Tanner Hansen asked for one thing when he woke up bloody and beaten in a hospital bed 10 years ago: a mirror.
He lay in a daze, unable to open his left eye, a red and purple heap of rearranged flesh. Stitches and staples penetrated his body, holding together his scalp, face and arm. What couldn’t be held together was a 17-year-old’s psyche after seeing his own reflection that day.
It’s been a long 10 years since he was attacked by a gang of white kids from middle- to upper-class families who called themselves the 311 Boyz. Hansen has struggled with self-esteem, confidence and the resounding question of “Why?” But, he’s finally on a path that looks like recovery and feels like healing.
THE DAY EVERYTHING CHANGED
As they sped away from the vicious and what Hansen calls “bloodthirsty” scene, his head repeatedly knocked the dashboard of his buddy’s truck. He couldn’t hold it steady. The teenager thought he would die that night, just months shy of his senior year of high school.
The Cimarron-Memorial High student told his mother he was going to a neighborhood park, and nowhere else, to meet his buddies Craig Lefevre and Joe Grill the night of July 18, 2003. He spent years wishing he had stuck to that plan.
Instead, he wound up at a house party, and had a bad feeling about it upon arriving. But before he knew it, a pretty girl was tugging one of his hands and putting a beer in the other. An acquaintance assured him it was safe inside.
A bright green light for any teenager. But about 90 seconds after entering the party, all he saw was red.
“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life,” says Hansen, who spoke to the Las Vegas Review-Journal by phone from San Diego where he now lives. “I will never be able to put it into words, ever. I don’t think people understand what it’s like when someone looks at you with the intention to kill you. I knew what they wanted to do. They were out for blood. They wanted blood.”
He didn’t know the 311 Boyz. Most of them went to Centennial High. But a girl who dated one of them invited Hansen to the party. That made him prey.
There was an attempt to reason with the 311 Boyz, quickly followed by an attempt to escape them. A punch was thrown through a truck window, and eventually a 5-pound rock was, too. That’s what landed Hansen in the hospital and altered his life.
Police got involved and launched an investigation. There were other victims and other beatings, Las Vegas police discovered, some of them videotaped. Those facts, coupled with a gang composed of white kids in well-to-do neighborhoods, equaled a media circus. Tanner Hansen and the 311 Boyz attracted a national spotlight.
Nine boys, ages 16 to 19, were charged in the attack that maimed Hansen’s face. Although not all of them were adults, they were charged as such. Four went to jail for a year, one was cleared of any wrongdoing by a jury, another had all charges dropped, and three entered plea agreements.
When then-District Judge Michael Cherry handed down sentences 13 months after Hansen woke up in a hospital, the defendants once known as the 311 Boyz had a finish line in sight. But Hansen’s family couldn’t fathom an end.
Hansen was a teenager at the time of the attack. His maturity level fell somewhere in that blurry area between boy and man. So did his exceptional good looks.
The rock that night shattered the left side of his face, smashing his eye socket, cheekbone and nasal cavity. With a left eye unable to close and uneven with his right one, Hansen’s face was disfigured. His mentality, too.
In the years that followed, he says he didn’t know how he would make it through life at times. Luckily, he had Carma on his side.
THE DARK TIMES
The verdicts angered Carma Mahn. Hansen’s mother wanted justice and this just wasn’t it.
“I was so distraught,” she says. “Tanner came to me and said: ‘We’re gonna be fine, Mom. It doesn’t matter what happens to them. We’re gonna be fine.’ ”
That was her turning point. If her son could move past it, so could she. But could he really move past it?
Accepting a verdict is one thing. Accepting a new image of yourself and the way the world receives that image is something entirely different.
Before the attack, her son was outgoing and social. He played soccer and volleyball, earned an Eagle Scout ranking, worked at Best Buy, went out with girls. She could deal with him having a different face. But Mahn had a difficult time not seeing any Tanner left in Tanner.
After he graduated from high school, Mahn got used to taking calls from her son at 2 and 3 a.m., spending hours discussing “Why?”
Why him? Why did he go to the party when he knew he shouldn’t? Why are people so cruel? Why? Why? Why?
When the answers weren’t coming, he unraveled.
“It’s like I didn’t know who he was,” she says. “It terrified me. I kept thinking I could wake up one day and he could be dead.”
As Tanner changed, the people with whom he socialized changed. While attending college in Southern Utah, things got dark. He dropped out of school and lost his way.
“For so many years, the problem was that I would look at myself in the mirror and wouldn’t see myself,” Tanner says. “So I rejected it. It made me want to cry. It disturbed me.”
Three years ago, at age 24, he realized he was creating worse circumstances for himself than fate had dealt him. After more than 10 reconstructive surgeries, enough was enough. He knew he had to accept his face and himself.
Hansen credits his support group, family and close friends for lifting him out of the hole he found himself in. But, ultimately, he discovered inner strength.
“It wasn’t an epiphany. I’m still working at it,” he says. “But I can at least look at myself in the mirror. … It took a long time for me to realize this is just a part of who I am.”
LEARNING TO COPE
Every day of his life since the accident, whether it’s at the grocery store, gas station or on the street, Tanner is asked the same question: “Hey, what happened to your face?”
He has strategies to deal with the uncomfortable situation. “Alligator wrestling” and “bullfighting” are reliable comebacks. Humor, he says, helps redirect the conversation without being rude. Forget that the question itself is beyond rude.
The one positive thing that came from his attack, Hansen says, is a deep consideration for others. He’s determined to find more positivity, but it hasn’t been easy.
Hansen is still wrapped up in lawsuits. After the criminal cases, he filed civil lawsuits and now it’s primarily insurance companies he and his attorney pursue.
Jerome Bowen, a personal injury lawyer, has represented Hansen for 10 years. They went to the same church when Hansen was attacked.
Bowen has watched many clients endure tragedies, but none has compared — on a personal, emotional level — to Hansen. He drove him to college in Southern Utah. He has attended birthday parties, given man-to-man advice. He has witnessed all the woes, blows and lows. He has also cheered on the comeback.
“He’s almost like a son to me,” Bowen says. “It happened at a time in life when he was at a very fragile age, when image and self-image are very important. Those were things directly and violently impacted by this experience. … He has really worked hard to try and overcome those things and he’s done marvelous. I’m very proud of him.”
Hansen has received monetary compensation for amounts he declines to disclose. Where insurance companies are concerned, however, he feels wronged and calls the judicial system “corrupt.”
Mahn turned all legal matters over to her son when he became an adult. She stopped being angry at the system and realized she simply didn’t know what justice looks like when a kid’s face was maimed by criminals who were also kids.
If justice is doing what’s right, then the only justice she wanted was for her son to live his life to the fullest.
LOOKING FORWARD TO LIFE
“When someone has gone through a traumatic experience like (Hansen), the most common, or some of the most common outcomes, are depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Christopher Kearney, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “What recovery looks like is the person is able to function pretty well on a day-to-day basis on multiple domains — school, work, finances — without a lot of symptoms.”
Hansen moved to San Diego two years ago. It was time to leave Las Vegas and get started on his life’s goals.
He works as a bartender at a resort and attends college full time. He’s happiest at school, where he’s on the dean’s list and tutors other students.
Hansen’s major is mechanical engineering. A few years ago, he started researching ways energy could be produced. He took an avid interest in what he calls a “waste of fossil fuels.” The now 27-year-old doesn’t consider himself so much an environmentalist as a humanitarian.
“I’d like to work in alternative energies, that’s kind of my passion,” he says. “I see something happening and I would really like to see something happen with it. … I see a possibility. I think that we’re ruining ourselves with the way we’re going.”
And unless there’s change, the ruin will continue.
Hansen doesn’t say he has fully healed, but he now believes he one day will.
He forgave his attackers years ago, deciding he didn’t want the “poison” that the resentment brought him. It marked a huge step, as he began recognizing the real battle is internal.
For years, he wouldn’t remove sunglasses from his face. He refused to take photos. Both are still an issue, but not as prevalent.
Last Christmas he and his two sisters surprised Mahn with a professional portrait of the three of them. Hansen, 6-feet-tall with a fit build, is front and center. No sunglasses, just a bright smile. A thoughtful gift for any mother, but for Mahn it held profound significance.
“It’s only been these last couple years that I finally feel I’m getting my boy back,” she says.
Both she and Hansen have individually entertained the old “what if?” question. What if he never went to the party that night? They would wonder what his life would have been like if things had been different. As Hansen continues to progress, the question becomes “what’s next?”
It’s been a rocky 10 years, but Hansen has a clear vision for the years ahead.
“All I really want is just to be a good person,” he says. “I don’t want to look back on my life with regret. I want to be a good person. That’s all I care about. I want to be a good husband, father and want to contribute something. If everything I went through can lead me to that, then that’s OK.”
Nearly one decade ago, Hansen told his mom they would be OK. They’re both finally starting to believe it.
Follow Xazmin Garza on Twitter @startswithanx.