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People stare as Peter Spitz feels his way into the restaurant. They're not looking at him, exactly. What they see is not the man, but the dark glasses, the white cane, the gadget in his throat and the oxygen tube snaking into his backpack.
He settles into a booth, listens to the menu options, orders a meal. To his relief, the waitress is attentive but not overbearing, gently asking if he's right-handed before setting down his drink. He begins to relax.
"I'm way more patient than I used to be," he says. "You don't have a choice when you're blind. Well-meaning people treat you like you're retarded. And since you can't drive, you're always waiting. My time in line has increased a hundredfold."
A 49-year-old ex-Marine, Spitz has undergone extensive rehabilitation and training since he lost his sight six years ago. He's learned how to navigate public transportation and the health-care system, often working with his devoted guide dog, a German shepherd named Jersey. He spends a lot of time online, keeping informed about the world, and is active in his church. He's taken advanced self-defense classes and even done some assisted target shooting, keeping his groupings as tight as possible. But even though he seems at ease in public, stepping outside of his usual routine and places — to a new restaurant, for example — makes him feel a bit vulnerable.
"I'm still not comfortable leaving my apartment very often," he says. "I don't go out as much as I should."
The health struggles, the isolation, the anxiety that Spitz feels out in public and the violent nightmares he battles in bed — it's all a very different world from the one he formerly inhabited. He was once a proud family man with a young wife, Teresa, a new baby and a revered mother who doted on her grandchildren.
It was all taken away in moments. Early one morning in 2004, Teresa shot Spitz in the face as he slept in their Englewood home, then killed his 78-year-old mother. By the time Spitz woke up in the hospital, his wife was in jail on murder charges. His son, known here as Lee (Spitz asked that his real name not be published), had been turned over to temporary guardians. And Spitz was blind.Watch video of Peter Spitz describe that night in his own words.
The case drew headlines, in part because Spitz became Teresa's most ardent defender. He refused to cooperate with her prosecution, insisting that she deserved psychiatric treatment, not prison. He told reporters he hoped that the couple would be reunited some day. His stance outraged some family members and alienated old friends. An Arapahoe County jury found Teresa Spitz not guilty by reason of insanity, but there were plenty of people who thought her husband was the crazy one.
Strange as the trial was, the events that followed were even more bizarre. Committed to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, Spitz's wife soon divorced him and legally changed her name to Teresa Lynn. Officials there claim that she's made remarkable progress in a relatively short time; they're now seeking greater privileges for her, including unsupervised trips off-grounds and more time with her son. Spitz believes his ex isn't ready for more freedom and has joined her prosecutors in objecting to the move. He's particularly concerned about her contact with Lee, which has troubled him ever since he discovered that she'd attempted to harm her child just weeks before she shot her husband and her mother-in-law.
"I was really surprised at how quickly they're moving her through the system," Spitz says. "If there's even a one-in-ten chance that she'll reoffend, that's unacceptable. You're talking about my son."
At the moment, though, Teresa Lynn has more access to their son than Spitz himself does. The legal guardianship calls for Spitz to have up to four visits a month with Lee, but he hasn't been allowed any visits for the past six months — because of clashes with the guardians over his son's care, he says. False allegations from his criminally insane ex-wife haven't helped.
"It's a difficult situation to explain," Spitz says. "I feel betrayed — not just by Teresa, but by the system. I understand it's not their job to fix me. But I don't understand why the court and the state hospital don't seriously consider how her actions have affected my son and me."
It's been a bitter education. Thanks in no small part to Spitz's own efforts, the woman who blinded him and killed his mother is no longer considered a criminal, but a patient. There's a social-service bureaucracy in place to guard her rights and try to bring her back to society — but the same machinery, Spitz contends, pays little or no attention to his concerns or his son's needs.
Peter Spitz is blind. Yet it's the people making critical decisions about his life who don't seem to see him.
Spitz never saw it coming. May 16, 2004, a week after Mother's Day, was a nearly perfect day, he recalls, a "great picket-fence family kind of day."