SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — In southwest Utah, not far from the natural wonders of Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Aaron Dodd Bardsley is enthralled by the scenery in her figurative backyard.
“It just fills my heart with joy to see so much beauty,“ she said, gazing outside.
For most of her life, April has lived here. “I see God in Nature, I feel peace, I feel love … I feel at home,” she said.
This is her life now but, in 1962, KPIX news captured a very different reality for a much younger woman whose name at the time was April Aaron.
Old headlines and newsfilm tell a frightening story: “Park Terror,” “Vicious Slashing,” “Prayers Versus a Ripper.”
At age 22, April Aaron, who lived with her family in the city’s Outer Sunset district, was horribly injured in a brutal attack.
“I was going to a church dance,” she remembers.
The dance was at her church, a Mormon Chapel on Hayes Street.
“We had gone to Disneyland over the last few days and we had gotten home late and I had lost my ride who I usually go with and so I decided to take the bus,” April said.
She got off the bus at Masonic and crossed the Golden Gate Park panhandle — her church was just a few blocks away.
“All of a sudden I realized that I was being followed,” she remembered.
From behind her, she heard a man’s voice, saying “come here babe.”
“I just started running,” April continued. “I ran as fast as I could. He chased me for a block and a half and then he caught me just a couple of doors down from the church and that’s when he started slashing me with a butcher knife.
“I ended up lying on the ground with 11 major cuts, 9 into the bone. I lost an eye … almost lost an arm and a leg,” she recalled.
That night, back at home, the Aaron household was getting ready to go to bed.
“I had gone up to my bedroom and mom went up to hers and then dad came home and then the phone rang” remembered April’s sister, Melissa Aaron Ridenour.
Melissa and her brother Scott could see from the look on their parents’ faces that something was terribly wrong.
“The next day when I woke up, the feeling around the house was much different than what it was the night before,” Scott Aaron recalls. “I remember just feeling this heaviness.”
The knife used in the attack on April Aaron was razor sharp. As to the attacker’s motive: at first, newspapers reported it as a violent robbery but the police thought different.
“It seemed like he was just crazy and that’s what they called him, they called him the ‘mad man,'” April said. “There wasn’t any purpose to it, really.”
April needed a prosthetic eye. Doctors told her that she would never walk again.
Now, a previously-undisclosed detail: while April was recovering in the hospital, she received unsigned letters from her assailant, threatening to kill her.
“I hate you. I’m tired of seeing you in the headlines. The next time you’re in the headlines will be your death,” said April, recalling the letters’ content.
Law enforcement officers stood guard at her door.
A police sketch derived from witnesses’ descriptions depicted the suspect as a young black man.
Officers questioned young black men around the city and that stoked racial tensions.
No one was arrested.
“I was so frightened,” April says of that time. “So frightened.”
The situation grew tense and, one night, her father, a devout Mormon, snapped. He said they were going to buy guns and find — then kill — the man who hurt her.
“When he said that, my heart. broke,” said April, her eyes filling with tears.
“My family is so important to me as I’ve mentioned before. Such a close family that all I could think of is ‘what is happening to my family?'”
Then April had an epiphany, a revelation.
“I was able to forgive [the attacker] and I said ‘Dad, we have to forgive this man! Vengence is in God’s hands not ours,'” April said.
“She set the path for the whole family,” said her sister Melissa.
Her message of forgiveness hit all the papers.
During a police lineup, April recognized a voice but not the face. She refused to make a positive ID
“I wasn’t going to send someone to prison that I wasn’t sure was the one — I just couldn’t do it,” April said.
When she left the hospital, her medical and hospital bills were staggering but well-wishers paid them off.
KPIX newsfilm from the time showed police inspectors carrying April up a flight of stairs to her Sunset District home. Then her baby brother Scott jumps on the bed and gives her a kiss.
“It was very exciting to to get my sister home and everyone was very excited to see that she was healing,” Scott remembers.
Despite the long odds, April did walk again and she speaks at prisons and jails about the power of forgiveness.
Her attacker was never caught.
“I believe that I was spared and that I was healed so that I could live my life out and be able to do what I’ve been able to do in my life,” April said.
April married, she has five daughters, sixteen grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
“We’re very close, all of us are very close,” she says of her family. She feels blessed.
For April, who now lives in a rough-hewn landscape carved by natural adversity, the beauty around her is perhaps exceeded by the beauty she holds in her heart and shares with so many others.