Former Sacramento Bee photographer pursuing his art again after brutal beating

By Walt Wiley
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

At the brain-injury rehab clinic where John Trotter spent months recuperating, there's a sign in the shower listing all the parts of the body that need to be cleaned.

Trotter laughs when he thinks about it.

"It's supposed to be a reminder, but when you don't have short-term memory, how do you remember where you are on the list?" he said with a chuckle. "That's the kind of dark humor brain injury breeds."

Trotter is the Bee photographer who was beaten and left for dead with severe brain injuries March 24, 1997, when he was attacked by a group as he was carrying out an assignment in a Sacramento residential neighborhood.

Two years later his main attacker, gang leader Terauchi Kenichi Golston, then 27, was sentenced to life in prison for the crime and four teenagers who joined in the attack were sentenced to youth facilities.

Witnesses said Golston, who outweighed Trotter by 80 pounds or so, knocked Trotter to the ground with his fist, then Golston and the teenagers set about stomping and kicking Trotter's head.

Trotter woke up with severe brain damage, unable to walk, his head covered in stitches. He soon was transferred to the rehab clinic in Placer County.

As he gradually made progress, a counselor urged him to photograph the people and activities in the clinic for the therapeutic value of using his cameras again.

In the middle of it all came the trial, creating a huge emotional load on Trotter. When it ended, he said, he was relieved finally to be able to stop concentrating on the attack and the needs of prosecutors and begin to put his life in order.

He had lost a lot. He was too fragile to return to work as a newspaper photographer. A former marathoner who had the year before ridden his bicycle from San Francisco to New York, Trotter now faced a long course of rehabilitation to regain his speech and his ability to walk. He is still not comfortable riding his bike.

"I found that I could remember my life before the attack, but it was like I was remembering someone else's life. I'd drive by a house where I used to live and it would look familiar, but I wouldn't know why right away," Trotter, now 44, said by telephone from his modest apartment in New York.

He still isn't all the way back, but he is getting close. He's back in photography, traveling and working.

But there are good signs. In 2000, Life magazine published some of Trotter's photos from the rehab clinic along with a story on his travail. That led to his being invited, expenses paid, to Perpignan, France, for an international photojournalism festival, where he and his work were featured - and where he has been invited back, expenses paid, each year since.

He also won a prestigious award at the Santa Fe (NM) Center of Photography. Kodak has given him 200 rolls of film. A London book publisher who was taken by Trotter's pictures from the rehab clinic has tracked him down and reached an agreement to do a book on the work, probably due out next year.

On the fourth anniversary of the incident, Trotter set out to do some serious work, going to Mexico where he photographed the sad state of the Colorado River's delta.

A six-page spread of those photos was published last year in U.S. News & World Report magazine. Since then, the nonprofit environmental organization Blue Earth Alliance has adopted the Colorado River project and will channel donations to Trotter to help him in his work.

"There hasn't been much money, so anything that might come in through them would be great," he said.

"Things are coming together. It's slow. But I'm going to make a living as a photographer again. I'm going to be self-sufficient."

The Bee's Walt Wiley can be reached at [email protected] This story republished with the permission of The Sacramento Bee.