Finding normal

Three years ago, the Potenza family survived a brutal home invasion. It took them five months to move back home. Today, they're living lives without bitterness. They're moving on.

Driving to work one morning, Eileen’s thoughts turned to the car during the invasion. She felt herself start to panic. But then, she started thinking about what she had to do that day, what she had going on in class — really anything to get her mind off it — and she talked herself down from the terror.

Eileen Potenza, 58, has most of the pieces, but almost three years later, the timeline is still jumbled.

She remembers waking up to men with guns surrounding her and her husband’s bed. She remembers being shot, twice, and being shoved into her own car, one of the men violating her in the backseat as she was driven to the ATM. Afterward, she tried to reason with him to keep her family alive.

Some of the things the men did seemed surreal. She thinks one man got a bowl of cereal from the kitchen and ate it. Another sat down to her family’s piano, the one she plays when no one is around, and pressed on the keys while his accomplices yelled at him to stop.

“Why would you decide, in the middle of all that, to play the piano?” she asked. “But he did.”

Eileen discusses the attack
The Potenza's living room is now the hangout room in their house. Though some furniture such as the piano remains, most of it is new, including a pillow that says "Happily Ever After"

The Potenzas’ home was every family’s purgatory for several hours one October morning. After the house was quiet again, Eileen remembers thinking tomorrow would be just a normal day. But when you’ve been attacked in your own home, how can tomorrow be normal?

Months after the attack, Eileen, her husband Carl, 61, and oldest daughter Allison, 27, talked at the trial for four out of six of the men accused of invading their home. It was the first time Eileen had ever really seen her attackers’ faces, she said.

At the trial, with her friends and family in the crowd, she struggled, knowing it would be hard for them to hear the graphic details.

“But you just answer the questions,” she said. “You just have to be honest and get through it.”

Four of the six men in the home invasion were charged and convicted on several different counts, including rape, carjacking and robbery.They are serving sentences of 248 years for the Potenza case.

For a reduced sentence, a fifth man turned state witness against the four men who stood trial together. The sixth man has not been tried yet.

Allison spoke at the sentencing hearing of Trae Spells, the state’s witness. He was the only one that seemed to show remorse, and she was grateful to him for his part in getting the men convicted.

Eileen was floored by the amount of media coverage their attack and subsequent trial attracted.

The Indianapolis Star ran news articles on the trial; WTHR did a feature on them. They turned down offers from tabloids and shows that wanted to re-enact the crime for television.

Eileen isn’t sure why they media were so interested. it’s because of the neighborhood they live in — safe and quiet on the north side of town.

“People don’t expect it to be happening here,” she said.

October 29, 2013, was a Tuesday. The day before, Eileen and Allison — who was home from law school — decided to take a trip to the mall to window shop. They came home when the stores closed and hung up their purses by the door. Eileen was tired, but she didn’t have to work the next day, so she didn’t go straight to bed. Instead she thinks she watched some TV before turning in.

Before sunrise, six men walked through the open garage door to the Potenza family home where Eileen, Carl and Allison were asleep inside. Their youngest daughter, Rachel, was away at college.

The men stood over Eileen and Carl’s bed, yelling for money. They wanted cash, phones, car keys and jewelry — anything they could get their hands on.

And they wanted their orders to be followed.

“Don’t look up or we will kill you!”

“Nobody gets hurt, cooperate!”

From down the hall, Allison woke from the noise. She waited, listening, for a few minutes before grabbing her purse and confronting the men. But what the Potenzas had was not enough.

For the next several hours, they would be held hostage in their own home. Carl remained in bed, bound by a neurological condition that makes it difficult for him to walk.

Eileen thought of the office phone down the hall and tried to break free. She was shot in the right thigh before she reached the office door. Later, Eileen would be shot for a second time trying to run to the neighbors for help.

She was then pushed in the back seat of her white Ford Escape with one of her attackers, another taking the wheel. Cash was still their goal, and because there was little in the house, one of the men took Eileen and Allison separately to a Regions bank ATM to withdraw the maximum amount from their bank cards: $800.

While one man drove, Eileen was sexually assaulted in the back seat. At home, multiple men sexually assaulted Allison.

During the initial trip to the ATM, Eileen realized she didn’t have her bankcard, but Allison’s. On the second trip with a different card, Eileen was taken to the driver’s side of the car by Adrian Anthony and made to drive.

Behind the wheel, Eileen talked to Anthony, and he talked back. He told her about his childhood; how he grew up in the Nora Pines area, loved football and went to North Central High School. He told her how his father was shot and how his mother left.

Eileen said no one should have to grow up alone, and she offered to help. She was a teacher. She told him she could help him get his life back on track.

“After all I done to you, you want to help me?” he asked.

When they were stopped, maybe at a light Eileen said, Anthony told her to look at him.

Yes, she said. He could go to college.

“We’re not gonna kill you, if you do what we say.”

“Are you gonna change?” she said.


She said that while she was talking to him she realized that if she could get him on her side a little bit, the situation would begin to diffuse. In the car, he promised her they wouldn’t hurt her family any worse.

After the men took all they wanted, they left the Potenzas in their house.

The invasion, at least, was over.

In the months after the home invasion, the Potenzas lived at Eileen’s mother’s home.

Eileen, Carl, Allison and Rachel, 24, spent five months in the two-bedroom house just down the street from their own. Carl and Eileen slept in the spare room. Allison and Rachel sometimes shared their grandmother’s pullout couch, and sometimes they stayed at a hotel in Carmel, Indiana.

While they were at Eileen’s mother’s house, they wondered if they would ever go home again. For Allison, her childhood home now scared her.

“I didn’t want to not come here,” Eileen said. “We had raised our kids here and we loved our house. But I thought, if my daughter Alli couldn’t feel like she could come back then we would just sell it.”

While they decided, they began to heal. For Allison and Eileen, that meant talking about what they experienced that morning. They had gone through a similar experience, and Eileen said it was therapeutic to talk about it with someone who understood.

“That was, in a weird kind of way, a very bonding experience,” she said.

Allison’s first time back to the house was only days after the attack, and what she saw wasn’t her home, but a crime scene. Broken glass was everywhere and there was still blood on the floor. “That was hard to see,” she said.

Eileen went through physical therapy for her leg, and everyone in the family went to therapy, both individually and as a family, to start talking about that day. It was a counselor with the police department that convinced them to move back home. But Eileen said they didn’t feel like they needed a ton of counseling.

“We just sort of knew what we needed to do to get through,” she said. “Or we thought we did, anyway. Maybe we thought we knew but we didn’t.”

Despite the circumstances, Allison looks back on the time spent at her grandmother’s with warm memories.

Eileen works at preschool.
Eileen works as pre-kindergartern children at Harney Elementary School in Lebanon, Ind. Eileen says she thinks of her attackers often when she's with these children.

A stream of friends and family wearing concerned faces and bringing with them food and hesitant questions came through the door at Eileen’s mother’s home.

They thought the Potenzas would be broken. What they found was a family, battered, but intact. They found their friends willing to answer questions and crack jokes, and just happy to be together.

The Potenzas had also gone through difficult times before.

About two decades ago, when Eileen was in her 30s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found the lump herself.

At the hospital, she decided that she still had a lot of life left to live.

Eileen worked full-time and cared for two young children. For 30 days, before school, she would stop at a hospital nearby and undergo radiation treatment.

Things like this, she said you never think you can get through, but you can.

“I never decided it was going to be a death sentence,” she said.

Today, Anthony sits in Pendleton Correctional Facility. Eileen sits on her couch, drinking coffee out of a mug that has “mama bear of the bride” scrawled a crossed it.

“He was just a sad little boy,” she said.

The Potenza's living room is now the hangout room in their house. Though some furniture such as the piano remains, most of it is new, including a pillow that says "Happily Ever After"

Pendleton Correctional Facility sits off a quiet stretch of road, less than an hour northwest of Indianapolis. To see an inmate, you first have to walk through a metal detector, give up your bags for a search and sign a waiver before you walk through a thick metal gate electronically operated from the other side.

The room has one wall of glass windows facing the correctional officers’ booth, and a wide conference table in the middle of the room.

Anthony looks younger than his 23 years in an oversized khaki jumpsuit that bunches at the ankles. His forearms are inked with flaming “Project Livin’” tattoos. He pulls at the knots in his hair.

Inside, he has a cell to himself. The walls, he says, are decorated with pictures of “big bootie girls,” but he keeps the photos of his kids he gets weekly in an album for preservation.

In early October, he had only been at Pendleton for three months. He was in line for a job and for classes, and was waiting for visitation privileges to be granted for his family. He couldn’t wait to hug his kids.

While he waits, he writes rap music about life, family and how one mistake can cost him the rest of his life.

He says he wishes he could take the home invasion back, wishes he had a time machine, but he invaded the Potenza’s home to provide for his family. He says he has no regret. For him, it was all about the money. He was found guilty on several counts in the Potenza case including rape, carjacking and robbery.

“People only say sorry when they get caught,” he said.

He remembers the car ride to the ATM with Eileen. He remembers her offer to help, but doesn’t understand it.

He says what Eileen said confused him. He says he thought she was just talking; he never believed her words were trying to do anything but save her family.

Eileen teaches developmental preschool at Harney Elementary School in Lebanon, Indiana. Her classroom is at the end of a long hallway and is filled with plastic toys, kids artwork and labeled bins. Her window looks out on the playground where kids’ shouts and laughter can be heard during recess.

At a desk the shape of a macaroni noodle, nine preschoolers follow Eileen’s lead in counting and tapping their index fingers on the side of the table as her teaching assistant pours tiny cups of pink lemonade for snack time.

Mrs. P, as a student in her class calls her, teaches 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds the basics — how to share, how to have patience, the alphabet, counting.

Before the invasion, Eileen often thought about her influence in a child’s life. Now, she thinks about it every day. She sees some of the kids in her class who have been abandoned and thinks about the men who attacked her family. She thinks about how most of the men grew up with no one, too.

“They were just sort of fighting to make their way through the world,” she says.

And while it can’t excuse what they did, she says you can’t underestimate how many little kids have nobody that shows they care for them. As she told Anthony in the car, nobody should have to grow up that way: alone.

Eileen plays with a noise-making stick during sing along time with her class. The children in the class have a coordinated dance to their song and Eileen helps guide them through it.

Today, the Potenza’s two-story brick colonial seems untouched by destruction. After the attack, Eileen changed almost everything about the damaged rooms.

The old formal living room now boasts a television and a large comfy fabric sectional with pillows to spare. One, propped up on an ottoman, reads ‘Happily Ever After’ in loopy cursive. Tucked into the corner, with family photos scattered across the top, the piano still sits.

“It just feels better if it doesn’t look quite the same as it did,” she says.

Some changes are unnoticeable, though, like the alarm system the Potenzas had installed. Its disembodied voice will play throughout the house if a door is left open.

It’s the only security measure the Potenzas have put in place so far.

At Allison’s condo, a small, framed drawing is displayed on her mantel. Her childhood home is depicted in ink of red and brown, green and blue.

In cursive, after the lawn fades to white paper, it reads “Home Sweet Home.”

Allison wasn’t sure at first if she would be able to go back. Rooms that were once filled with good memories were now tainted of what happened to her during the attack. The den where her family had spent so much time together was the place where she had been sexually assaulted. The kitchen was the room where her mother was shot.

It took going back to her parents’ house to begin to remember all of the good that took place there.

“Now, when I’m in the kitchen I don’t think about that,” she said. “I think about past memories.”

Today, Allison lives with her husband in a neighborhood a few minutes away from her parents. She just passed the bar exam and bought a house. Now, when she comes home she makes sure to lock the front door 
behind her.

She gets scared more now than she used to. At a showing of “Mockingjay, Part 2” she was nervous being in the crowd of moviegoers. But her husband’s calming presence eased her anxiety.

But after everything that happened to her and her family, she felt like she needed to do something to make good out of their situation.

“I just saw the guys in our house,” she says. “I’m sure they didn’t have a lot of one-on-one attention when they were kids.”

Once a week, Allison drives to a public school in the Indianapolis neighborhood, Brookside, to sit with two students and help them read her stories as part of the United Way volunteer program Read Up. Each week, they switch between fiction and nonfiction.

It’s just an hour a week, she says, but it really feels like she’s showing them she cares.

Back at Harney, the classroom is quiet after the last school bell rings.

Eileen shows off a dime-sized yellow dinosaur, the excitement evident in her voice. A boy with autism in her morning class made it.

He’s constantly making art out of Play-Doh, she says. The level of precision was so much more advanced than it should be at his age.

Eileen says one of her main goals is to teach kids to love school.

“These kids need to know that somebody really cares,” she says. “It’s just so important.”

Around her classroom, she has tacked up black and white printer paper photos of her students dressed up as what they want to be when they grow up.

Their theme last week was occupations. She spent the week steering her students away from wanting to be Spider-Man toward what jobs he represents — policemen, nurses, doctors and firemen.

The playground behind her is empty. On Monday, the theme is Thanksgiving — she’ll spend the week teaching her kids how to give.

It was never a question for Allison or Eileen whether or not their family would be OK. Even during the attack, Eileen knew her family would get through it.

But she has wondered why her family has been OK. Why they didn’t crumble, why they weren’t angry or filled with bitterness. They just made the choice to move on, she said.

“These guys victimized us, but they’re not going to take any more of us,” she said.