Death Postponed: They slashed her throat and left her for dead
Cheryl Cunningham’s horrific ordeal in a case of mistaken identity
This is the 23rd in a series of close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of whom are in prominent positions of the society. CHERYL Cunningham felt the force of a vicious, jealous lover who organised men to slash her throat and chop her to death in a plot that had the wrong woman as the target.
Cunningham was never involved with the mastermind's lover, but still bore the full brunt of the orchestrated attack to rid Jamaica of one less citizen. Today, the enterprising, courageous woman is standing tall after going through one of the most horrific experiences that any human being could possibly endure... and live to tell the tale.
A mother of four, Cunningham had worked at the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay for years, but lost her job in 2005 and was forced to seek alternatives. It meant travelling to Kingston at times and making the trek back to Montego Bay on other occasions.
During that period, a friend left his telephone number with another friend of hers, asking that she keep in touch with him, something that she attempted to do when she went back to Montego Bay.
"When I went back to Montego Bay, I called the person, but didn't get him, so I left a message that this is Cheryl, you gave my friend your number for me to call you, so you can call me when you get this message," Cunningham, 48, outlined to the Jamaica Observer last week.
There was no response from the person for two days, but on the third day — Holy Thursday, as she travelled into the second city to return some VCR tapes that she had rented — she got a call from a private number sometime after seven o'clock that evening.
"I answered and the person said 'it's me' (name deleted). So I said, oh, how you sound like that? He said that he was feeling sick and was by his mother and asked if I could come and look for him, and I said no problem.
"A little after that I got another call and he said that he was sending his nephew for me, although I raised concern about the nephew who I didn't know. He said his nephew would call me and he would tell him where to meet me.
"While standing at the bus stop waiting, I saw a car come up, the occupants called me and I went towards the car. I saw a lady in the car and two other guys. They said that (name deleted) had sent them to pick me up," she recounted.
Cunningham was in her comfort zone because of the presence of the other woman, but all that soon changed with the series of events that followed.
She was placed in the front of the car, while the other woman went to the back seat. That other woman appeared to have placed a phone call to someone apparently telling the person that she was on her way to get her baby and telling Cunningham that she had to make a stop.
The driver later detoured and stopped the car when they reached Porto Bello.
"I wasn't feeling comfortable then," Cunningham said upon reflection.
"The woman stopped the car and said to the guy who was driving 'you don't know where I am going so... the guy came out and she took over the steering and she turned and went to another spot.
"When we reached there she stopped the car, made another phone call and asked 'my baby ready?'. I assumed the person said yes, and she came out of the car, supposedly to pick up her baby. The other two guys came out of the car, one saying that he had too much to drink and the other saying he wanted something to smoke. They left me alone in the car," Cunningham recalled.
Having a whiff of suspicion, Cunningham took up her phone to make a call, at which point one of the men entered the car, grabbed the phone from her and dragged her out.
Fearing that she was about to be raped, she entered a plea of mercy, ignorant of what she had done.
"One of them said to me, 'gal, shut up you mouth'. He held me from behind and then pushed the knife into my neck. He then slashed my throat with a ratchet knife and then I fell to the ground and blacked out momentarily.
"When I regained consciousness, still lying on the ground, I remember hearing them talking, with the one who cut my throat saying to the other, 'she is dead so what are you going to do'?."
In a flash, the attack on Cunningham stepped up a notch. Prefaced by expletives, one of the men emerged from the car with a machete, popularly known as a 'Cuban', and chopped Cunningham across her body.
She was first chopped in her head, a blow which pierced her skull; another chop was reeled off to the side of the head and yet one more at the top of her back. All told, she received seven chops while she was on the ground.
"When I woke up I was just in time to hear the girl saying 'you tek up the gal phone and bag?', and one of the guys said 'yeah man, we have it' and they jumped in the car and drove away.
"They left me on the ground because they thought that I was dead. I watched until the car drove away and then I got up. I had remembered seeing two houses at the bottom [of the road] and I got up and walked down the road. I was calling for help, but I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I began to call out again and a man answered and said 'who is that?'. I told him I had just got chopped, could you just call the police and take me to the doctor. He said he couldn't as he had no clothes on," she said.
Cunningham spent the next 20 minutes hoping that the house owner would emerge and assist her. Not seeing him come out, she walked back to where she was chopped, but fainted again in the middle of the road.
But her inner strength was spurring her on, and within a short while she was conscious again and decided to go back to the man's house to try and get his attention once more.
"Something said to me, go back down there, so I went back into the same gentleman's yard and was calling but he wasn't responding," she said.
"I fainted a couple of times after and then I saw a car coming down the road. I managed to get up and walk towards the car — a taxi that had come to drop off somebody. When the driver saw the condition that I was in, the passenger did not come out of the car. The man moved off fast when he saw me, he drove away like he was on a highway," Cunningham recalled.
"At the same time, I was still calling out to the man in the house and he was not responding. This went on until a lady came out of the other yard and asked if everything was alright and I said no, I needed to go to the doctor.
"She told me that help would soon be there. I was there for a long time and started feeling cold and lying there thinking about my children and my only grandchild, not even remembering if I had asked God to help me because I didn't want to die this way," Cunningham related.
"I was there saying, oh my God I am going to die like this. I was there until I saw another car come down to the bottom of the yard. I raised myself up again and said to the gentleman, 'can you help me?' The driver of the car did not respond, but another gentleman came up and he walked towards where he heard the sound and when he saw me he said, 'Lord have mercy, you know how long me hear you up here but I thought that it was the gentleman and his woman who were in some kind of fuss'. That's why he never came out," she said.
The man quickly sent a relative for two towels. With the assistance of that same man, she managed to walk to his car.
The police, she said, arrived as they were about to leave for the hospital.
The frightening saga continued upon Cunningham's arrival at the Cornwall Regional Hospital, as the usual inadequacies that have affected Jamaica's health care system stared her in the face.
The elevator had stopped working, there was no blood, and support staff was reluctant to assist doctors to lift her onto a bed in the operating room.
"The bleeding was continuing and the last thing I heard was the doctor saying 'my God, oonu help me with her nuh. You no see we a lose her, we a lose her, we a lose her.'
"I blacked out again and when I woke up, the doctor said I was one of the luckiest women that he had seen, because they had to shock me (through defribillation) back to life, because my heart had stopped for a while due to the lack of blood."
All told, she got 10 units of blood.
So how could someone have mistakenly tried to wipe her off the face of the earth?
"The woman — the mastermind behind the attack — was the girlfriend of the man whom I had called," Cunningham explained.
"She had diverted the call from that guy's phone to hers. It turns out that he had a relationship with a girl also named Cheryl, so because I left my name on the voice message, that's how they got to me."
She spent five days at Cornwall Regional before she was transferred to a facility in the Corporate Area, as her daughter didn't want her to be in Montego Bay.
Even while she rested on a bed at Cornwall Regional, her daughter was forced to screen her visitors, as a woman turned up enquiring about Cunningham, but was turned away by security personnel after the woman's description did not fit anyone who was expected to visit Cunningham.
It appeared that her attackers wanted to find out if she was still alive.
Two of the attackers have since died violently, while one is still at large and is being sought by the police.
Police actually held the woman behind the attack, but she was freed in court after prosecutors said that they did not have sufficient evidence to proceed with the case of attempted murder. Some of the witnesses too, were unco-operative.
However, the mastermind met her demise in bizarre fashion, as just over a year later, on May 26, 2006, she was shot, her throat was slashed and her body was set ablaze in Norwood, St James. Police said that she had been involved in several illegal activities, which led to her demise by unknown assailants.
Another of Cunningham's attackers died violently before police could nab him.
For Cunningham, some of the physical scars have changed her complexion, but the emotional ones still linger, especially at Easter time.
"I am only just coming around now, because I never used to travel alone. I used to be locked up in the house, I could go nowhere, and I couldn't sleep, because whenever I closed my eyes, it was like I am re-living the whole thing all over again," she told the Sunday Observer.
"I try not to think about it and not to talk about it too much now. Even when I touch some of the spots, they still hurt.
"My children are my inspiration. I don't know what I would do without them. During the ordeal, I honestly felt that I would have died, and even after the incident, if I didn't have my kids, I don't think I would have survived," she said.
"It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I kept asking questions, like what have I done, why this thing happened to me, because all my life I've tried to do good and be good to people, and tried to help out any way that I could," Cunningham said.
"My kids stayed with me every step of the way. Sometimes even when I am down, I try not to show them because I don't want them to see me this way — they know me as a strong woman," she said.
Giving God thanks that she has gone past the worst, Cunningham disclosed that she had also prayed to God to forgive the woman who orchestrated the attack on her, and that the woman would repent, as evidence had emerged that she had organised a gun attack against another woman, also in a rage of jealousy. That woman also survived the attack after she was shot.
"When I heard that she died, I didn't rejoice, but I heard that everybody at the Sangster Airport was rejoicing," said Cunningham.
"God was by my side that night, because I fainted so many times. Even when the policeman came on the scene and came up to the hospital to take statements from me, he said he could not believe that so much blood was there and I am still alive.
"I lost contact with the guy that helped me and I would love to contact him again, also the lady and even the gentleman who did not come out and help me. That man came to the hospital to look for me too, saying that his cousin had lost his life that way because there was a woman who pretended that she was being attacked and when the cousin came out to help, they shot and killed him. So I understand why he did not come out," she said.