Long road to recovery
Mail bomb victim shares story of courage, inspiration
April 07, 2010Editor's note: This is the third in a series on the life-changing experiences of Charlene Castle. Charlene was a victim in one of the biggest news stories ever to hit Capac when she was severely injured in a bomb sent through the mail in February, 1995 to ANR Pipeline where she was employed. The bomb was sent by Charlene's ex-husband, Lawrence Dell, while they were in the process of divorce. Charlene is sharing her story in hopes of inspiring other women in abusive relationships to find their inner strength and make changes.
Charlene Dell is stunned. She's going into shock. A package addressed to her at work just exploded in her face. Shocked co-workers race to her side and wait for help.
Paramedics arrive and work quickly. Charlene knows the situation is not good—she can tell by their comments and actions. She's severely burned and bleeding profusely from shrapnel wounds—a femoral artery was hit. She's going into
shock when paramedics roll her over to cut away what's left of her clothing. Through the fog of pain she's struck with a funny, honest thought.
"Here I am in this huge mess but I remember feeling paranoid because my co-workers were there and I thought 'oh my God, they're gonna see me," she says, referring to her clothes being cut away.
Charlene's rushed to an ambulance and she starts praying hard. She knows her time is growing short. "Stay with us, stay with us," the paramedics urge. She hears them talk back and forth. Charlene vaguely recalls the ambulance stopping on I-69—she's not sure if they stopped to work on her to keep her alive or to transfer her to another ambulance. Whatever it is, she's praying hard. "Please don't let my babies lose their mom," she says. Once again, she's comforted by a voice.
|Charlene’s little daughter Jaylene, 2, helps her mom celebrate at a surprise birthday party hosted by Charlene’s ANR Pipeline co-workers on April 29, 1995, two months after the bombing.|
"It said 'hush child and rest,'" Charlene recalls, noting that the incident was like an out-of-body experience. "Again I felt warm and thought 'I'm gonna make it.'"
Charlene recalls thinking she'll be safe at last—as long as she can hang on. Even before the investigation begins she knows who sent the bomb.
"I'm thinking 'you can't fool anybody any more, Larry. They've got you now,'" Charlene says. "I was comforted in knowing now that he'd done something he couldn't get out of, that people would see him for what he was."
She's right about that. Within a week Lawrence Dell is in custody. It turns out his effort to cover his tracks by sending bombs to ANR locations in Big Rapids, Reed City and Muttonville, an unmanned station, leads investigators right to his doorstep. There was nothing left of the bomb that exploded in Charlene's office.
ATF agents explain that the pipe bomb was set end-to-end and surrounded by six cans of ether. It was wired with a bottle rocket engine in a unique way, agents point out.
"It was wired to go off no matter which way I would have opened (the package," Charlene says. "The pipe was scored and the reason they score them is so that when it blows it, it blows into shrapnel like razor blade pieces, spinning and cutting."
She remembers the agent's simple explanation: "It was basically designed to obliterate you," he says.
Fortunately, again, Dell's plans failed.
It takes a year for the case to reach trial. Dell denies, denies, denies any involvement. His defense attorneys assert that Charlene mailed the bombs herself to make him look bad in the year-long divorce court struggle. After a two week trial, Dell is found guilty in January of 1996. On February 12, 1996 he is sentenced to life in prison for sending an incendiary device and 40-80 years for attempted murder.
Charlene's struggles are far from over. While she goes through skin grafts, surgeries, physical therapy and more surgeries, the divorce case winds slowly to a close. The Lapeer County judge rules that the bombing incident can't be used as evidence. She's told that anything either party does after the date the divorce action is filed cannot be used in the case. Charlene is ordered to pay Dell $30,000 as part of the divorce settlement.
Of all the things she goes through—including the equivalent of a war zone—this is what bothers Charlene the most.
"The laws need to be changed," she says. "It is unbelievable that criminal intent cannot be used as evidence."
The bomb that explodes in Charlene's office and dismantles her physical body was powerful enough to move the walls out five inches; it raised the roof three inches and blew the furnace out the back of the building. It is also a catalyst for reuniting Charlene with her powerful inner strength. She learns she's strong enough to conquer indescribable pain and the prospect that her appearance will be permanently altered.
"I almost passed out the first time I saw myself in the mirror," she says. "But I wanted to see what I looked like so I could also see improvement. I had to get better. I had kids."
Charlene was told she'd probably never regain use of her left hand. Wrong. She was told it would be at least two to three years before she'd be able to return to work. Wrong again. She was told she'd walk with a limp. Not.
"I didn't want people telling me what I could and couldn't do," Charlene says with a grin. "I'd already had enough of that. Anything they told me I couldn't do, I made sure I could."
Charlene returned to work in January of 1996—less than a year later. Though she still had to face Dell's trial, Charlene says friends like Rich and Denise Shipman of Imlay City, Dee Ann Kinsey, Debra Schenk, all her family members—immediate and extended, Nancy Dutcher, Heather Hayes, Karen and Norbert Brinker, Joe Walker and other ANR co-workers, and of course Dennis Castle—offered help and encouragement every step of the way.
"They were all telling me it doesn't matter what you look like, you're still you to us," she says.
Many of those friends had been with her throughout the 12 month ordeal of leaving Lawrence Dell, encouraging and protecting her during child visitation meetings and unwelcome accusations and harassment from Dell.
Dennis also helped Charlene build her self-esteem. This changes her life, her outlook and bolsters her strength to fight for happy, good life for herself and her kids.
"He was like, 'you don't let people do this to you, you stand up for yourself,'" Charlene says.
Coupled with extensive counseling, Charlene learned to let go of her fear and start expressing her feelings. Her friendship with Dennis blossomed from there, and today they are happily married.
The road to recovery was a rough one. As she lay in the hospital hooked up to tubes the story is all over tv. Local stations, CNN, whatever channel she turns to it's right in her face and it's all wrong. They're twisting the story into some sort of sordid love triangle...the year long divorce battle with the perpetrator takes a back seat. Charlene is aghast and feels victimized all over again. It really hurts. She refuses to talk to any media. She won't allow herself to be so wounded again. She doesn't trust reporters who don't care enough to get the facts straight and she's still reeling from everything that's happened, determined to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
Editor's note: Charlene Castle is grateful to many people who've helped her along the way, including her friends who have passed—Maryann Ruzycki, Marilyn Hofert and Sandy Dotson-Green. Her 'attitude of gratitude' extends to so many it's impossible to list them all. But each day she expresses her thanks for all of the blessings such supportive people brought her.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.