Popular Teen Shot in Face by First Love

Life changed in an instant for high school senior Johanna Orozco.

November 11, 2009, 12:05 PM

Nov. 11, 2009— -- It seemed like the perfect romance between Cleveland high school seniors Johanna Orozco and Juan Ruiz Jr. "He was funny, he was a great listener, and he was there for me when I needed him to be" Orozco, now 20, said.

She seemed to have it all. Then one day Orozco's luck changed in a way she could never have imagined, when Ruiz -- once the love of her life -- fired a shotgun at her face, sending her through a medical marathon of reconstructive surgery and recovery.

Before their relationship took its dark turn, the attractive and popular couple was the envy of their classmates at Lincoln West High School.

"They were gorgeous...gorgeous and they looked good on each other's arms. They were the ideal couple," said drama teacher Catherine Zak. "Everyone wanted to be like Johanna and Juan. They were outgoing, personable and very much in love."

After a year and a half their happy relationship turned tumultuous, as Ruiz became irrationally possessive and violent, Orozco says.

"I loved him and I thought if I was able to help him, he'll be able to change," she told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas. "I guess I was just in denial."

Orozco began documenting her emotions in her journal. "Dear Journal," she wrote in April 2006, "My heart is really sad now. Today, Juan had pushed me and called me a bitch. It hurt me so much inside. I don't understand why he turned out to be this way...he never was like that towards me before."

With her Prince Charming long gone, Orozco tried to end things with Ruiz, but he refused.

"He would either threaten to kill me or hurt me or himself if I didn't take him back, or he'll beat me until I said, 'Okay, we're back together,'" she told "20/20." "I was just scared."

In a final attempt to break up, Orozco removed Ruiz's photos from her My Space page in Feb. 2007. That's when Ruiz came to her home in the middle of the night and raped her at knifepoint. Before he left, he threatened her, saying that he'd kill her, if she told anyone.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Johanna and Juan through the years.

But Orozco refused to be silenced and notified a teacher the next day. Authorities were called and Ruiz was arrested.

Face-to-Face with Former Love

With Ruiz in jail, Orozco believed she would be safe; four days later he was released from the overcrowded detention center and placed on house arrest, monitored only by an ankle bracelet.

On March 5, 2007, Ruiz left his house at 1:03 p.m., armed with a sawed off shotgun and a mask. Hiding by Orozco's house, he waited for her to come outside and to get into her car. Johanna recalled the events leading up to the moment that would change her life.

"I put the keys in the ignition. I look towards my left, and I see someone dressed in all black come out," she said.

Then she saw a gun pointed at her and recalls staring into the perpetrator's eyes before everything faded to white.

"We just connected our eyes...for about ten seconds. And then after, I don't remember anything," she said.

Ruiz shot Orozco in the face from only a few feet away. Her neighbor Maritza Santiago heard the shots and rushed to her side.

"There was blood and human tissue. It was horrible, I mean, till this day, I couldn't put myself to see it again," Santiago said.

Unable to get through to 911, Santiago drove Orozco to the hospital -- in rush hour traffic. With the severity of her injury, doctors said the fact that Orozco made it to the hospital alive was in itself miraculous.

"There [was] bleeding everywhere, the face, what was remaining, was shredded. It was really, really destroyed," said Dr. Michael Fritz, Orozco's facial plastic surgeon at Metro Health Hospital.

Fritz said the most critical factor in keeping Orozco alive was maintaining an airway.

"When you lose the front of your jaw, where it's just blood and swelling and pieces of bone everywhere, your airway is just going to close off very rapidly," he said. "I don't really know how she maintained an airway coming in. That was probably the most amazing thing."

When Fritz first met Orozco in that hospital room, he said he couldn't believe that just a few days before the shooting, she was a normal high school senior, planning for prom and graduation.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Orozco's recovery.

"What really struck me," he said, "is that she had this really fancy fingernail work done with, stars and moons, and it just really struck me how this girl was just in high school the other day, and was doing her nails. So I knew the bar was going to be set very high."

'I Felt Like A Monster'

After the shotgun blast, Orozco was missing her entire chin, upper neck and most of her lower lip.

"The first time I did look in the mirror ... I just broke down and cried," she told Vargas. "I felt like a monster."

In an operation that lasted 13 hours, Dr. Fritz established a new jaw by using a piece of skin and bone from Johanna's leg. It took months for Orozco to regain the most basic functions, like talking or eating. Since then, Dr. Fritz has performed nine surgeries on Orozco to help soften scarring and improve her ability to speak.

CLICK HERE to see photos of Orozco's recovery

This wasn't the first tragedy in Orozco's life. At 13, her mother died of kidney failure. Eleven days later, her father died in a car accident. Orozco and her brother, Kevin, were then raised by their grandparents.

But through it all, Orozco has never once felt sorry for herself. "This happened for a reason, and right now it must be terrible and horrible, but it has a good reason why it happened," she told Vargas about her accident.

In August 2007, Ruiz pleaded guilty to charges of rape and attempted murder. One month later, he was sentenced to 27 years, without the possibility of parole.

Two and a half years since that horrific day, Orozco knows she will continue the reconstructive and healing process for many years to come.

"We can make a lot of progress," said Dr. Fritz, "but if you look closely at her, I'm never going to make it look like nothing happened. I can't."

But nothing can slow down Orozco, who has turned her story into an example for others. She now speaks to groups of teenagers, urging girls to leave violent relationships and is lobbying for state legislation that would provide protection orders for threatened teens.

"There's something about her...she has just this indomitable spirit," Fritz said. "She's going to make the world a better place. She's unstoppable."

CLICK HERE for warning signs of teen dating violence.

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