When Lance Lyons woke up that fateful December morning, he wasn't in the same room where he fell asleep.
And he wasn't alone. His brothers were staring at him with odd expressions, unable to speak.
Lyons had no idea why.
The night had begun innocently enough. He arrived home around 1:20 a.m. Saturday after playing a gig at a local restaurant.
As usual, the house was a hive of activity. Two of his four brothers were there, along with some women, cards, music, the swimming pool and food. For as long Lyons could remember, his childhood home, which he now owned, had always been the place where people wanted to congregate.
This time, a new face was part of the crowd, but that was OK. Lyons made himself a meal, plopped down in his La-Z-Boy to eat, then dozed off right there.
Lyons’ next memory was waking up on his bed with his brothers hovering over him.
The part in between – was , when his brother jumped up to stop what could have been a fatal blow, and when the assailant disappeared into the early morning – was a complete blank.
To this day, Lyons, 43, cannot recall the events that have since taken a miraculous turn.
The wild card that night was newcomer Robert Eugene Vasquez. An acquaintance at best, he had briefly worked construction with Lyons' younger brother Sean – and played a few games of softball with Sean and another Lyons sibling, Derek. When Vasquez asked Derek if it was OK to drop by that Friday evening, Derek said sure.
Sean came home around 4:30 p.m., saw Vasquez, ordered pizza for everyone and watched movies, unaware that just one day earlier, Vasquez had allegedly killed a man at the San Juan Mobile Estates.
According to police, on Dec. 1, just before dawn, Vasquez lay in wait at the trailer park, .
Vasquez first punched Rainwater in the back of the head, then stabbed him multiple times, “nearly decapitating him,” according to the district attorney. He then fled.
Orange County Sheriff’s deputies didn’t catch up to him until they tracked down Lyons’ attacker. Once in custody, officials realized the two assailants were actually one and the same.
(Vasquez is due in court next week, charged with murdering Rainwater and assaulting Lyons with a deadly weapon.)
If Vasquez was anxious about the attack on Rainwater, he didn’t show it the next night at Lyons' house.
“He walked in here and pretended like nothing happened,” Lance said. He was “totally friendly, partying with the girls, hanging out. None of us knew he killed somebody. None of us knew he was hiding out. None of us knew he wanted to kill us when we went to sleep.”
A Sixth Sense
Actually, one person did suspect something amiss: Lance’s 93-year-old grandmother, nicknamed “Nanny.” Elayne Burns, a retired teacher, lives with Lance but keeps to her room during Friday night festivities.
That night, she exited her bathroom to find Vasquez standing in her room, just staring at her.
"Hey. Who are you? What are you doing?" she asked. Vasquez responded that he was there to take care of her.
“No, I have a caretaker," Burns replied. "He said, ‘I have to bring you some food.’ "
She told him she already ate. "I had to get rid of him,” Burns recalled. She had her routine, and she wanted to watch the 11 p.m. news.
“I said, ‘The boys are in the other room.’ He had funny eyes. I recognized it right away.”
Burns said Vasquez returned to her room one more time that evening, but she again shooed him away. Her sixth sense was tingling, but she ignored it because she thought Vasquez was friends with her grandsons.
Awakened by the Sound of Breaking Bones
Sean Lyons has a habit of getting up early every day to go to work. So early Dec. 3, somewhere between 5 and 5:30, he woke up, wandered into the family room and saw Vasquez awake on the couch and Lance sleeping on the easy chair.
He made a pot of coffee for Vasquez and the two had a good conversation about kicking drugs. Sean, 40, has been clean eight months.
“I was trying to help him. You learn what you learn, and you try to help someone else,” Sean said. “I would tell him what’s working for me.”
The two started another movie, then fatigue got the best of Sean. His lids felt heavy, and he drifted back to sleep.
The sound of the first blow to Lance’s face, delivered by a 20-pound mallet normally kept in the tool shed, stirred him. Sean snapped awake and stopped Vasquez mid-second blow.
“I guess he didn’t finish me off,” Lance said. “My little brother literally stopped him in motion.”
Sean jumped Vasquez, pinning him down on the fireplace hearth. Vasquez started to cry.
“He apologized to me. He said he was sorry. I was about to take his head off,” Sean said. But he stopped himself short and let Vasquez run away. Sheriff’s deputies caught Vasquez later, but have revealed few details of the arrest.
Lance doesn't remember it, but somehow, he walked to his bedroom. His first memory after the attack is his brothers looking at him. No one said anything, but something wasn’t right, he was sure of it.
Having slept only a few hours, maybe he just needed to wake up more fully, he thought. So he got up, walked outside to the pool and stuck his head in the 55-degree water, something he does often to shake off sleep.
“All this stuff came out of me,” he said. That was the first real indication something was wrong. He didn’t feel any pain, and still no one was saying anything.
“The whole time, I’m like, what? Can someone tell me what’s happened?”
Then he felt it. Not the pain. Parts of his face were not where they belonged.
“I didn’t have a loose tooth. I had a loose head. The bones had separated like a pizza. I’m tasting bone and teeth in my mouth. It tastes like sand, and I’m not liking it.”
Vasquez had clobbered Lance in the face, shattering his jaw and cheeks, but somehow missing his nose.
One of the women in the house got Lance into a car and drove him to in San Clemente.
A Miraculous Recovery
The first days at the hospital were mostly a blur. Lance recalls a concern about his brain swelling, remembers taking an MRI and has heard that sheriff’s deputies interviewed him about the attack, although he has no recollection of it. The memories cleared after he woke up from a six-hour surgery on the third day.
Doctors predicted Lance would be hospitalized for six weeks.
He left after six days.
“Considering what had happened to me, all I have to show for it is this,” Lance said, pointing to a tracheotomy scar. He said friends even like to joke that Lance’s surgeon, Dr. Phillip Wells of San Clemente, who placed titanium plates in his upper jaw, fixed him up more handsome than ever.
“He’s as good as new,” Sean said. “The guy’s a Viking. Probably anybody else would have died.”
But more miraculous than the magical hands of his surgeon, Lance said, was the outpouring of love from friends and family. Every day, someone would come over with a meal, sometimes as often as three times a day.
“I don’t even know how to say thank you anymore.”
Those friends have come through with more than just hot meals (soft for the first weeks as his jaw couldn’t handle regular food). Now they’re coordinating a to help pay the medical bills that continue to pour in. Lance isn't sure of the total, but said it's “well” into the six digits.
(Lance installs pools for a Lake Forest contractor and doesn’t have health insurance.)
The Lance Lyons Recovery Benefit Concert is scheduled for Jan. 29 at the . It will feature a host of local musicians, including Lance’s two bands, Lee Roy and Bunch O Guys. Lance's brothers' band, Lyons Den, will open.
One More Miracle
Lance is convinced Vasquez would have killed everyone sleeping if he could have.
“I’m glad that didn’t happen, and I’m glad the way things turned out the way it did. It was a life-changing thing. The support of my friends and family, I will never look at life the same way again.”
He marvels that the person who saved him is Sean, the same brother he playfully – and sometimes not so playfully – beat up so many times when they were younger.
And when word of the attack started traveling through Lance’s circles of friends and acquaintances, it reached an old flame who has since come back into his life. His eyes light up and he gets flushed talking about her.
“I can’t remember the last time I was so happy,” he said.