, which is a testament.
The nerve and muscle damage is just one of the leftover consequences of the vicious attack the former cabdriver endured a year ago, when a fare in her backseat suddenly lunged at her with a knife. The man stabbed Hopkins at least seven times, laughing as he did so.
Julian Rodriguez is in prison now, but Hopkins has also been forced to navigate new territory.
She spoke about it Friday, one year exactly after the Dec. 20 attack and at roughly the same time of night.
She can’t bear to drive a cab anymore and earns a fraction of her former income. The only reason she is not homeless this Christmas is because of the beneficence of a church.
A doctor is giving her free treatments to hide her facial scars. She has been seeing a counselor who has shown patience about not getting paid.
It has been a struggle for Hopkins, who still has anxiety whenever people are behind her.
“I’m getting stronger every day,” she says, adding, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same.”
Through it all, one thing Hopkins has never stopped doing is hoping for redemption for her attacker. To be sure, she was pleased that Rodriguez got 20 years, but she told the judge “the only way he is going to be different is if he gets to know Jesus. I’m praying he’s helped by the system and not made worse.”
It was about 6:30 p.m., dark and five days before Christmas when Hopkins, driving a Checker Cab, picked up her fare at the North-East branch of the Kansas City Public Library. After some confusion, he said he wanted to go to an address in the 5200 block of Sycamore Avenue. He refused to pay upfront.
On the way, he asked her whether she ever felt scared as a woman driving a cab. They talked. She mentioned that she had kids.
When they got to the address, Rodriguez pulled his knife and stabbed Hopkins in the back and neck and through her hand into her face. Police said he later told them, calmly, that the experience was exhilarating.
Rodriguez drove off in the cab, leaving Hopkins bleeding on the ground.
That night, Rodriguez and a woman friend had a meal and took in a movie on the Country Club Plaza before having sex in the stolen cab. The next morning he led police on a 100 mph chase that ended in a crash in Grandview. The 20-year-old Rodriguez had previously been arrested for stealing another vehicle and was released just one day before the attack.
Hopkins forgives him.
“I have to see it as if I was attacked by a wild animal,” she said. “You don’t get mad at a shark if it bites your arm off when you’re surfing.”
As for people, Hopkins believes that God takes care of the consequences.
Hopkins was out of work for six months. She and her husband fell behind in the rent, and they and their children were evicted. In October, Hillcrest Transitional Housing, a nonprofit, provided them with a free and furnished apartment.
The family’s sponsor is the Hope Fellowship Church. Hopkins has graduated from the initial 90-day Hillcrest program, and the family will gradually pay higher rent as it attempts to get back on its feet.
But Hopkins can’t drive a cab anymore. Instead, she makes $8 a hour working at a day-care center. The wound to her right hand still makes it difficult to grip things like a baby gate or to open a jar of food.
Hopkins said she is gratified by the kindnesses she has received from many people, including Dr. Mark A. McCune, who saw a photo of her wounded face in The Kansas City Star days after the attack. She said he contacted her through the cab company and offered to give her free laser treatments to make the scars disappear as much as possible.
Hopkins had her first treatment this month, and the difference already is noticeable. That’s something for her and her family to celebrate for Christmas.
Their small apartment is decorated for the holiday with a tree and presents underneath it. Her kids, now 6 and 7, are happy.
“Last year what my kids got for Christmas was thinking their mom was not going to live anymore,” Hopkins said, looking ahead.
“Can we just have a better year?” she asked. “I am so over this one.”