Nov. 10, 2011 — -- "I can talk," said Lydia Tillman with pride and great effort. For a woman who spent over five weeks in a coma after being sexually assaulted, strangled and doused in bleach, this is no small feat.
"I'm tough," said Tillman, an acclaimed sommelier and a seasoned world traveler.
Sometime after Tillman attended a 4th of July fireworks celebration in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, a stranger sexually assaulted and strangled her, beat her head, shattered her jaw, and left her for dead in her apartment. To cover his crime, police say the man then poured bleach on her body and throughout her apartment, then started a fire.
Despite the physical trauma, Tillman found the strength to survive by leaping out of her second-story window and running into an ambulance that had just arrived. When the medics asked whether she knew the assailant, Tillman repeatedly told them "No, no, no" before suffering a stroke that left her in a coma for over five weeks.
Tillman would later learn that police had already been building a case against her attacker for an assault on another woman -- an assault that ended in murder.
After 19-year-old Kenia Monge went missing in downtown Denver on April 1, police questioned Travis Forbes, 31, a local entrepreneur, after Monge's step-father found a text message from Forbes on Monge's cell phone.
Forbes told police that he had met Monge while she was drunk and incoherent near a popular nightclub. He offered to give her a ride home in his van but on the way, he said, Monge wanted a cigarette so Forbes stopped his van at a Conoco gas station. At the gas station, Forbes claimed, Monge encountered a fellow smoker and, in a drunken stupor, walked off with him.
As police dug into Forbes' story, several red flags appeared. His old van smelled overwhelmingly of bleach and its carpet was brand new. Though he ran his own business -- Forbes made a living selling gluten-free granola bars -- his background was spotty. At the time, Forbes was on probation for domestic violence and had several other run-ins with the law. As for the gas station where Forbes claimed to have taken Monge -- police learned it had been closed and dark at the time Forbes said he brought Kenia there for cigarettes.
Surveillance tapes from the bakery where Forbes rented space raised even more suspicion: On the night after Monge's disappearance, the bakery's security camera had captured Forbes coming into the bakery owner's office and unplugging the surveillance system. Another camera captured Forbes carting in a cooler and putting it inside a freezer.
It was a significant discovery, police said, because Forbes had told them he was making deliveries that day.
"If you just made all your deliveries, why would you need a cart to bring in an empty cooler?" said Denver detective Nash Gurule, who investigated the case.
Other surveillance footage would explain the peculiar condition of Forbes' van -- cameras caught Forbes holding rags and a bottle of bleach.
One month after Monge's disappearance, police caught up with Forbes in Austin, Texas, where he had taken a friend's car. They charged him with unauthorized use of a vehicle.
Gurule traveled to Texas and interrogated Forbes for hours, but he wouldn't confess. After being brought back to Colorado in police custody, the stolen vehicle complaint against Forbes was dropped and police went back to building their case.
"We want to have a strong case -- a case that we know, that when we get into a courtroom, that the jury is gonna say, 'This guy killed her, this guy did this,'" Gurule said.
Waiting for Forbes' arrest was hard on Monge's family.
"I never wavered in front of my wife or my kids ever. I could not," said Tony Lee, Monge's step-father who had suspicions about Forbes from the start. "But I needed my moments too. I'd tell her I'm going to Wal-Mart … and I'd lose it privately, to myself. I didn't share with anyone."
DNA and Bleach Clue Connects Cases
On the morning of the attack on Lydia Tillman, her father Willy Tillman received a call from the hospital. "When we got there, we could not recognize Lydia. There was no way you would know that it was Lydia. Her head was all swelled up, black and blue, no way to recognize her." The only signs that allowed Lydia's family to identify her were a ring that she wore and a tattoo on her leg.
All the family knew for certain was that the attacker was a stranger.
"She had been attacked and beaten and left for dead and her apartment set on fire, and she managed to jump out the second-floor widow to save herself, and that's what we knew," Willy Tillman said.
After learning that Tillman was doused with bleach, Denver Detective Nash Gurule had a good idea of who the stranger could be.
"I said, you know, 'It sounds like him…he likes bleach. This is his thing," he said.
Sure enough, when police Detective Jaclyn Shaklee tested the DNA under Tillman's finger nails, it came back as a match for Travis Forbes.
Fort Collins police arrested Forbes -- they found him walking home with another woman near the Colorado State University campus on July 10.
He confessed to both the assault of Tillman and murder of Kenia Monge after prosecutors agreed to not to charge him under the death penalty. He explained he had stored Monge's body in that suspicious cooler before burying her in a field.
He later cleaned out his van with bleach, he told police, and burned anything Monge touched.
Lydia was still in a coma when Forbes was arrested. She finally regained consciousness after five weeks and when she did, her anger was palpable: she repeatedly attempted to tear away the tubes feeding her stomach and even dismantling a bolt in her head that monitored her brain pressure.
Only two days after she emerged from her coma, Lydia began writing the statement that she would eventually submit to the court at Forbes' sentencing on Sept. 27.
Standing at her father's side in a packed courtroom of friend and family supporters, Tillman stared defiantly at Travis Forbes, who sat constrained in chains only a few feet away.
In her statement, she wrote:"Travis Forbes, you caused me no harm. My spirit, my soul and my mind remain untouched. May you find peace in this life."
It took her over an hour to compose the three sentences which she wrote by hand on a piece of notebook paper.
Though the brain and throat damage from the attack has severely limited Tillman's ability to speak, she told ABC News in a written statement, "It was my intention to find the strength in my heart to forgive Travis Forbes. I did. I felt extreme anger toward him, then I felt sad for him. He must be in so much extreme pain to so brutally hurt another human."
As she continues her recovery, Tillman, now 31, wears a bracelet encouraging herself and others to "Live Your Days Inspired Anew." She is now able to run several miles a day and participate in a local yoga class. By the end of the year, Lydia hopes to climb the 14,000-foot mountain, Longs Peak.
Monge's family, meanwhile, hopes that their daughter's story will serve as warning to other women.
"I want the brutality to be out there as a learning tool," Lee said. "I want women to know that this could happen to you."