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Colo. Woman Found Dead in Home

July 23, 2002

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DENVER (AP) _ Jeannie VanVelkinburgh was waiting at a downtown bus stop after work in 1997 when a chance encounter made the nurse’s aide both a hero and a victim.

VanVelkinburgh tried to intervene as a white supremacist and an accomplice began attacking a West African immigrant. For her trouble, she was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down.

On Monday, VanVelkinburgh’s 15-year-old son found her unconscious after an apparent drug overdose. An empty bottle of pills was found near her right hand and a handful of the same pills in her bed, authorities said.

She was pronounced dead at a medical center.

``I think that Jeannie was an ordinary person who stood up for somebody she didn’t know,″ said Mayor Wellington Webb. ``She was like so many ordinary people who do courageous things when they are tested.″

An autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday.

VanVelkinburgh, 41, attempted suicide about a year ago with a cutting object, and her son said she had stated many times that she wanted to die and if she attempted to kill herself it would be by overdose, according to police.

``This is a suspicious death. She could have died of natural causes, or she could have taken her own life. We just don’t know yet,″ Aurora police spokeswoman Kathleen Walsh said.

VanVelkinburgh was hit in the spine and paralyzed Nov. 18, 1997, when she tried to help Oumar Dia, of Senegal, during an attack by Nathan Thill, 24, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, and accomplice Jeremiah Barnum, 28.

VanVelkinburgh said the men had roughed Dia up and when she picked up Dia’s hat and tried to return it to him, Thill opened fire. He shot Dia several times and VanVelkinburgh once. Dia was killed.

Thill pleaded guilty to killing Dia and is serving a life sentence without parole. Barnum, 28, was sentenced last week to 12 years in prison under a plea agreement in which he admitted to being an accessory to first-degree murder.

Despite her pain, VanVelkinburgh did not regret her decision to help Dia. ``I’m glad I did what I did,″ she told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. ``I don’t think about it over and over. That’s just me. If somebody needed my help, I’m there.″

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