'The unthinkable': Survivor in shooting that killed her friend reflects on trauma of gun violence
Before she was gunned down on a sidewalk outside a bar in downtown Bloomington, Bibi Cornejo gave little thought to gun violence, much less the possibility that she could be its victim.
Cornejo’s understanding of the trauma and harm of gunfire changed on Jan. 30, 2021, when Michael Bakana fired 10 rounds towards her and her friend, Mariah Petracca, following a dispute among the three among outside Daddios bar on North Main Street in downtown Bloomington.
Cornejo was struck multiple times, the bullets tearing through her left arm, thigh and back. Petracca, 22, was standing between Bakana and Cornejo when she was shot three times in the back.
Bakana, 44, was convicted in May of murder in Petracca’s death and attempted murder for the shots he fired at Cornejo. He was scheduled to be sentenced June 22, but a McLean County court administrator said the hearing has been postponed.
The 25-year-old survivor cannot recall the argument that led to Bakana going to his car for his handgun — a night of heavy drinking erased those details — but the slivers of what she recalls explain what happened afterward: a warm sensation to her back, flashing lights and emergency medical workers and police urging her to stay awake, reassuring her “that everything was gonna be OK.”
The next day, Cornejo’s parents and Bloomington Police detectives helped fill in some of the blanks about why she was hospitalized. More information about the incident would come later in police interviews with Bakana.
“I started piecing it all together and I realized, wow — the unthinkable happened to me,” Cornejo said in a recent interview with WGLT.
The unthinkable left Cornejo with severe injuries to her left arm. Her shattered elbow was put back together with metal plates and screws. Damaged tendons were repaired to restore mobility to her wrist and fingers. Because she is left-handed, the long recovery included learning to use her right hand for everyday tasks.
“It was like learning how to live life all over again. It was the most stressful, long process I’ve ever been through,” said Cornejo.
The lasting impairment to her arm forced Cornejo to trade her job as a bartender and server for a position working at a computer. The new job is fine, she said, “but it’s just not what I love to do.”
In the year that Cornejo and her friend were shot, more than 48,000 people in the U.S. died from gun-related injuries, according to 2021 data from the Center for Disease Control. Suicides accounted for 26,000 of those deaths.
So far this year, the U.S. has seen more than 19,000 gun deaths, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that catalogs every incident of gun violence in the country.
Boston University’s School of Public Health participated in a multi-decade analysis of firearm injuries that showed 30% of victims will die after being shot, 30% will be treated and released from an emergency room, and roughly 40% will remain hospitalized for further treatment.
Non-fatal injuries make up about 70% of all firearm injuries, according to the study. For every person who dies, two additional people are wounded by gunfire.
For Cornejo, the physical damage caused by the bullets was just one element of the long-lasting consequences she navigated after the shooting.
On the issue of her mental health, Cornejo said, “It’s definitely a roller coaster of emotions. I feel as the months and years go on, mentally, it is all starting to affect me more than it did in the beginning. I think in the beginning, it was more so physical recovery, that I was focused on that and I didn’t have time to sit and think, ‘This is what happened, this is how your life has changed, this is how other people’s lives have changed.’”
She has learned to live with the scars that cover her mended wounds but, “internally, long term, I have lost myself for sure,” said Cornejo. It is difficult for some people to understand that “this is a life-altering thing that happened to me and it takes time, for sure.”
Cornejo concedes that anger is one of the toughest emotions she’s dealt with since the shooting. She sees the alcohol-fueled argument as a major contributor to the gun violence that changed the lives of all three individuals.
She explains the anger this way: “Just because it isn’t fair to Mariah that she lost her life, my life has changed and Michael Bakana’s life is going to change as well. It’s not like it’s just Mariah’s life — it’s everybody’s life that changed, you know, and unfortunately because of alcohol that night, a lot of people lost their lives. It’s something I really wish I could take back and change and that’s the part that frustrates me and it angers me because I can’t do anything about it. I can only, I guess, learn from those mistakes now and just move forward.”
If Cornejo had the chance to speak to Bakana, she would apologize to him because “not only did Mariah lose her life, but Michael’s life will change forever. And this is not something that I ever wanted to happen to anybody. I don’t wish any ill on anybody.”
The apology does not extend to what Bakana did to her friend.
“I don’t forgive him for the fact that he did take my friend’s life, but I do forgive him, for what happened, you know, for my own peace of mind. I want to look past this and live my life as normally as I can. But he will get what he deserves,” she said.
Road to recovery
The road to recovery cannot be walked alone, said Cornejo. Family support during the healing process has made the steep climb less discouraging.
“My family definitely feels everything I go through,” she said. Coping with the fear of going out in public is one example of the lingering trauma Cornejo’s family has helped her face.
Bakana’s conviction has helped relieve some of the angst that has followed the gunshot survivor. “Part of me feels like this weight has been lifted off my chest. I feel like I can actually breathe,” she said.
Gone are the fears that Bakana could be acquitted. “I definitely feel like I can sleep at night,” she said.
What has endured is the frightening possibility that she could be injured again, by another bullet at another time.
“I wake up every day and that’s a thought in my head … this could absolutely happen again. And I’m always so much more aware of my surroundings, because you never know — anything could happen at any time,” said Cornejo.
In 2022, Bloomington-Normal saw a significant increase in gun incidents, with five people killed and a dozen more injured, according to police data and WGLT reporting. The 69 incidents of gunfire represented the most in at least four years.
So far this year, the trend has turned downward in Bloomington. The city has seen a total of 13 gun-related incidents involving three injuries but no fatalities.
“While gun-related incidents are a reality, the men and women of the Bloomington Police Department make every effort to prevent incidents of gun violence from occurring and to bring those responsible to justice," Bloomington Police Department spokesman Brandt Parsley told WGLT.
For her part, Cornejo would like people to consider gun violence “a real-life issue,” not only for those who die, but for those who survive gunshot wounds.
“It’s a sad reality nowadays that people feel like you have to resort to gun violence. And that’s not necessarily the case. It should never be your first instinct or thought that, 'I’m going to settle this with a gun,' because not only are you taking somebody’s life, but you’re taking your life from somebody,” said Cornejo.