By Daniel Silliman
Owens Marcellus Adams, III, would like to see Shaquille O'Neil.
Adams is 11, and autistic, and the seven-foot-one basketball player is his idol. Since he rode in an ambulance to Atlanta and flew in a plane to Ohio, it seems like anything could happen, and the thing he would like to happen most is to see Shaquille O'Neil.
When his mother asked the 11-year-old Jonesboro boy what he wanted, as he lay in a bed at the burn trauma center in a Cincinnati children's' hospital, he asked for Shaq.
When Owens Marcellus Adams, III, isn't watching, his mother weeps. She doesn't want to cry in front of him, she says. She wants to be strong. But when he isn't watching, she screams and cries, and she says this is, "something like you just never felt that you would go through."
This is Lashaunda Ridley's nightmare.
On the phone from the Cincinnati Shriner's Hospital for Children, a tall beige building built in the Art Deco style, Ridley says this twice. "This is like my worst nightmare," she says. "His flesh was hanging off of him. His body was just scalded. It was like, red all over. This is my worst nightmare."
It began when Ridley, a single mother, was on her way to church on Dec. 30. Her son, nicknamed O.J., was spending the weekend with his father, Owens Marcellus Adams, II, like he does twice a month. It was about 9:45 a.m., or maybe she was late and it was 10, she says, and the older Adams called.
She remembers the phone call like this:
"Hello?" she said.
"Something happened," he said.
"Is everything OK?"
"No," he said.
"Is O.J. OK?" she asked, and when he started to explain what had happened, she thought to herself, "O.J. is dead."
Owens Marcellus Adams, II, said he was running the bath water in his College Park home, and the water was too hot, but he didn't know that. He left the faucet on, pouring water into the tub, and he went to the kitchen to cook breakfast. He said he was in the other room and the 11-year-old boy jumped into the tub.
On the phone he said, "Our son jumped in the hot water."
The water was too hot, scalding hot. The water burned Owens Marcellus Adams, III, on his back and buttocks, groin and thighs, ankles and feet. The 11-year-old autistic boy was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital, and the doctors say he had third degree burns all over his lower body.
Ridley, who works at Grady pushing wheelchairs, met her son there and she pushed his wheelchair to the burn trauma center. She tried not to cry and scream, because she wanted Owens Marcellus Adams, III, to think his mother was strong, but the little boy's skin was burned and hanging off his body.
The older Adams met them there, and the autistic boy said to his father, "Why did you do this to me, dad? Why did you do this?"
Ridley wept. There are two things, she says, that her son doesn't like. One is the bath. The other is heat. The older Adams said the boy ran and jumped into the hot water, but that doesn't make sense, she says.
She says, "I don't believe you," even though she never thought her ex-husband would burn his son on purpose. Even though she doesn't know how anyone could be that angry.
"It's something that I would of never thought," Ridley says.
But her boy, her O.J., he tells her he wet the bed, while sleeping at his father's house. He tells her his dad got mad and punished him, throwing him into the bath tub of almost-boiling water.
"I don't understand," says Ridley on the phone in a hospital with her sleeping son, "how a person can be that angry."
Owens Marcellus Adams, II, stayed with his son and ex-wife, in the hospital, for two days, until, Ridley says, she couldn't stand it anymore and she threw him out.
Fulton County Police, after investigating a report from the Department of Family and Children Services, arrested Owens Marcellus Adams, II, on Wednesday and charged him with cruelty to children and aggravated battery. Police say he burned the boy to punish him for wetting the bed.
If convicted, Owens Marcellus Adams, II, faces a maximum possible sentence of 40 years in prison.
The 11-year-old boy was flown to the Ohio hospital for surgery. As he breathed through a tube Thursday morning, doctors scraped off the burns on his back and buttocks, groin and thighs, legs, ankles and feet. He's going to have to have skin grafts on 16 percent of his body. He's going to have to return to the hospital in three months, again in 10 months, and again in a year, Ridley says.
The autistic boy is going to have to return to the Shriner's hospital in Cincinnati every year until he is 18, and is, legally, a man.
The hospital is treating Owens Marcellus Adams, III, for free, but Ridley still doesn't know how she's going to pay the bills. The ambulance ride, she says, cost $500. She borrowed money from her brother to rent a car and drive to the hospital, and now she's not working, she says, because she's sitting in a room in the burn unit at a hospital in Ohio.
"It's rough," she says, "being a single parent. He has a trust account, set up in his name only, but there's nothing in it."
She laughs, but it sounds like weeping.
When Owens Marcellus Adams, III, wakes up from the surgery, on Thursday afternoon, his mother asks him what he wants. Is there anything, anything in the world he would like.
He would like, he says, to see Shaquille O'Neil.
To contribute to Owens Marcellus Adams, III, medical expenses, make a donation in his name at the Atlanta Postal Credit Union, 3900 Crown Road, in Atlanta. (404) 768-4126.