BOLIVAR — Friends, relatives, even total strangers rallied Saturday to the aid of a Homer City man whose internet-publicized beating generated a groundswell of public rage several months ago.
A basket raffle fundraising party at the Charles Sutton Post No. 128 American Legion social hall took three forms, really.
Money donated over the afternoon was pledged to the Williams Syndrome Association for research into the genetic illness that has plagued Cody Overdorff with developmental disabilities all his life.
It also was a show of moral support and encouragement for Overdorff, who has undergone therapy for post-traumatic stress since his assault. “It’s a way of showing him that there are a lot of people who do love him,” said his mother, Dana Detwiler.
Detwiler said Cody’s amiable disposition left him vulnerable to the handful of acquaintances that lured him Aug. 20 to Floodway Park near the Hoodlebug Trail in Homer City. There, three men taunted and struck Overdorff and a woman live-streamed video of the assault on social media while Overdorff, 25, pleaded to be left alone.
As public fury grew with the online spread of the video, state police soon arrested and charged the suspected assailants. The wave of anger grew further when police and prosecutors said they were prevented by the letter of the law from charging the four with no charge more serious than a first-degree misdemeanor count of stalking by repeatedly committing acts to cause fear. Counts of simple assault and false imprisonment are second-degree misdemeanors.
But at the benefit Saturday — the event’s third form — came an announcement by state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, that he will sponsor legislation to broaden the definitions of aggravated assault, a felony, to include causing any bodily injury to a person with a physical or intellectual disability.
Struzzi plans to introduce it as “Cody’s Law” in honor of Overdorff.
“No one who does what they did to you will ever get away with it again,” Struzzi told Overdorff as the crowd at the fundraiser applauded.
Struzzi said Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty provided key assistance in writing the legislation as a part of the state crime code.
It’s the fulfillment of pledge Struzzi made about a week after Overdorff was attacked on the trail. He said then that he would co-sponsor similar legislation already under consideration, House Bill 1344, which proposes to add “intellectual or physical disability” to the list of factors that could be considered for prosecuting an attack as a hate crime. The measure has been under study by the House Judiciary Committee most of this year.
But Struzzi said his measure, House Bill 2056, proposes a less complicated change in the crime code and that he’s confident “Cody’s Law” could more readily pick up support among lawmakers.
The announcement was a complete surprise to Overdorff’s family and their supporters at the fundraiser.
Less than an hour before Struzzi’s announcement, Detwiler said she solidly supported HB 1344 and considered it her “mission” to see it passed.
“We’re not going to give up on that bill,” Detwiler said. “This totally did not need to happen — just because Cody is friendly.”
Cody’s friendly nature is one of the products of Williams syndrome, which is caused by the deletion of certain genes on chromosome No. 7. Those with the syndrome have heart and blood vessel problems, elevated blood calcium levels, low birth weight and slow weight gain, colic during infancy, dental abnormalities, kidney abnormalities and distinct facial appearances, such as a prominent “starburst,” or white lacy pattern on the iris of green- and blue-eyed people with Williams syndrome.
And it is marked by an excessively social personality, according to the Williams Syndrome Association website.
“Individuals with Williams syndrome have a very endearing personality. They have a unique strength in their expressive language skills, and are extremely polite. They are typically unafraid of strangers and show a greater interest in contact with adults than with their peers.”
That’s Cody Overdorff.
Detwiler said her son was diagnosed at age 2 when doctors studying his slow development of walking and talking skills uncovered problems requiring open-heart surgery.
The rest of Cody’s personality was revealed over the years, Detwiler said.
“He is so loving and friendly and giving. He loves music,” she said. “And Cody loves being outside. He’s an outdoors kid; he is not a gamer.”
Overdorff graduated in 2013 from United High School. Soon, he’ll join the staff of the Johnstown Flood City Thunder semi-professional football team as an equipment manager.
Thunder team co-founder Georgianne Matava and the players organized the fundraising event at the Bolivar legion.
Detwiler said she envisions, someday, taking Cody to schools in Indiana County to talk to students in special needs classes about bullying and to share an important lesson: “Be aware. Don’t trust everyone,” she said.
Williams isn’t believed to be hereditary.
Detwiler said she and Cody’s father both have been tested and show no signs of Williams syndrome. Nor do Overdorff’s sisters, two older and one younger.
“It’s just something that happens,” Detwiler said.
And it afflicts far fewer people than those suffering from major illnesses that have powerful support, research and lobbying organizations working on their behalf.
Williams syndrome isn’t a household phrase.
“Not until you’re educated — then you know,” Detwiler said.
Others can learn about it at www.williams-syndrome.org.
After covering expenses for the event, Detwiler said, the fundraiser has probably raised about $500 for the Williams Syndrome Association.
Detwiler was buoyed by Struzzi’s proposal, and was all smiles as she showed off a copy of the text of “Cody’s Law.”
“We’re totally ecstatic about it, and that some good can come out of something so bad,” Detwiler said. “We thank Rep. Struzzi so much for pushing for ‘Cody’s Law,’ and we hope they go on a mission now.”