Paralyzed in Paradise

Heather Grossman tells a classic tale of domestic abuse. She says her husband John spit in her face, slapped her, tossed garbage on her bed, threw bags of dog feces at her, smeared food on her face, locked her in a bedroom away from her children, threatened the kids and called them names. When she forgot to buy John's favorite red licorice or chocolate-covered soy nuts, she says, he screamed for hours.

"Every morning I would cry. Every night I would cry. He would come and yell at me in the morning. The kids left a box of cereal out, or the dog got in the garbage," Heather recalls.

"I ran this house... I took care of the kids, ran the kids by myself. Took calls for John, I took care of errands for John. I did anything to try to keep him happy, and nothing did. Nothing did."

She would have walked away, Heather says. If she could have.

The twist on this classic is that Heather Grossman is a quadriplegic paralyzed from the neck down. She relies on a team of round-the-clock nurses to tend to her every need, from her breathing to her bowels.

Because she is unable to move, let alone physically defend herself, the abuse by her husband is even more serious in the eyes of the law. Nurses have witnessed it; the police have documented it.

John Grossman won't talk about his relationship with Heather. Through his attorney, Fred Petti, he denies all charges of abuse.

John was trained to take care of her when a nurse was not present. But Heather alleges he often didn't that he refused to suction mucus from her lungs, that he crammed food into her mouth, stabbed her with a fork, left her unattended for dangerously long periods of time.

When Heather complained to John, she says he threatened to send her children to foster care and put her in a nursing home, where, he assured her, she would be sexually abused.

The threat of a nursing home had weight. Heather's in-home medical care alone costs more than $250,000 a year, and John's millionaire father foots the bill. Estranged from her parents, with no money of her own, Heather says she had no choice but to endure the abuse. Her nurses eventually told the Paradise Valley Police Department, which launched an extensive investigation. Initially, like many victims, Heather and her children denied the abuse. But Heather finally got in touch with her parents -- calling them in secret with a nurse's help, in the dark so surveillance cameras wouldn't tip John off. She was able to have John removed from the house and file for divorce.

Last December, the police turned over a 1,000-plus-page report to the Maricopa County Attorney, recommending multiple felony charges against John. Detective Michael Cole, who has 14 years' experience in law enforcement, says it's the most detailed case he's ever worked on, one of the best substantiated -- and "one of the most egregious."

Paradise Valley only recommended felony charges in instances where what Heather and the kids told the cops was corroborated by third parties.

But in March, the county attorney declined prosecution, giving the police a flat turn down, without a request for more information. In April, County Attorney Rick Romley made headlines with a much-touted report on Child Protective Services and his contentions that abuse of children should not be tolerated.

Heather's parents have given the County Attorney's Office additional lists of witnesses. They've written to Governor Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard. Napolitano's office offered referrals to victims' rights groups, but otherwise they've gotten no response.

The Paradise Valley police have the option of filing misdemeanor charges in city court, but both the cops and Heather feel the alleged abuse warrants harsher punishment for John Grossman.

Time is running out. The statute of limitations for filing charges is one year; the last incident of alleged abuse was June 2, 2002.

Ralph and Florence Stephens, Heather's parents, say the abuse was close to deadly, that the stress of the situation alone was too much for Heather to endure. When they arrived in Paradise Valley last year, their 5'5" daughter weighed 93 pounds. Her blood pressure was soaring and she'd had pneumonia twice.

"When she called me," Florence remembers, "she said, Mom, I'm not going to last a year.'"

Florence Stephens had already watched romance apparently lead to tragedy once in her daughter's life.

Heather's first husband, Ron Samuels, has been charged with orchestrating the shooting that left her a quadriplegic and almost killed her.

In October 1997, Heather stood before a judge in Boca Raton, Florida, and told him that her ex-husband was going to kill her. For years, Heather had been embroiled in an ugly custody battle with Samuels. Recently, she had been getting death threats and hang-ups by phone at her home, which she shared with her three children and new husband, John Grossman.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.