Many people have asked Paxton Taylor Webb what it feels like to get shot, but even though it happened to her, she doesn’t know either.
The bullet entered her upper-mid back and severed her spinal cord. It then punctured her left lung, broke several ribs and ricocheted upward, fracturing her clavicle, before finally coming to rest in her left shoulder. Paxton had no idea. All she remembers is a piercing ringing in her ears and falling backward onto the floor, behind the cash register.
She had complied with everything the masked robbers asked of her. Around 2 o’clock on Christmas Eve morning last year, two gunmen entered Katz Boutique in Humble, and somehow knew the code to get inside the cashier’s booth, where Paxton stood, encased in glass. In the surveillance video police released, she’s seen working quickly, handing over trays of cash and allowing the robbers to search for more as they please. It’s unclear why, then, one gunman decided to fire at her on his way out the door, as though taking the life of a 23-year-old woman was merely an afterthought.
She didn’t feel it, because she was paralyzed instantly.
“You would think, getting shot, that it’s gonna be like what you see in all the TV shows, like it’s an excruciating pain,” Paxton said from her hospital bed, an episode of Law & Order playing quietly in the background. “I didn’t feel any of that. So I told the paramedics I wasn’t shot.” They turned her over to find the blood pouring out of her back.
Six months later, Paxton is still waiting on justice, police still don’t have any idea who shot her, and she is still spending her days in the manufactured comfort of a hospital room. Yet just as she has begun to settle into her drastically altered life, Paxton is preparing for another mammoth change: In several weeks, she will give birth to a baby girl.
On the night she was shot, she was four weeks pregnant. Neither she nor her husband knew about the baby until she was in the operating room. The news came not long after doctors informed her that only a piece of paper could have fit in the space between the bullet hole and her heart.
“I was thinking, how am I supposed to be pregnant and paralyzed? Why didn’t the bullet hit my heart? Why did I survive this?” Paxton said. “I didn’t understand anything that was going on. I mean, I’m not ever gonna understand why I was paralyzed or why I didn’t die. That’s just something I’m never gonna figure out. I will tell you, it was the scariest night of my life. And not just because two people came in and robbed the store, but it was…at that moment, my life had changed, and another life was being created at the same time, and I didn’t know how I was gonna do it all. I still don’t know how I’m gonna do it.”
In January, two miles from the scene of the crime, Houston Police Department investigators discovered an abandoned maroon Ford F-250, the vehicle Detective Samuel Spurlock says he is “highly confident” was used in the robbery.
It’s the best shot that Paxton and the police have at tracking down the people who deprived the 23-year-old of the chance to walk again — but it’s also a long shot.
In the truck, Spurlock says, investigators found clothing that appeared similar to what the robbers were wearing on video in the store. (Another surveillance video captured this truck fleeing the scene.) They took swabs from car-seat headrests and sent the DNA to the Houston Forensic Science Center for testing.
In April the DNA lab results came back. There was no matching profile in any existing databases.
Detective Spurlock said that the DNA results have been entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, called CODIS, which stores the DNA profile until a match comes up, possibly if the suspect commits another crime elsewhere. The next step from here, Spurlock said, is waiting.
“It can take months. It can take years,” he said. “Not too long ago, I had results come back from something I submitted three years ago.”
Police held a press conference following the shooting in December, pleading with the public to come forward with tips. Spurlock said none of them have led to any substantial people of interest yet, but that questions swirled around how the robbers knew the key code to get into Paxton’s cashier space, and whether any store employees may have known in any capacity about the robbery in advance. For now, however, that’s all they are: questions.
Her first trip in public in her electric wheelchair was to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
It was a group outing, with her physical therapy group from Memorial Hermann’s TIRR rehabilitation center. She went with her aunt, Michelle Miller, one of Paxton’s regular caregivers, who said she and her niece both felt for the first time the curious gazes from those who still had the luxury of functioning legs. They learned for the first time how wheelchair ramps and seating that’s supposedly “handicap friendly” is friendly only to some but not all handicapped people. There were kids asking their moms why there was a whole group of people in wheelchairs—and the adults stared, too, Paxton said.
Her therapy group at TIRR had been preparing her for this. For two months, Paxton learned how to live again, learning basic, everyday skills like how to shower without help. The therapy did just as much to change Paxton’s mind-set about what it means to be paralyzed from the chest down. Therapists assured the former dancer that she could still dance in a wheelchair, just differently. That she could still drive a car one day, just differently. That she could still be a mom.
“I have to learn this stuff for her, so that she can go to the doctor when she needs to go to the doctor and I don’t need to depend on someone else,” Paxton said, “or if she falls and cuts herself, I need to be able to learn how to pick her up and make her tears go away. I have to learn how to do this stuff not only for myself, but for her.”
For a long time, Paxton wasn’t sure the day would even come.
On the night of the robbery, doctors told Paxton she was going to lose her baby. When she didn’t miscarry that night, she and her family waited for her to miscarry for the next 12 weeks, when doctors said it was bound to happen because of the trauma and the shock Paxton was still trying to shed. For her and the family, the prediction was devastating: The news of her pregnancy had given her a reason to fight for her life, and now it was supposed to be stripped from her?
Paxton said she doesn’t believe she would have made it through those first weeks had it not been for her mother’s tough love, from the night she told her daughter, “Don’t you dare die on me” to the times throughout her recovery she yelled, “Don’t you dare say you can’t do this!”
Her mother, Brittney Miller, frequently spends the night on the couch next to Paxton’s hospital bed, where she tries not to dream about the night she had to tell Paxton she wouldn’t be able to walk again. Doctors hadn’t told Paxton yet, and, knowing something was seriously wrong, Paxton turned to her mom for honesty. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Miller said.
“It’s one of those things that doesn’t just affect you when it happens. It affects everybody close to you,” Paxton said. “It has affected my family; it has affected my husband; it has affected my unborn child. Even though she’s not here yet, eventually she’s gonna ask me, ‘Mommy, why can’t you walk?’ And that’s gonna affect her. And then one day, ‘Mom, when did you find out when you were pregnant with me?’”
Yet despite all the pain that has come with paralysis and the pregnancy, there is unanimous agreement when Brittney Miller says the hardest part has been going about their days with the knowledge that the people who shot Paxton are out there, perhaps doing the same thing.
Every few weeks they check in with Detective Spurlock, and every few weeks there is no new information to share. The label “inactive” remains on Paxton’s case file.
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The effects of the stalled investigation have manifested in the family’s daily lives.
Paxton and Miller have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes Miller has panic attacks while walking to her car, or while ordering a sandwich in Quiznos — moments when she sees a figure or a vehicle that for just a split second looks as if it’s straight out of the surveillance video. Sometimes her Aunt Michelle feels like she is being followed, afraid that the robbers have kept tabs on Paxton’s closest loved ones.
And sometimes, for Paxton, who has been out of a hospital setting for only a couple of days at a time, the fear manifests in nightmares. She has been waiting for the details to slip away with time, hoping that she’ll forget about the white gloves, or the way they held the pistols or the way they yelled for the money.
“I wish I could forget even one thing,” Paxton said, “Just one. But I can’t.”