Back in 1991, father ROBERT FORTNEY, JR. gunned down his wife, then committed suicide. He left a 3-year-old child behind. At 22, the former 3-year-old is now all grown-up. A poignant reminder that long after the headlines fade, the effects of domestic violence linger with the child victims.
July 12, 2009
After 18 years, Paige Quiggins still copes with the tragic loss of her parents
By Katya Cengelkcengel@courier-journal.com
A high school teacher gunned down by her estranged husband in the Cherokee Triangle.
It's a headline you don't forget, especially if you reported on it, as Jackie Hays of WAVE-TV did.
It was January 1991, and the awful story of Pam and Robert Fortney Jr. kept getting worse: the spousal abuse the law couldn't stop; the husband's suicide; the little girl left behind. That 3-year-old captured Hays' attention: a girl about the same age as her own two daughters.
A girl whose photo was placed on her mother's coffin.
"And of course, you start thinking, 'Does that kid have a chance?'" Hays recalls.
Seventeen years later, Hays was having lunch with her newest mentee, a communications major at the University of Louisville, when a question came up about the girl's mother. Paige Quiggins responded that Hays might remember the situation from the news. It was then that Hays realized that the child orphaned by the tragedy was the young woman sitting in front of her.
The little girl had not only survived, she had thrived.
Christina Aguilera's song "Fighter" fills Paige Quiggins' apartment near the UofL campus. Paige sings along with the former bad girl of pop, her own voice, deep and low.
"After all you put me through
You'd think I'd despise you
But in the end I wanna thank you
'Cause you made me that much stronger "
It's a theme song she returns to whenever she's angry or upset.
"It kind of reminds me of my life," she said. "It kind of reminds me of my dad."
She is 22 and lives in Old Louisville with a bunny, miniature hamster, chinchilla — and memories of the dead. There are the flowers from her maternal grandfather's grave — a man who was like a father to her — a dried flower from the funeral of a childhood friend.
And then there are her mother's paintings, pictures and belongings. Paige empties a small red clasp purse, the one her mother was carrying when she was killed. One by one she catalogs the contents. Eye drops — "she had allergies." Bright pink blush — "I can't remember a time I saw my mom put something that color on." And blue and pink eye shadow — "My mom was a very fashionable lady."
A large painting of a woman and child hangs above the mantel, a piece done by her mother decades ago. Another of her mother's paintings hangs in the bathroom, a stream of blueberries. The paintings, Paige said, "kind of keep her alive to me."
It was only recently, however, that the woman Paige calls Mom, her maternal aunt Pat Quiggins, decided she was ready for a different keepsake: a scrapbook filled with the newspaper accounts detailing the abuse her mother suffered at her father's hands. They chronicle how Paige's reportedly mentally ill father stopped taking his medication. They tell of restraining orders designed to keep Robert Fortney far away from Pam — one of which was in effect when her mother was killed. And they cover the criminal warrant that her mother tried, but failed, to obtain.
Paige knows it all now. She knows that her father ran her mother's car off the road after her mother had dropped her off at day care. He also shot her twice in the back with a sawed off semi-automatic rifle then turned her over and shot her twice more before turning the weapon on himself.
She doesn't hate her father, she says, because it is hard to hate someone who was mentally ill. But it is also hard to look at pictures of the man who took away her mother. And even harder to visit his grave, something she has never done.
In a way, losing her parents the way she did put her at an advantage, says Paige.
"It's like not very much else can hurt me; it's like I'm kind of invincible."
Sitting in a nearby chair is one of her closest friends, Meghan Steinberg, a cancer survivor. Last Christmas, Paige helped Steinberg deliver presents to children in the hospital as part of a program Steinberg has set up.
"She's been through so much," Steinberg said. "But she doesn't let that stop her; she uses that to do things better and to help those that are less fortunate."
In cases like Paige's, how well children fare largely depends on how supportive their new family environment is and whether they received therapy, said Robert Geffner, president of both the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Institute in San Diego and Alliant International University's Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma.
Pat Quiggins and her parents — Paige's grandparents — stepped in to raise her.
Not long after the deaths, Pat remembers asking Paige if there was anything of her mother's that she wanted.
"She wanted to sleep with her nightgown, because she had always slept with her mother and it still had her smell on it," she said.
Paige continued to see a therapist she started seeing with her mother after her parents separated. Soon she had a serious question: "Why did he do it?"
"And she was a 3-year-old kid; what do you say to a kid like that?" said Pat. "You can't. I said, 'I don't understand it either.'"
Robert's older sister, Deborah Stewart, said she tried to do everything she could to stem her brother's mental condition, even attempting to admit him to a hospital. "There is no containing someone who is mad," she said.
Stewart, who lives in Old Louisville not far from Paige, remembered her brother as being bipolar. She keeps an album, meant for Paige, in which his students at Atherton High School wrote about the man they knew.
"And the man they knew was a wonderful person; the man they knew was totally different than this man that took his life and her mother's life," Stewart said.
She isn't sure if Paige will ever want it. Although she sends Paige cards and presents, she has kept her distance, respecting the court order that Stewart said granted custody of Paige to her maternal family and denied visitation to her paternal family. But she hears about her and knows she is doing well.
As Paige matures, there may be triggers — relationships, motherhood — that bring back memories she will need to re-examine, said Geffner. Paige herself acknowledges she has a problem with males yelling at her and that her current boyfriend won't even raise his voice with her, she says, because it upsets her and "kind of brings back flashbacks of bad things that have happened."
The memories are not just from newspaper clippings. She remembers when her father tried to choke her mother. She remembers the time he ripped the telephone off the wall. And she remembers how scary it was when he discovered the latest safe home where they would try to hide from him. But she also remembers the people who helped: the women's shelter, preschool classmates who showed special kindnesses and distant relatives who sent presents at Christmas.
She plans to do that by becoming an investigative reporter who solves problems. While she wants to work in television, if that doesn't happen she is open to other media, so long as she is able to help people, because, she says, "If people hadn't done that for me, maybe I would be different."
Passionate and enthusiastic, she's well on her way. Her story in the school paper about a meal plan UofL was going to impose on undergraduates — including commuters — that would cost at least $250 a semester, sparked interest from other Louisville media outlets. Students organized protests in response. The meal plan fee has since been reduced — and Paige is now an editor at The Louisville Cardinal newspaper.
A senior at UofL, she is making A's, working as an intern at WAVE and has a job as a waitress.
"She's just so driven to do well in spite of her past," said Hays, the WAVE anchor.
"A lot of people have gone out of their way to help me through all my hard times," she says. "I want to kind of give back."