The family of an Armagh woman left brain-damaged after a brutal mugging in Chicago say she deserved to see her attacker convicted.
Heriberto Viramontes (34) was convicted of attempted murder, but his victim – Natasha McShane – was too ill to travel across the Atlantic to see justice being served.
Viramontes viciously attacked Natasha and her friend Stacy Jurich with a baseball bat in the early hours of April 23, 2010, as they returned home from a night out in the Bucktown neighbourhood of Chicago, before snatching their bags.
His then girlfriend Marcy Cruz was the getaway driver and told a court earlier this year how the pair plundered the women's possessions. Stripper Cruz was jailed for 22 years in July for her role in a plea deal that meant she became the main prosecution witness.
The McShane family were back in Chicago this week for the first time since the devastating attack which left Natasha with severe brain damage.
The 27-year-old remains unable to walk without support and barely able to talk.
Her brother Conor told the Belfast Telegraph that the verdict had brought the family some closure, but it wouldn't help Natasha herself.
"It's just a relief that it's all over, he's been found guilty. But for us nothing really has changed; we still have to go home and our sister still isn't going to be any better," he said.
"But it is closure, it's the end of this chapter, we can concentrate on getting her better."
Conor said that his sister deserved to have been there with them.
"We would have loved to have Natasha here but due to her injuries she is not able to fly over," he said.
"She deserves to be here more than anybody."
The McShane family have told Natasha about the trial, but Conor said they cannot be sure if she is aware.
"It's hard for us to say because it is difficult for her to communicate, it's a guessing game," he said.
"She seems to know what is going on but we just can't say for sure. She is currently receiving some physical therapy. We will never give up hope that she will make a full recovery.
"In my eyes Natasha will get back one day to where she should have been. We will do anything we can to help her recover."
Conor said the family felt nothing when they saw Viramontes in court.
"I don't care for the man. We try not to think about him, he's nothing to us. He deserves what he got, justice has been done," he said, confirming that neither Viramontes nor Cruz have ever tried to contact the family. The guilty verdict against Viramontes was announced in the early hours of Friday morning UK time.
The jury also found the 34-year-old guilty on six charges of aggravated battery and two of armed robbery.
He faces a maximum 120 years in prison when sentenced, likely later this year.
Members of the McShane family hugged each other and cried after the verdict was read out after some three-and-a-half hours deliberating.
Speaking outside the court, Conor thanked the prosecutors and the people of Chicago for their overwhelming "support and generosity".
Stacy Jurich, now 27, said she is relieved Viramontes will not walk the streets again.
"This has been the hardest time of my entire life, a struggle for me and what happened to my best friend Natasha," she said.
Chicago's lead prosecutor Anita Alvarez, Cook County State's Attorney, said her office was "pleased and relieved" that Viramontes will be held accountable for the "brutal and senseless" beating.
"We live in a beautiful city and it's a shame someone like Natasha McShane, here to continue her schooling, visiting from Ireland, was not able to enjoy our city," she said. "Instead of a welcoming, she was confronted with a baseball bat."
Random act of pure evil that ruined a life
BY CHRIS KILPATRICK
Minutes earlier she had set off for home having spent the night with friends toasting an offer of an internship.
But Natasha McShane's laughter and jovial mood, like her dreams and aspirations, were suddenly shattered when a flurry of blows rained down on the defenceless young woman and her friend.
Natasha lay motionless and with devastating brain injuries, having been struck several times with a baseball bat.
The mugger ran off having snatched the women's purses.
They contained a total of just £31.
The almost unimaginable nightmare turn of events left Natasha wheelchair-bound and unable to talk or walk unaided.
The intelligent and popular young woman's life plans were left in tatters as a result of the random and horrifically violent attack.
Natasha had been making her way home through a Chicago underpass in the early hours of April 23, 2010 along with her friend Stacy Jurich.
They had been toasting the news that Natasha, from south Armagh, had been awarded an internship allowing her to extend her stay in America.
Minutes after enjoying their night out at a bar in the Bucktown area, the pair were attacked by a man wielding an aluminium baseball bat.
Natasha, then just 23 and thousands of miles from home, was left fighting for her life.
Ms Jurich managed to raise the alarm and the two women were rushed to a local hospital.
Stacy needed 15 stitches to her head, but Natasha's injuries would completely change her life.
Suffering major trauma to her head, Natasha was confined to hospital for several months, her life hanging in the balance.
Doctors had to place her in an induced coma because of the swelling around her brain.
She left the US by air ambulance in July 2010 and was showing signs for optimism among her loved ones, eating, walking with assistance and managing to speak a few words.
However, her recovery deteriorated shortly after her return to Northern Ireland.
Her heartbroken family have no idea whether Natasha remembers her life prior to the night it was changed forever.
All they can do is spend time with her. Her sister styles her hair, her aunt paints her nails and her grandmother provides her with company.
Natasha sleeps in a bed in the living-room of the family home and by day sits on the sofa or in her wheelchair in silence.
More than three years after the brutal assault, Natasha is finally strong enough to take a few steps on a walker – small steps on what will be a long road to recovery.