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ELGIN, Texas — Payton Washington, one of two Texas cheerleaders shot in April after her friend accidentally opened the door of the wrong car, is speaking out for the first time since the attack that left her in critical condition.
“My spleen was shattered. My stomach had two holes in it. And my diaphragm had two holes in it. And then they had to remove a lobe from my pancreas. I had 32 staples,” said Washington.
Washington, 18, described the terrifying incident in an exclusive interview Friday with “Good Morning America” co-anchor Michael Strahan.
“I was actually texting and (eating) Twizzlers,” Washington said of the moments before someone opened the door of her teammate’s car.
Just after midnight on April 18, Washington and three of her fellow teammates with the Woodlands Elite Cheer Company finished practice and were in the HEB parking lot in Elgin, Texas.
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One teammate, Heather Roth, 21, opened the door of a vehicle that she thought was hers, but a stranger, later identified by police as Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., 25, was in the passenger seat.
Roth, who later spoke out on Instagram Live after the incident, said she got out of the car and went back to her friend’s vehicle where the three other cheerleaders, including Washington, were sitting. According to authorities, Rodriguez allegedly approached the vehicle with the cheerleaders, and when Roth rolled down the window to apologize, Rodriguez opened fire on the four cheerleaders, injuring Roth and shooting Washington three times.
Washington told Strahan she acted on instinct at the moment.
“I turned immediately with my blanket,” she said. “I didn’t know where it was coming from or anything, but it being so loud that my ears were ringing, I knew to turn and do something.”
The cheerleaders drove off while the shots continued to fire. Washington said she began to notice she was having trouble breathing and realized she had been shot.
“We were tryin’ to get away. I really was just telling myself to breathe. It was hard to breathe because of my diaphragm,” she said. “I was trying to stay as calm as possible for the other people in the car. I could tell how sad and scared they were.”
Very quickly, she knew “something was wrong.” “I saw blood on (my passenger) seat. So I knew somewhere I was bleeding. But I had so much adrenaline, I didn’t really know where,” said Washington. “And then whenever we pulled over and opened the door, I was like, ‘Oh, gotta throw up.’ And that’s when I was throwing up blood.”
Rodriguez allegedly fled the scene, but was later arrested at his home, according to court documents. He’s since been charged with deadly conduct, a third-degree felony, said police. Rodriguez’s bail was initially set at $500,000 but was reduced to $100,000, according to his attorney. Rodriguez is currently released on bail and has yet to enter a plea.
Roth, who was grazed by a bullet, was treated for her injuries and released at the scene, while Washington was helicoptered to a hospital near Austin in critical condition.
Washington went through a series of lifesaving procedures to treat the two bullets that struck her backside and a shot through her left abdomen.
However, she said “the hardest part was after the surgeries.”
Before the shooting, Washington had been accepted to Baylor University and was set to join its acrobatics and tumbling team in the fall. Now, she said simple things, like getting up from bed or standing by yourself are challenging.
“It was hard … hurting to walk or stand is really weird when, a week before, you were doing a bunch of flips, running the track, and doing long jump, and all this stuff,” said Washington.
But she said she won’t dwell on the past.
“He did what he did, and I’m just gonna try and get through it. There’s no point in me really thinking about what he did,” she said.
Only five weeks after the shooting, Washington joined her friends at graduation. She said she’s committed to getting her life back.
“You can literally do anything if you push and you persevere,” she said. “Don’t doubt yourself ever because you can do anything as long as you’re putting your 120% into it.”