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HIGHLAND  •  Debi Keeney says she last fired her gun 15 years ago, when she took shooting lessons.

The gun was a gift from a friend but it mostly stayed in a side-table drawer, she said, gathering dust. Then, early Sunday morning, Keeney pulled the trigger again — this time, she said, to save her sister’s life.

“I’m very grateful that it fired this morning,” she said Sunday afternoon.

Keeney, 55, said a man forced his way into her apartment in Highland, threw her to the floor and then put her sister, Donna Carlyle, 47, in a choke hold. He demanded money as Carlyle gasped for air.

“All I could see was Donna’s face going blue, like her life was being choked out of her,” said Keeney.

The alleged intruder, 33, was being treated at a hospital Sunday for two gunshot wounds and was listed in critical condition, police said. They have not released his name.

The incident occurred about 3:30 a.m. at an apartment complex in the 2600 block of Eagle Way in Highland. Keeney and Carlyle live next door to each other. Carlyle was visiting her sister’s apartment when the assault happened.

Highland Police Chief Terry Bell said Sunday that the man was shot twice and that police were still “piecing it together.” He added that he had no information to believe the man knew the women. Police for now are keeping the gun as evidence.

Keeney said she thought she only shot the man once with her gun, which she described as a five-shot, .22-caliber derringer. The first bullet she fired, she said, was supposed to be a warning shot.

Keeney also said neither she nor her sister knew the intruder.

“I have no idea where he came from or where he was going,” she said.

She had a clue something was wrong on Friday night, she said, when someone was heard going through the complex jiggling door knobs. She took the gun out from the drawer that night and laid it on top of the side table.

On Sunday afternoon, Keeney expressed some remorse but also pointed out that she felt she had no choice but to use the gun.

“I wish I hadn’t shot him,” she said. “I gave him an opportunity to leave. I wish he had left without me having to shoot him. ... I hate the idea that I had to pull that trigger.”

Still, she added, “Put in the same situation, I would do it again.”

Some of her neighbors did not second-guess her actions.

“I’m proud of her for shooting that dude,” said Rodney Rusick, 68, who lives a few doors down.

Illinois’ self-defense law allows a homeowner to use deadly force if an intruder breaks in violently, or if the homeowner believes deadly force is the only way to prevent the intruder from committing a felony.

Keeney says she was attacked after stepping outside her apartment to smoke a cigarette.

“As I was closing the door behind me, this really big man pushed his way through the door,” she recalled. “I started pushing back. ... He put one arm behind my arm and picked me up and threw me over my couch.”

The man then went behind a recliner, where her sister was sitting, and put Carlyle in a choke hold.

“He had her trapped like a rat,” Keeney said.

Carlyle said she was trying to dial 911 with a cellphone in her left hand while fighting for air with her right hand.

“When he was yanking me up, my feet were in the air,” Carlyle said. “It hurt so bad. I couldn’t lean forward. I could feel the air closing off. I couldn’t breathe at all.”

Keeney said she grabbed the gun — the side table is near the apartment door — and warned the man to let her sister go. He was demanding money, but Keeney said she and her sister both have multiple health problems and support themselves with disability benefits.

“We both were saying we don’t have any money,” she said. “If we would have had any money, we would have given it to him.”

Keeney says she then fired what she thought was a warning shot.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to shoot you if you don’t let her go,’ “ she recalled. “With that, I shot him in the back because he moved from behind the chair. He let her go. He took some steps toward me.”

The man fell to the floor, and Keeney stood over him, waiting for police to arrive.

“I was scared to death that he was going to kill my sister,” she said. “It was dark. He was a huge man, and it was 3-something in the morning.”

One neighbor, Lynn Palenchar, 69, heard the commotion but did not learn what happened until later.

“I was absolutely stunned,” she said. “You don’t expect something like that to happen. I’m just glad both are OK. If he had picked my place over theirs, it would have been a lot worse.”

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Denise Hollinshed is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch