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Diane Marcell was looking forward to having lunch with her 17-year-old daughter, Brittani — when she opened the door to the family’s Albuquerque home and made a grisly discovery.
Brittani was lying on the floor, covered in blood.
“I see a person I’ve never seen before in my house and he’s holding a shovel and he walks through my living room, drops the shovel and walks through the dining room and around to the kitchen, and I am looking at him and he tells me I’m next, while he’s reaching for a butcher knife,” Diane recalled to “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered,” airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
Terrified, Diane ran from the house screaming. Someone passing by the home heard her and bravely decided to run into the home.
The attacker was gone — fleeing through a dining room window — but Brittani, a once vibrant and bubbly teenager, lay on the ground fighting for her life.
She was rushed to a local hospital, where Diane says doctors “didn’t think she’d survive,” as investigators converged on the scene of the usually quiet Albuquerque neighborhood on Sept. 11, 2008.
Albuquerque Police Detective Jason Morales was shocked by the “very brutal” nature of the attack. An unknown attacker had hit Brittani so hard with a shovel it crushed the left part of her skull.
“Once we were able to go inside, you could see it was pretty violent,” he told “Dateline” reporter Andrea Canning.
The attacker had left behind a bloody shovel, knife, and roll of duct tape, but he had also unintentionally left behind another critical clue. After he jumped out of the dining room window, the attacker had also left behind his DNA in one small droplet of blood found on a shard of glass from the broken window.
Morales believed it could be the clue to break open the case, but after uploading the DNA into the national CODIS database, a database run by the FBI of DNA profiles gathered from across the country, there were no hits.
Without an obvious suspect in the case, Morales decided to re-examine Brittani’s life in the months leading up to the brutal attack.
“This just seemed so personal,” he said. “It seemed to me at the time that we were looking at somebody that either knew Brittani or knew somebody in the family or there was something, there’s more of a connection.”
Morales delved into Brittani’s social life, checking out a guy she had sort of been dating at the time, friends, and those who may have interacted with the teen at her job working at a sunglass kiosk at the Cottonwood Mall.
Police also considered whether the attacker may have had a connection to Brittani’s brother or one of her five sisters — yet nothing turned up any promising leads.
“Really, at this point, we had no suspect at all, so everybody is,” Morales said.
Back at the hospital, Brittani’s family was terrified the attacker would strike again and the teen was admitted to the hospital under an assumed name.
Her prognosis didn’t look good. While in the ICU, a portion of her brain was removed and she fought a battle with meningitis. Brittani’s ear canal had been crushed, leaving her deaf in one ear and her optic nerve was severed during the violent blows to her head.
“We talked to her and she’d blink her eyes and smile, but we knew at that point, there was a lot of paralysis,” her mom, Diane, said.
Through three tense months, the family took turns sitting at her bedside until doctors told the family it looked like Brittani would survive.
Five months after the attack, she was released from the hospital. Still terrified the unknown attacker might return, Diane moved Brittani and two of her sisters to Texas, where they found her an intense rehabilitation program.
“She didn’t realize why she couldn’t walk, why she couldn’t eat, why she had to learn all these things all over again,” Diane said.
Dr. Lori Wright, a neuropsychologist who worked with the teen, told “Dateline: Secrets Uncovered” Brittani was often “confused” and cried a lot, but through cognitive behavioral therapy — a process that reteaches the brain through repetition — Brittani began to regain her abilities.
Brittani herself, who was left permanently deaf in one ear and blind in her left eye, credits her mother’s determination with helping her regain a new life.
“She’s been there with me on every medical appointment, every surgery, it’s like she’s somebody who I look up to very much so, she’s like my best friend now,” Brittani told “Dateline.”
But the attack had also caused significant damage to Brittani’s memory and she was unable to remember most of her high school career — including who had attacked her that fateful morning.
For years, the case would remain unsolved even after a new detective, Jodi Gonterman, took over the case.
Gonterman was committed to solving it, looking into 75 different men provided by the family as potential suspects and encouraging Brittani to undergo hypnosis in 2014 to try to recover memories she may have suppressed from her attack.
Under hypnosis, Brittani was able to describe her attacker, referring to him as a tall man with a light complexion and spikey hair, but she was unable to provide a name.
She did provide one possible clue, however, by suggesting that the man may have been someone she knew from work or was possibly a customer at the sunglass kiosk where she worked.
A few years later, in 2016, Brittani told her family that for some reason the name “Justin” kept coming to her mind but she didn’t know why. Her sisters remembered a popular, good-looking guy named Justin Hansen who had worked at the mall, but they had no reason to suspect he would have ever harmed Brittani.
“He worked at Hollister and he’d come down over to my kiosk and all and he’d, you know sit, there and chat and all,” Brittani said of what she remembered of the friendship.
Brittani provided the name to Gonterman, who put it aside while she pursued other avenues in the case.
To gain more information about who investigators might be looking for, Gonterman turned to Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company, who had just begun ground-breaking analysis that allowed scientists to determine a person’s genetic characteristics, like their ethnicity, hair color and eye color, through DNA.
She didn’t turn her focus back to Hansen until she got the report from Parabon and noticed an uncanny resemblance between Hansen and the sketch created by the laboratory.
“When we saw that composite, I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” she said. “I still didn’t want to keep my hopes up because I didn’t want to get disappointed again.”
Gonterman and another detective paid a visit to Hansen, who was now a married father of four. While he remembered Brittani he downplayed their relationship, saying that he had “walked by maybe” but never had “like a hang out.”
She had police officers follow him and covertly collect a DNA sample from some McDonald’s he discarded in the trash and finally had her match to the crime scene.
Although Hansen insisted that he hadn’t attacked Brittani, he agreed to plead no contest to attempted murder in the first-degree as part of a plea deal in the case.
“I mean I want to go to trial, I wanted to clear my name but I just felt like the odds were against me and I didn’t want to chance 50 to 60 years away from my kids and that is kind of what pushed me into the plea,” he told “Dateline” a day before he was sentenced to 18 years behind bars.
Brittani believes she was attacked because Hansen had “some jealousy” and thinks she may have turned down his advances before the attack.
By the time he was sentenced, Brittani had already endured 22 painful surgeries, but she planned to go back for one more surgery to try to regain her smile, something she lost as a result of the paralysis.
“I’m going to go for it,” she said.
For more on this case and others like it, watch "Dateline: Secrets Uncovered," airing Wednesdays at 8/7c on Oxygen or stream episodes here.
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