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Victim, 85, recalls ‘grotesque torture scenes’

Joan Aspinall received a diagnosis in autumn 2021 of takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition better known as broken heart syndrome.

The cause was an overload of adrenalin to her capillaries during a horrifying rape which took place in her home in Smith’s, after two masked men invaded the property, wielding a knife and demanding money.

Patients can make a full recovery from broken heart syndrome, with the right amount of rest and recuperation, but Joan, 85, says much more was broken that morning.

“The cruelty was so enormous,” she told The Royal Gazette. “I want people to know. I want the women of Bermuda to be alerted.”

She wasn’t supposed to be at home on the morning of October 19, 2021.

She and her husband were due to have Covid-19 booster shots, ahead of a planned trip to the United States.

But when Joan called to confirm their appointments, she was told there was no record and she must rebook.

Still in her nightwear, she lingered at her computer, e-mailing friends about their travel plans, before hearing male voices in the living room.

She went to see who was there and came across what she described in a piece she later wrote for investigators as an “apparition of evil”.

There were two men “dressed in black, wearing black helmets, heavy black masks over faces, plus tinted grey face shields, resembling those worn by riot police, that covered faces, and masks underneath, obscuring all facial recognition”.

The taller of the pair held an open-bladed knife in his gloved hand.

What followed, said Joan, were “grotesque torture scenes”. Two-and-a-half years later, she and her husband are still grappling with the physical, mental and financial repercussions.

The men were speaking to her husband, but their masks muffled the words. Eventually, it became clear that one was demanding: “Give us your numbers.”

Joan protested that the couple were out-of-work Bermudians.

One of the invaders went into their bedroom and returned, stuffing an item into his jacket. Joan pointed it out to her husband, prompting him to move towards the man. Then all hell broke loose.

“Both invaders pushed him on the floor,” Joan wrote. “He tried to protect himself as they beat his head, arms, and cut his face, one sitting on his legs as the other tied up his ankles with the copper belt he used for his back support.

“[My husband] protested not to tie one leg, as it was injured, but the attacker pulled even harder on the strap. He was completely immobilised.”

Joan searched for the couple’s credit cards, panicking inside but outwardly calm.

One of the men then pulled her into the bedroom and ransacked the drawers. Joan said he repeatedly mauled her breasts and placed both his hands around her neck, forcing his thumbs across her throat.

They returned to the living room, where she found two bankcards, but the robbers were not convinced they were the right ones.

The same man dragged her to the bedroom again, then the bathroom.

She believes he was going to torture her, using water. “He turned on the bathtub tap … Since we need a special rubber cap over the drain, the water flowed out. He turned the tap off, left the room.

“I quickly locked the door. Within minutes, with the force of an enraged bull, he banged and kicked so hard, he smashed the door in two. Reaching in, he grabbed my arm. I fell back against the concrete wall, injuring my head, neck tendons and shoulder.”

Back in the living room, she found a third card and gave its PIN to the robbers, but the ordeal was far from over.

In the piece she wrote, Joan said words could not describe the “cruelty exercised” and the pain from what followed after the man forced her back to the bedroom.

“After being fondled, strangled, stripped naked, I was brutally tortured by this sadistic creature.”

She described how he repeatedly pushed her legs apart and down onto the bed, causing excruciating pain.

“He ignored my screaming, which alerted my husband in the front room. When [my husband] reacted, the taller monster threatened he’d smash in his head with the golf club he held.”

Zywonde Lema, 21, pleaded guilty to robbery and burglary and was sentenced to 7½ years in jail last June.

In a victim impact statement read to the court during Lema’s sentencing hearing, Joan’s husband described how he was unable to do anything as he heard his wife’s screams.

“The screams have plagued my brain since,” he said, adding that he was haunted by the break-in and now had suspicion and distrust of others.

Joan said the man who dragged her into the bedroom inflicted “irrevocable damage to my hips and leg joints, by forcing them so far apart, it was far beyond human endurance.

“This debilitating condition has up to now crippled me when I walk more than 15 to 20 feet.

“I have to stop and wait for the pain to ease. He has destroyed any future life I may have had in walking, climbing the slightest inclines, tackling open parks and hills.”

The man carried out a serious sexual assault using a flashlight, during which Joan screamed for mercy. His mask slipped during the rape and she saw his “baby” face, later drawing it from memory for detectives.

“Abruptly, he stopped, then left. I swung my damaged body off the mattress, pulled on my shorts and top and walked back into the front room,” she wrote.

Her attacker had taken a large knife from the kitchen and left it on top of a bureau. Joan briefly hid it inside her blouse, contemplating using it on him.

Her husband indicated she shouldn’t and she handed it to him. When the invader realised the knife had gone from the bureau, he “exploded” and beat her husband.

Joan can’t remember what happened next; she believes the trauma of the rape led her to “blank out”.

Her husband later told her he was tortured. Cash and cards were stolen from his wallet and PINs were demanded.

When he refused to give them, Lema poured bleach into a shirt and forced it over his face, covering his mouth and his nose. His glasses saved his eyesight.

The robbers finally left with the bankcards, as well as cash from the couple’s safe, which the husband was forced to open.

Joan, who was 83 when the attack happened, was airlifted to the Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts.

Medics feared she was having a heart attack, but it was later determined to be takotsubo cardiomyopathy. That temporary condition was the least of her injuries.

The rapist had torn the muscles inside her thighs, causing internal bleeding and agonising pain as she lay in her hospital bed.

Joan continues to suffer severe pain and physical difficulties. She and her husband live in fear, never going out at night and always keeping doors locked and curtains drawn after dark.

A usually active person, who barely considered herself a senior, Joan said: “The worst thing is that I’m still crippled. I can’t walk properly. He has physically ruined my body.”

The couple are also saddled with debt from the cost of the emergency medical treatment. She said the whole ordeal cost them $80,000.

The trial of a 48-year-old man charged with serious sexual assault, robbery and aggravated burglary began in the Supreme Court last Monday.

A judge ordered verdicts of not guilty on all charges after Joan told the court that the accused’s face was not that of the man who raped her.

Darrin Simons, the Commissioner of Police, said the decisions to prosecute were made with “substantial evidence of each suspect's role” and the matter was now closed.

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