Only a few months shy of her high school graduation, Johanna Orozco was about to start her car when she looked up and saw her abusive former boyfriend pointing a shotgun at her face.
Their eyes locked and he pulled the trigger.
Six years later, Orozco mesmerized a crowd of more than 600 who attended Thursday’s annual YWCA Circle of Women Luncheon with the story of her survival and resilience against incredible odds.
The annual luncheon raises money for the organization’s domestic violence services, which include two educational programs aimed at teens.
Digital Boundaries warns adolescents of abusive behavior or bullying done through technology such as computers or cellphones, and Eyes Wide Open teaches young people what an abusive relationship is and communication skills they need to know.
While Orozco talked, overhead screens showed photos of her before and after the shotgun blast destroyed the lower half of her face. One photo showed Orozco in a bright red graduation cap and gown at Cleveland’s Lincoln-West High School, looking jubilant despite the matching red scarf tied delicately around the lower half of her face.
Orozco was one of the first in her Nicaraguan immigrant family to graduate from high school, she said, and because she was hospitalized, did not return to high school after that fateful day on March 5, 2007. But school officials cleared the way for the young honor student to graduate with her class, she said.
The crowd cheered. A few wiped away tears.
Orozco had known the boy, Juan Ruiz, since elementary school, although they did not start dating until they were sophomores.
The young couple had bonded after sharing the secrets of witnessing the abusive relationships of their parents, vowing never to do the same.
Orozco’s parents died within weeks of each other when she was a child, and she and her brother were raised by their grandparents in Ohio.
At first, Orozco said, everything was fine.
I was in love and the happiest girl in the world, Orozco said.
Slowly things changed.
Ruiz became possessive, controlling. He called and texted incessantly. Eventually he told her what she could – and couldn’t – wear. One minute he told her she was fat, ugly, stupid and disgusting; the next he told her she was beautiful, intelligent and he was undeserving of her companionship. And slowly, he drove a wedge of isolation between Orozco and her friends and family.
Before, I was very involved in all kinds of school activities and in theater. I was confident, conceited even. I knew I was beautiful, Orozco said, prompting laughter.
That all began to change, especially after he hit her.
Although Ruiz was apologetic and cried and begged for forgiveness, it wasn’t long until the hitting escalated to punching, strangling and kicking and became more frequent.
After two years, Orozco could no longer ignore the red flags. She broke up with Ruiz, this time for good.
Ruiz did not take it well. He continued to call, text and tried to visit, to no avail. Two weeks later, Ruiz climbed through Orozco’s bedroom window and raped her at knifepoint, she said.
He said if I told anyone, he would kill me and burn my house down, Orozco said.
After the breakup, friends and family had noticed that the old Johanna was emerging – outgoing, confident, vivacious – but the morning after the rape, she was noticeably traumatized.
After prodding from school officials, she disclosed what had happened. The principal called the police and Ruiz was arrested.
But in just a few days, Ruiz was released on the rape charge and placed on house arrest. He immediately resumed stalking Orozco. Neither Orozco nor her grandparents could file a protective order because Ruiz was younger than 18.
For days, Orozco lived in fear, calling police when her tire was slit or when she was being harassed or stalked, only to be told that nothing could be done – there was no proof.
Orozco remembers every detail of that day. It was a Monday. She had taken a balloon and birthday card to school for a favorite teacher who had been especially helpful and encouraging. After school, she visited with her grandmother and then walked out the front door of their home toward her car.
I had an uneasy feeling. Something was not right, Orozco said.
As Orozco was about to turn the key in the ignition, she saw Ruiz appeared from behind the garage, dressed completely in black.
All she could see were his eyes – those beautiful eyes that I used to love, she said.
She started to speed away, but it was too late.
Orozco spent months in the hospital and had numerous surgeries to reconstruct her lower face and jaw. She was constantly surrounded and supported by throngs of family, friends and strangers who had read her story in a series of articles that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
She went on to appear on 20/20, The Oprah Winfrey Show and The View with Vice President Biden. In October 2011, she was recognized as a Champion of Change by President Obama.
Orozco decided to become an advocate when a young man contacted her and she realized she could make a difference. The man told Orozco he had read the articles in the newspaper and they had changed his life.
I had to be convinced to do the story in the first place, but then this young man called me and said he had started the same abusive behavior with his former girlfriend after she broke up with him, Orozco said. He recognized himself in that story and decided to take a different path.
Ruiz was tried and convicted on multiple felony charges, including attempted murder and rape. At his trial, he cried and cried and said he had made a mistake and apologized, Orozco said.
His apology meant nothing, she said. I don’t hate him and I’m not angry, but he deserved what he got.
What he got was 27 years with no chance for parole.
Orozco worked for two years at the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center in Cleveland while continuing to travel and speak out against domestic violence, particularly among teens.
In August she married a wonderful man and tearfully noted that her husband is a soldier in the Army and was almost killed in Iraq.
We are both survivors, Orozco said.