Brittney Bergeron Himel survived one of the most vicious crimes the Las Vegas community had ever seen.
"The first thing I thought was, oh my God, my legs are cut off, I couldn't feel them," Brittney, now 16, said of the attack.
In 2003, Brittney was living with her mother and half-sister when a dispute over drugs resulted in a violent attack. The 10-year-old was left without a family and paralyzed from the waist down.
"A lot of people have come up to me and say, you know, do you miss walking? And I say, you know, actually, I don't," she said. "Overall, I think I like being in a wheelchair better because I have a better life. Before I didn't have such a great life."
As the daughter of parents struggling with drugs and alcohol, Brittney's early childhood was less than stable. She was tossed back and forth from one parent to the other in a nasty four-year custody battle that led to harassment charges and restraining orders. Her mother, Tamara Bergeron, usually unemployed and often on drugs and had been busted for methamphetamines while her father, Kevin Bergeron, had spent time in jail for driving under the influence.
When Brittney was 10, Tamara and her new boyfriend, Robert Schmidt, packed up their trailer and drove Brittney and 3-year-old Kristyanna Cowan to Mesquite, a small gambling town 80 miles north of Las Vegas.
Their new home was an RV park on the grounds of the CasaBlanca hotel-casino. While the couple gambled at the casino -- spending $18,000 in two months, according to police -- usually high on methamphetamines, Brittney was left to take care of Kristyanna, or "Kissy."
"I fed her. I made sure she got to bed. I made sure she had clean clothes," said Brittney.
In January 2003, Brittney and Kristyanna were left alone in the trailer while Bergeron and Schmidt gambled at the casino. The young girls watched TV and slowly fell asleep. Shortly after 1 a.m., there was a knock at the door.
This is where 19-year-old Beau Maestas and his 16-year-old sister, Monique, who both came from another family broken by drugs, enter the picture.
Earlier that night, after drinking and doing drugs at a party, they had purchased $125 worth of what they thought was methamphetamines from Brittney's mother and boyfriend. Maestas later testified that he was ripped off, claiming he was sold table salt.
"I went to the lady and said, 'Look, this is salt. I'd like my money back.'" he told police. "And I was like, 'You want this to get ugly?'"
After a brief confrontation between the Maestas' and Schmidt, the teenagers were asked to leave the casino because they were underage. Furious, they plotted their revenge.
Attacked at Home: 'I Started Screaming'
Beau Maestas knocked on the door of the trailer at around 1:30 a.m. He told Brittney her mother had been hurt at the casino and she needed to go help her. Brittney knew not to go anywhere with strangers and refused to open the trailer door. Minutes later, Monique Maestas knocked on the door.
Brittney recalls, "A girl came to the door and I opened it, and she's like, Hi, my name is Kim. Your mom's really hurt at the casino. Your dad doesn't want to leave her and asked us to come get you. And I'm like, OK, well you're going to have to carry my sister because she's asleep."
Brittney then opened the door and went to find her shoes.
"I turned around and a guy came up behind me and put his hand over my mouth and a knife to my neck."
The teenage siblings began punching Brittney. Fighting for her life, she kicked and bit her attackers as she desperately tried to protect her sister. While Beau stabbed tiny Kristyanna with a large kitchen knife, Monique stabbed Brittney 27 times -- in her arms, chest, back and legs.
Beau and Monique ran from the blood-soaked trailer into their getaway car, and Brittney was unable to move.
"I looked over at my sister and I could hear like gurgling. ... I didn't at the time know what it was," she said. "And then I tried to get over there and I couldn't really move, so I started screaming help, help, help."
Tamara Bergeron returned to her trailer and also began screaming. Brittney says she remembers her mom holding towels and rags over her wounds to stop the bleeding.
A neighbor called casino security, who called the police.
"Brittney was lying in a puddle of blood and just, just screaming," said Bradley Swanson, the first officer to arrive at the scene. Brittney looked Swanson in the eye and told him she didn't want to die.
The two girls were flown to the Trauma Center at University Medical Center in Las Vegas and rushed into surgery.
Kristyanna had been stabbed repeatedly in the head and neck. The knife had pierced her skull and brain, and multiple wounds marked her 32-pound body. Kristyanna never made it out alive.
Brittney was in the operating room for two hours. When she awoke from her surgery, she learned that one of the knife wounds had severed her spinal cord and that she would never walk again.
"And then I woke up in the hospital and I had a tube down my nose and staples and, everywhere, and I had a cast on my arm and there were cards all over my room."
Meanwhile, Beau and Monique Maestas stole their grandmother's Honda and headed north on I-15 to Utah. Police issued an alert, and within five hours the pair were arrested in Nephi, Utah. Beau Maestas confessed immediately. He tried to protect his little sister and claimed she had no role in the attack. But it soon became clear that 16-year-old Monique Maestas was the one who'd stabbed Brittney.
More than three years after the crime, the Maestas siblings each pleaded guilty to murder. Beau Maestas was sentenced to death but his case is under appeal, and his sister received life in prison; she won't be eligible for parole until she is 65.
Adjusting to a New Life With Foster Family
In the years that followed, Brittney underwent hundreds of hours of counseling and physical therapy, without her sister by her side.
"It was hard," she said. "It was weird, because I didn't have her there and sitting there, you know, always laughing with me. ... She always followed me and wanted to do everything I wanted to do."
Still missing her sister, Kristyanna, Brittney adjusted to life as a paraplegic.
Brittney now needed special care and parents who could take care of her and meet all her medical needs. That's when one of Nevada's award-winning foster care parents stepped in.
Judy and Bill Himel have fostered more than 30 medically fragile children, including infants and children with severe problems and no place to go.
The electrician and housewife had seen a news report about Brittney and knew they would be getting a call from the Department of Family Services asking if they would take her. A few days later, Brittney had a new home.
Bill Himel said the transition wasn't easy. "When she first came, she was scared. She left the light on, the TV on, the door open," he recalled.
"The reason I was afraid of the dark was always because I was afraid that it's going to happen again," Brittney said. "That, you know, someone was going to come get me."
As time went on, Brittney grew stronger and more confident. She began to trust her foster parents. "I slowly started to learn that, you know, I'm safe. Nothing was happening."
Soon, she felt ready to expand her horizons. Brittney heard about a sporting event for handicapped kids and asked Judy to take her. She went and it changed her life. "It opened my eyes," she said. "It made me think, you know, wow, I can actually do things. I'm not just in a chair. It's not like I can't do anything. I can still do everything anybody else does. "
The 16-year-old now says she feels just like everyone else. "I go to school like everybody else, I hang out with my friends, I go to the movies, I talk on the phone, I text."
An accomplished athlete, she has competed in more than 15 states in track and field, and hopes to make it to the Para-Olympics in London in 2012. She doesn't limit herself to track, and has also tried tennis, basketball, swimming, skiing. Last summer, she became a certified scuba diver in the Cayman Islands.
"So this damaged, frightened child that we were given to, to take care of, now is this independent, outgoing, spirited young lady," Bill Himel said. "Not only do we struggle to keep up with her, I actually think we're riding in her coattails."
'I Want to Do Everything I Can'
Tamara Bergeron and Robert Schmidt were eventually charged with neglect and sentenced to prison. As Brittney thrived with her new loving foster family, Bergeron was fighting from prison to get custody of Brittney.
"It was devastating to her," said Judy Himel. "She couldn't go in a friend's car, she couldn't spend the night at a friend's house. Everybody had to have police checks. She couldn't jump in and do anything she wanted to. She was a foster kid."
"It made me kind of mad," Brittney said. "It made me wonder why she would want to ... not want me to be happy."
All Brittney wanted was to be adopted. She wrote letters to everyone, including her mother. The case dragged on for years, but after countless disappointments Brittney's friends and new family gathered in family court last summer, where her wish came true. Brittney Bergeron became a Himel.
Whatever she does, she has a big family to love and support her, and all the money she'll ever need. The CasaBlanca hotel-casino, which owned the trailer park where the attack took place, settled for $5.5 million. It's in a trust fund to be used only for Brittney.
Brittney said her experiences have taught her to cherish each day. "I think that because of what happened, it's made me see that, you know, I could die any day, you know, it could be tomorrow," she said. "And it's just made me see that I want to do everything I can."
Brittney said she still loves her biological mother and tries to speak to her once a week. Brittney said she's glad that her attackers have been justly punished for killing her sister, whom she misses everyday, but she is not angry.
"Am I angry at them? I'm not. In a way, I'm saying thank you, because, you know … it happened in a bad way, but it gave me a great life. It gave me a great family, great home, gave me everything."