In the 15 years since Carolyn Thomas’ drugged-out, abusive boyfriend blew off the majority of her face with a .44 Magnum revolver and killed her mother, the Waco woman has become a leading inspiration in the war against domestic violence.

A magazine writer once called Thomas the woman without a face. However, through her incredible will to survive, after enduring 15 surgeries to rebuild her face and devoting her life to helping others, Thomas has become one of the most recognizable faces of domestic violence in the country.

After her story was told by the Tribune-Herald, Thomas twice appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” had multiple appearances on “Larry King Live” and was featured in People magazine and dozens of other publications. She and her team of doctors were featured in a 2006 documentary on the Discovery Health Channel called “Plastic Surgery Before and After: Reconstructing Carolyn Thomas.”

With Thomas facing more surgeries in December and March, Mary Glynn, a Waco native and California-based film and television producer who wrote and directed the first Discovery Health Channel documentary, wants to produce a follow-up piece updating Thomas’ life over the past dozen years.

Thomas, who still lives in Waco, formerly worked at Fuzzy Friends animal shelter and works now at Mosaic, a nonprofit that cares for people with special needs. She recently returned from Nashville, Tennessee, where she spoke to the district attorney’s office crime victims’ unit, and is asked regularly to speak to domestic violence groups around the country.

Her speaking engagements increase in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“It is very rewarding for me,” Thomas said. “I feel wonderful, especially when people come up to me and say they left their boyfriend or they left their abusive husband because of something I said. They tell me how strong I am. But most people want to ask me what kind of person Oprah is. That is always the first question. Once, somebody asked me if Oprah smells like lavender.”

When she is not speaking, Thomas, 48, said she tries to put something inspirational on her Facebook page and still maintains her nonprofit organization, Voices4All, which assists victims of violence.

In the last month, Facebook blocked some photos Thomas put up showing her face before her surgeries. The social media website deemed the pictures too graphic, Thomas said.

Eighty percent of Thomas’ face literally was blown off by her former boyfriend, Terrence Dewaine Kelly, who shot her with what prosecutor Crawford Long described at the time as a “hand-held cannon.”

Long, who has since retired, remembers the case well. He said the photos of Thomas were so gruesome that he introduced them into evidence, put them in an envelope and told jurors they could look at the photos if they chose to. At least two jurors told him after Kelly was sentenced to two life prison terms that they wished they had not seen the photos.

“Those pictures are so bad,” Long said. “The case was a bit unusual because the jury was really all over her after it was over. They wanted to come over and talk to Carolyn and they were really impressed with her. Of course, she had horrible injuries. For somebody who suffered such horrible injuries to go on and make a life for themselves, especially after losing her mother in the same incident, is something that is inspiring to people.”

Long recalled the testimony of the emergency room doctor, a Vietnam veteran who had seen all kinds of horrific injuries. He said Thomas’ injuries were the worst he had seen for someone who survived.

“For her to suffer so much trauma in her life, to lose her mother and suffer such a severe injury herself, and to not just carry around those horrible physical scars but also the emotional ones and to not let that destroy her, there are an awful lot of people who just couldn’t do that,” Long said.

It was Dec. 5, 2003. Waco police officer Kermit Graham and his partner were the first to arrive at the apartment after receiving calls of shots fired. They found Thomas’ mother, Janice Reeves, lying outside, the victim of a gunshot wound. She was dead. Graham saw Thomas lying on the floor, her face gone, and he assumed she was dead.

Graham did not know if the shooter was still inside the small apartment, so he and his partner looked around to make sure he was not still there. As he walked by Thomas, she reached for him, trying to grab his ankle. The officer, a former combat veteran with 20 years in the Army, jumped back, badly shaken by the experience.

At Kelly’s trial 16 months later, Graham became emotional describing the incident, obviously still unsettled by Thomas reaching out for his help and the grisly scene.

“She didn’t have a face. I have been in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait. It was the worst I had ever seen. I was shocked and said, ‘she can’t be alive.’ It was kind of amazing that she could rise up, sort of like one of those scary TV shows,” said Graham, who retired this month after 20 years with the Waco Police Department.

Graham attended Thomas’ annual event last week to honor the memory of her mother and to increase awareness of domestic violence.

“She has been doing a lot of speeches and talks to other victims, and I think she is doing a great job with what she is doing,” Graham said. “She is very committed, and I wanted to go last week because I felt it was my way of supporting her in what she is doing. It touched me and made me feel that women need to be more informed about family violence and dating violence. I have seen a lot of family violence as a police officer, and it is something I can get behind. I wish her the best and I hope she keeps doing what she is doing.”

Glynn, the documentary producer, said with Thomas’ upcoming surgeries to replace bones in her nasal area that were used to rebuild her face, she thought it was the perfect time to update the documentary, which she said will be called “Facing Forward: Carolyn Thomas 15 Years Later.”

The project has a $175,000 budget and she has set up a GoFundMe page for Carolyn at https://www.gofundme.com/carolyn-thomas-documentary-2019. The update documentary will air online during Domestic Violence Awareness month in October 2019, Glynn said. Copies of the project will be provided to women’s groups, shelters and domestic violence organizations all over the country, she said.

“In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we continue to see issues involving sexual assault, consent, control and women’s empowerment, and I think Carolyn’s story embodies all of these concerns,” Glynn said. “Not much has changed in 15 years. So now is the time to shed light on these issues, and that is the motivation behind the update documentary.”

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

Recommended for you