Just a freshman in her second semester, Teresa Spagna was lying in bed in her Creighton dorm, quietly listening to music before she went to sleep.
She rose to get a hairband from her dresser when a stranger, 19-year-old Christopher Wheeler, barged into her room. Clearly drunk, he started asking where “Dana” was.
Spagna told him that she didn’t know a Dana. Wheeler scanned the room, walking slowly around it.
“Maybe you have the wrong room,” she said.
As she walked behind him toward her door — to “lock it after he left” — Wheeler turned around and slashed a knife across her neck.
Her throat cut, Spagna grabbed her neck, sure she was going to die.
“The look he gave me was so sinister and purposeful,” Spagna recalled Wednesday.
In one swipe, Wheeler forever changed Spagna’s life — leaving a “big scar” across her throat, and her psyche. Spagna said she sees the four-inch scar in the mirror every day, and thinks about it even more often.
After recounting the ordeal, Spagna asked Judge Shelly Stratman to impose justice, noting that Pope John Paul once said “justice is just as important as mercy.”
Stratman sentenced Wheeler to 30 days in jail, followed by five years of probation. Wheeler, who had no record, had faced up to 20 years in prison. A probation officer had recommended 60 days in jail, followed by five years of probation.
Stratman said she struggled to balance the “extremely violent” act that Wheeler committed with his lack of a criminal record — and the fact that, by all accounts, he was drunk and high at the time of the crime.
Before imposing the sentence, the judge lambasted Wheeler for portraying himself as a victim. Wheeler’s defense had blamed the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity for hazing Wheeler and other former pledges.
Stratman noted that Wheeler had used a fake identification to purchase vodka that day and had taken several hits off of a bong.
“Mr. Wheeler — you are not a victim,” Stratman said. “You are responsible for your actions, whether you remember them or not.”
After this incident and others, Creighton University suspended the fraternity — and its building has since been razed.
Wheeler’s attorney, Steve Lefler, said his client’s actions won’t be repeated and were a one-time consequence of the cocktail of alcohol and marijuana.
“He really is a gentle giant,” Lefler said.
Said Wheeler: “It is difficult to put into words how awful I feel. I am so sorry to you and your family.”
Lefler had asked if Wheeler could turn and address Spagna directly. However, Spagna said she didn’t want Wheeler to look her in the face for fear that it would remind her of that night.
The night after the attack, Spagna said she was afraid to turn out her lights — and didn’t fall asleep until the sun came up.
Months after the attack, Spagna went back to the dormitory with her counselor. She said she had to stop and collect herself so much that the trip to her room took 40 minutes. Even now, anxiety sets in and her heart races when she passes the dorm, Gallagher Hall.
The attack has affected her family, too. Her big sister often gets weepy when she glances at the scar across her baby sister’s throat. Her dad fought off tears Wednesday as his daughter recounted the ordeal. Her mother spoke of the betrayal of sending her youngest daughter off to her first year of freedom — only to have her sense of trust and security shattered.
The sentence didn’t seem to satisfy many. Wheeler’s mother doubled over in tears — and later decried the “waste of taxpayers’ money” jailing Wheeler for a month. She also criticized the judge for suggesting that her son didn’t take enough responsibility for his actions.
Spagna’s family told prosecutors that they appreciated the judge’s thoughtfulness but were disappointed in the jail sentence.
Sixteen months after the attack, Spagna said she sometimes hides the scar because of the questions that follow. She’s working to get better, but she wonders how it will affect her dating, even her wedding day.
“I’m still self-conscious of my scar,” Spagna said. “I’m still scared — still scared of him.
“He has placed my life under a constant blanket of fear.”