Paul Gackle barely survived being stabbed 14 times in his home. Four years later, he’s broke and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but is determined to not be victimized again.
Earlier this month, an advocate launched a petition for Gackle calling on the California Victims Compensation Board to pay him for wages lost following a horrifying assault in July 2017 that nearly killed him. The board provides financial assistance to crime victims.
The petition, crafted by Margaret Petros, executive director of Mothers Against Murder, also calls on the state attorney general to investigate the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for allegedly retaliating against Gackle by cutting him off from receiving victims services when he accused the office of violating his rights. The California Victims Bill of Rights, also known as Marsy’s Law, is designed to protect crime victims from being re-traumatized as their cases proceed through the criminal justice system.
Sean Webby, spokesperson for the Santa Clara County DA, told San José Spotlight that Gackle is a violent crime victim and his defendant’s case was adjudicated in another county. He would not comment on claims that Gackle’s rights were violated by his office.
“We wish him healing,” Webby said.
Gackle’s ordeal began on July 21, 2017 when a woman named Sydney Whalen stabbed him 14 times and robbed his apartment. Whalen had a violent record before she was released and met Gackle, according to his petition. Gackle, then a sports reporter at the Mercury News, said he struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack, not knowing whether his assailant or her friends would come after him again.
Gackle said the DA’s office initially didn’t tell him the identity of his attacker, even after she was booked for his assault. It took nearly a year before they shared this information with him, Gackle said. Around this time, Gackle also learned that Alameda County charged Whalen with killing a man just days after her attack on him.
Gackle didn’t discover until November 2019 that, as a crime victim, he had the right to know certain information about his case. Under Marsy’s Law, he is entitled to reasonable notice of his attacker’s identity, charges and future appearances in court. He also wasn’t notified that she killed another man 10 days after his attack.
“They didn’t even inform me of Marsy’s Law,” Gackle told San José Spotlight—another thing he had a right to under the statute. “I believe that they play very loose with victim’s rights, because most victims are people who aren’t very empowered, and we really just don’t know about these rights.”
After the stabbing, Gackle returned to work covering the San Jose Sharks. But traveling in airports was a nightmare—he couldn’t stand people being behind him, which made waiting in line unbearable. The Mercury News published a story about his assault, exacerbating his stress. Some sports fans who didn’t like Gackle’s coverage threatened to stab him.
Gackle said he took disability leave in May 2019 after suffering crippling PTSD. He said the Mercury News fired him in October 2019 after he expressed concern about returning to work while still suffering from the trauma.
Bert Robinson, Gackle’s former editor who still works at the newspaper, told San José Spotlight he couldn’t comment about Gackle because it would infringe on the former employee-management relationship.
A downward spiral
Gackle’s life spiraled after losing his job. His state disability insurance ran out a couple months into the pandemic, and he said he’s had no income for the past 15 months.
“I need money,” Gackle said. “I can’t really recover from PTSD when I’m sitting around wondering if I’m going to get the benefits that I’m legally entitled to.”
Gackle is trying to get financial support from the state victims compensation board, but his experience with it ranges from frustrating delays to PTSD-triggering trauma.
On July 21, the anniversary of the attack, a compensation board representative informed Gackle that the agency wouldn’t pay for his income loss claim beyond the day of his dismissal from the Mercury News.
It wasn’t an outright denial of his claim, but notice of the setback on the anniversary of the worst day of his life triggered Gackle. Suicidal, he contacted Petros, who’s navigated the board for years as an advocate for victims.
Petros told San José Spotlight that she and Gackle received reassurances that the agency recommended approving Gackle’s claim. But they have not heard an update for weeks.
“There’s no sense of urgency,” Petros said. “He’s been suicidal in the past, his life is ruined. Why not help someone you’ve already found eligible?”
Heather Jones, a spokesperson with the compensation board, told San José Spotlight that individual claims are confidential and that she couldn’t confirm the existence or status of an application. She noted that the board is the payor of last resort, meaning a claimant has to first exhaust payments from other public or private resources before seeking compensation—which could apply to Gackle who says his disability insurance ran out early on in the pandemic.
“Every day, we hear heartbreaking stories about victims of violent crime,” Jones said. “We follow the rules and regulations for claims that are set by government statute to assist them.”
Petros said Gackle’s treatment by the compensation board is egregious, but not unique.
“I can assure you, there are thousands of victims around the state that this program has given the run around,” Petros said. “They try and find ways to deny payments rather than really help victims.”
Gackle said he wants people to know about his experience with the DA’s office, but he also believes his struggle to secure his rights under Marsy’s Law is not a one-off problem.
“I’m a journalist who has a (masters) degree from UC Berkeley—if they’re doing this to me, what are they doing to victims that don’t have any agency?” Gackle said. “What is happening to victims from communities of color? What is happening to victims who are immigrants who don’t speak English as a first language? I’m really worried about those folks.”