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Survivor's life: Courage, caring

A quarter-century ago, a little girl suffered a savage attack.

Christina Schoenrock is flanked by uncle Matt Stumm and aunt Donna Stumm at Life Christian Fellowship Church in Springfield (Delco).
Christina Schoenrock is flanked by uncle Matt Stumm and aunt Donna Stumm at Life Christian Fellowship Church in Springfield (Delco).Read moreBOB WILLIAMS / For The Inquirer

The knife tore through Christina Greenday's abdomen with such force that the blade pierced her back. Her father, Stephen Greenday, was on a rampage - stabbing to death Christina's mother, attacking Christina and then hiding his little girl under her bedcovers.

Eight days after her third birthday, two days after Christmas 1982, Christina was left to die.

Acts of love and desperation saved her. Donna Stumm, her aunt, urged police to knock down the door to Greenday's apartment after the officers heard only silence there, persuading them that her niece was in the apartment and would have responded to Stumm's voice if she were all right.

Robert Smythe, then a sergeant and now the police chief in Darby Borough, found Christina and rushed her to a hospital in a police car instead of waiting for an ambulance. He was not sure she would survive if there were any further delay.

She got another break: Somehow, the knife had missed all her major organs.

"What the doctors actually told my aunt and uncle, I guess after the initial surgery when I was rushed in . . . was that it was as if somebody had stuck their hand in my stomach and moved all my vital organs out of the way, because there's no reason why none of my organs should have been touched," Christina says.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the stabbing, and in that quarter-century, Christina has lived a stable, normal life. She is 28 and married, and she and Jeremy Schoenrock have two young boys and live in Clifton Heights. She is a stay-at-home mother who also is the nanny for another child, and she volunteers as youth leader at her church. She has a J-shaped scar on her stomach, a small scar on her back, nerve damage that numbs and weakens her left leg, and, remarkably, no emotional wounds.

She talks matter-of-factly about what she calls the "situation" that night in 1982. That's because she has no recollection of the incident.

Stephen Greenday pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree murder and criminal attempt to murder, and was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 20 years in prison. His motive has remained a mystery, although his relationship with Christina's mother, Deborah Flail, was turbulent and both were drug users. He was released in June 1990, and outside of about 15 unanswered letters that he sent his daughter while in prison, there was no contact between them. Records show that he died seven years ago in Philadelphia at age 60.

The policeman, Smythe, and her aunt, Stumm, have remained part of Schoenrock's life. Smythe has kept tabs on her through Stumm and her husband, talking to them about once a year. Four years ago, Schoenrock gave him an award at her church's Honor Our Heroes day.

Donna and Matt Stumm became Schoenrock's legal guardians and raised her along with their three children.

"Christina really is a gift from God," Donna Stumm says. "I tease my other kids, 'I had you. I had to have you. I chose to have her.' "

Schoenrock refers to the Stumms as Mom and Dad. They're the only parents she remembers.

Donna Stumm considers Schoenrock her daughter and her best friend.

Deborah Flail and Stephen Greenday had an on-and-off relationship marked by drug use and fighting, Stumm said. Stumm described her sister as a heroin addict from age 16 to when she became pregnant. Greenday also used drugs, she said. Flail and Greenday lived together at Sixth and Walnut Streets in Darby Borough, and police were called there because of domestic disputes.

On Dec. 27, 1982, a neighbor heard screaming and called police. Smythe showed up with two other officers and knocked on the door a few times, and no one answered. As they were getting ready to leave, an elderly woman who rented the other second-floor apartment came out and told Smythe that it had sounded as if someone were being killed.

Stumm, who also lived in the building, recommended breaking down the door because of her niece. Usually, the officers broke down the door during a domestic dispute only if the quarrel was under way, but Smythe said he had a "bad feeling or intuition" about this situation and ordered the break-in.

Flail, 28, lay in a pool of blood in front of the door. Down a hallway, the officers found a living room with a Christmas tree and toys strewn about, and Greenday sitting on a sofa. "Where's the kids? Where's the kids?" Smythe recalled yelling. Greenday didn't reply, and Smythe went to a bedroom, where he looked around, pulled back the covers on the bed, and found Christina in a fetal position, moving slightly, her intestines exposed. He picked her up, pushed the intestines in, and rushed out with another officer. In the car, they called Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, and Smythe said medical personnel met them at the door.

Back at the scene, police recovered a knife with a 71/2-inch blade - a "carving knife," Smythe called it.

Stumm isn't sure what provoked Greenday's rage, but she believes it was over Greenday's suspicions that Christina's mother was seeing another man. After the stabbings, Stumm was clearing out Greenday and Flail's apartment and found on the kitchen table money orders covering the cost of two bus tickets and a letter from a man in Maryland.

"I think she told him she was leaving, and he found the money orders and that's what set it all off," Stumm said.

Doctors weren't sure whether Christina would survive and, if she did, how much she would be able to use her left leg. She had lost a lot of blood, and transfusion efforts were failing until the medical staff became aware of the back wound, Stumm said. She also was told that Christina probably would have died had she arrived at the hospital any later.

Christina didn't walk for a long time in the hospital, Stumm said, and when she did, she limped badly. To get their niece going again, the Stumms brought in their son Matt Jr., two months younger than Christina. Excited when she saw him, she started to crawl, and then realized she could pull herself up on the pole of her intravenous stand. After she playfully kicked at her uncle while in the tub, showing more use of her left leg, she started undergoing rehabilitation.

Christina also was suffering emotionally. When any male except Matt Stumm got close to her, she dropped to the floor, curled up in a ball, and wet herself.

After Christina didn't respond to counseling, the Stumms made sure no adult male besides Matt Stumm entered the house. Slowly, they began going to the homes of friends who had children, so that Christina could be preoccupied with other children. "And just little by little and I think because of so many people praying . . . after about six months, nine months, it came to be as if she was there all the time and it was just natural," Donna Stumm said. Matt Stumm nicknamed her "Greeny-bop" because of her active nature.

Schoenrock never asked about her parents, Donna Stumm added, but did wonder why her stomach looked different from her cousin Matt's. The Stumms told her that she had suffered a "boo-boo" and that the wound had gotten better.

When she started school and had to write her name, she asked her aunt and uncle why their name was Stumm and hers was Greenday, and Donna Stumm explained that her biological mother had gone to heaven.

Stumm recalls Christina as a model child. She participated in swimming, and she played volleyball and basketball at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne. Her athletic awards and trophies identified her as Greenday, Stumm or Greenday-Stumm.

Growing up, she freely told friends about the stabbing, and, never hesitant to wear a bikini, showed off her scar. The J-shaped wound starts on the left side of her stomach, goes past her navel, and breaks to her right. She thinks the surgery caused the vertical incision, because the horizontal part, about four inches long, matches the position and size of her back scar.

"It made me unique," she said. "It was something different that didn't bother me at all. I wasn't ashamed of it. It was kind of like my thing."

She also went through what she called "teenager things" - smoking pot and drinking alcohol - and said she stopped when she committed her life to Jesus as a teen. The Stumms, though, kept close tabs on their children. Donna Stumm said she always had to know where they were going and what they were doing, and if they didn't tell her, she would "show up mysteriously." Said Schoenrock: "She has eyes everywhere."

In 2003, Schoenrock's church, Life Christian Fellowship in Springfield, Delaware County, hosted an Honor Our Heroes day. For her, picking a hero was easy.

Smythe called the ceremony "really awesome," and said details of the 1982 night remain fresh in his mind.

"I just felt very humbled that I was fortunate enough to be in that place at that time," he said. "That's what it was all about when I started, helping people . . . [and] that is one of the biggest ones."

Said Schoenrock: "I'm very thankful for what Chief Smythe did. I don't even say 'thank you' would be the right word, because it's not just thank you for saving my life. There's something more there, and you just can't express it. Same with my parents," the Stumms. "There's nothing that can express how you feel about people that go above and beyond what they're supposed to be doing, and take care of you."

That Schoenrock has no recollection of the incident is not surprising, said Marylene Cloitre, director of the Institute for Trauma and Resilience at the New York University Child Study Center.

"We don't have very much good information about whether or not kids at age 3 remember trauma more than other types of memory, but we certainly know that from age 3 or less, children do not have memories as we usually think of them," Cloitre said.

Doctors had said the stabbing might keep Schoenrock from bearing children, but she and her husband, an administrative assistant for a health-care management company, have two boys - Jeremy Jr., 3 1/2, and Nathan, 1 1/2 - and she recently learned that she is pregnant again.

"She's just been the biggest blessing you could imagine. And she's been not just one of my kids but she's always been . . ." Donna Stumm said, her voice cracking, " . . . my best friend."