It was 10 p.m on a Friday, and Saman Balkhanian had left the Braves game early. He was walking near Grant Park when he sensed someone behind him. Turning, he saw two teens rushing up.
“What’s up?” he asked, startled but still trying to sound friendly. In that instant, he saw a pistol a couple feet away. He heard a pop and felt sharp pain.
The mind can play tricks during times of urgency and trauma. But he knew right away what had happened. “Holy (smokes), I just got shot in the face.”
He started shouting for help and ran zigzag across the street, hoping to make himself a difficult target.
“Call 911! Call 911!” he yelled into his iPhone. But to his frustration, the Siri app couldn’t make out his panicked requests.
Drawn by his cries, three people from the neighborhood approached to offer help. Someone called 911 – even though two of the Samaritans would later confess that they didn’t believe, despite the blood on his face, that someone so lucid could possibly have been shot in the head.
Pulling off the patch over his right eye, Balkhanian apologizes for the grotesque sight. His eyelid is swollen the size and color of a plum. It has been sewn shut.
“There’s no eye in there,” he said. “There’s just some kind of ball.” It was put there by surgeons the day before, when they removed the eye they had determined could not be saved. Taking it out eased the pressure and the pain.
Given how he looks, it’s a bit bewildering to talk to him. Standing in a hallway of his parents’ home in Johns Creek, the 22-year-old makes small talk, chatting about the Braves-Dodgers game that he left early, about moving here from Iran at the age of 4, about his finance and accounting degrees from Georgia State University, about working for a business that manufactures “rustic” looking furniture.
He’s affable, thoughtful, enthusiastic, even funny. He jokes that an eye patch makes for a stylish look.
Life can be a matter of millimeters. The bullet — a .22-caliber, he says — entered his face between the bridge of his nose and his eye. He could have ended up paralyzed. Or brain damaged. Or wearing a toe-tag.
“It was stone murder,” he said. “At least, that was his intention. I cheated death.”
“I lost an eye but don’t even care,” he says, getting reflective. “I’m alive. Here I am a week later and speaking in a coherent fashion. And I just got shot point blank in the face!”
He is no newbie when it comes to city living. After graduating from Northview High School, he moved to Atlanta four years ago to attend college and lives in a neighborhood near Georgia Tech. There was a shooting near his rental home, and a dope fiend tried to mug him downtown after a Hawks game.
“I know the city well; I know what’s dangerous. I know where to walk and not walk,” he said. He likes to walk, miles and miles. In fact, he was going to walk home the four miles that night, taking a longer route than necessary because he likes the neighborhood west of Grant Park.
“A lot of times I don’t walk the most efficient way,” he said with a smile.
He knew the two teens were in the vicinity: He’d seen them as he headed east on Georgia Avenue. “They looked like high schoolers, maybe 15 to 19 years old. They weren’t big or intimidating,” he says.
He figures they must have ducked in behind a church in order to ambush him from between a couple buildings.
He’s angry, of course, but does not want to get eaten up by it. “Whether these guys get caught or not, I don’t know. But living that lifestyle will not turn out well for them.”
He wonders if there will be a residual trauma on his psyche. He’d like to get therapy, just in case. He had nightmares while he was at Grady Memorial Hospital, but having his mother at his bedside for the entire 6-day stay helped.
During those six days, four people were robbed at gunpoint within a couple of miles of where Balkhanian was shot. Police believe the same thugs were involved.
Two days after Grady released him, on the night of May 25, there were three more incidents within minutes of one another.
It’s the last one Balkhanian can’t shake.
A 33-year-old man named Patrick Cotrona was walking to a bar in East Atlanta Village shortly before 11 when he and two friends were accosted by two youths. One of them shot Cotrona in the abdomen. He shot one of Cotrona’s friends in the leg and ran off without taking any money.
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Cotrona didn’t make it – and that fills Balkhanian with guilt.
“Seeing that that kid died really messed with me,” he says, getting more emotional than he did in describing his own shooting.
“I hate even comparing myself to him,” he says. “The same thing happened: innocent people out there walking. One walks away. One doesn’t.”