Lazorchack, who called him “V,” worried about him. But the next day, the old sunny “V” was back, ordering his favorite — chicken Caesar salad — from the kitchen. “No worries,” he said. “Today is the beginning of the rest of my life.”
And now, two days later, at about 6:30 on this Saturday evening, Nov. 3, 2007, during a cigarette break on the back staircase that descended to the alley, Djordjevic was offering some advice to Lazorchack, to chill out and not get so stressed about work.
“I’m not going to kill myself for this job,” he said.
Back inside, the music was pounding. A favorite song at the time was “Gasolina,” by Daddy Yankee. Colored lights washed over the skin of the dancers gyrating on three stages. Men tossed $1 bill offerings that swirled and piled like leaves around the dancers’ patent leather platform soles and sparkly high heels, their only attire for most of a 15-minute set.
The club on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Glover Park is long and narrow, like a super-size railroad car. At a table near the back, a customer was getting boisterous. He was a stranger, not a regular, and he had been drinking since a little past 4 p.m.
Suddenly, around 7:45 p.m., Gabriella, the dancer on the adjacent stage, became wide-eyed and indignant. She grabbed the man’s cellphone when she thought she saw him taking pictures. The managers deleted a photo of a naked woman, then told the man to leave. On his way out, the man cursed and smashed a glass onto the floor.
Djordjevic had been working since morning, and now his shift was over. His wife of three months, Gloria Anez, parked out front a little before 8 p.m. Djordjevic got in the car — then saw something out the window that made him frantic. He rushed back into the club.
A waitress was presenting a Good Guys T-shirt to a customer celebrating his bachelor party with Marine Corps buddies, when two struggling figures burst into view. Djordjevic was grappling with a man clutching a red gas can in his right hand and a lighter in his left. Gas splashed as they clenched and spun.
The man sparked the lighter. Nothing. He sparked it again. And with a hollow roar, a ball of flame erupted from floor to ceiling. Dancers leapt from the stages, feeling the heat on their backs as they fled. The man with the gas can disappeared out the front. Rolling black smoke chased customers, waitresses and dancers into a stampede to the rear.
Djordjevic ran with them. His entire body was on fire except for his face. He made it to the dishwashing sink, where the kitchen staff doused him with water. Marines from the bachelor party put out the flames by the entrance with an extinguisher they got from Sushi-Ko, the restaurant next door.
No one else was burned. They gathered in the alley, at the foot of the back stairs. A few of the dancers were nude — shivering and goose-bumped.
Djordjevic appeared at the top of the metal steps. His body was steaming. Fire had burned off his clothes and almost all of his skin. He stepped stiffly, with his arms held rigidly away from his sides, like a mummy in a horror movie.
“It’s the guy,” he said in a strong voice. “It’s the guy.” He also said, “Stay calm.” And, “Don’t touch me.”
In the controlled frenzy of the burn intensive care unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, a nurse grabbed a diagram of a human figure. Standard procedure was to mark areas to indicate a new patient’s severe burns. She crosshatched almost the entire picture.
Eighty-five to 95 percent, estimated surgeon James Jeng.
In his then-14 years at the burn center — where the region’s most critical burn patients are sent, including survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon — Jeng had never seen a person burned over as large an area who survived. He considered Djordjevic’s injuries “at the very edge of what’s doable. The extreme edge.”
Jeng was accustomed to operating at the frontier of the possible. He thought one of the nation’s top burn centers should be pushing the science of burn care. He emigrated from Taiwan as a boy and grew up poor, without much hope, he said. He liked giving people hope.
“I’m in the business of happy endings,” Jeng said.
Three days after the fire, using automatic teller machine records and photos, Metropolitan Police detectives and the regional arson task force tracked a suspect to a Days Inn in Alexandria. Officers burst in with guns drawn. They found a man with severe burns on both arms. An “accelerant detection canine” from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — a fire dog named Sparky — sniffed gasoline on the man’s jeans.
He was Vasile Graure, 37, a Romanian immigrant and a truck driver from Phoenix who was between jobs.
When Djordjevic — sounds like “Georgia-vich” — was about 5, his parents took him camping. They had already set up their campsite when another family arrived nearby. That father didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Vladimir grabbed his hammer and trotted over to show the man how to set pegs and erect a tent.
“I taught him to help everybody,” Predrag Djordjevic said of his son. “Be gentle. Be friendly. And what he wanted for himself must be what is good for everybody.”
Vladimir skied, fenced and swam competitively. He worked in Web design for American companies that outsourced tasks to Serbian techies. He told his father he wanted to seek opportunities in the United States.
He arrived in early 2005 in a program that put Serbs to work as pool lifeguards in Northern Virginia. Several months later, at Cafe Citron, in Dupont Circle, he met Gloria Anez. She wouldn’t give him her number, so he typed his into her phone. He assumed she was Asian, but soon after, on their first date, he was surprised when she took a cellphone call and answered in Spanish. This daughter of a Bolivian military attache did look Asian, in an Andean sort of way.
She thought he was gorgeous. And he was adventurous, gregarious, spontaneous, while she was introspective, shy, a bit of a hermit. “He helped me come out of my shell,” she said.
They were married on July 12, 2007. Good Guys was not her favorite place for her husband to work, but it paid well enough. She said she had nothing to worry about.
Good Guys. The name captures the complicated dynamics of Washington’s relationship with its adult entertainment emporiums: just a bunch of good guys having a harmless good time.
Operating since the mid-1960s, the club is one of the oldest of Washington’s nine strip joints. Owner Behnam “Ben” Zanganeh emigrated from Iran in 1963 and became a self-made success as a club and restaurant owner. Some people would always disapprove of nude dancing, he knew. As a survival strategy, he worked hard to align his establishments with the wholesome side of life. He cast Good Guys as a kind of Cheers with naked women. A core of regular customers and some longtime employees — such as Lazorchack, who is married with three children she has home-schooled — anchors the high turnover of dancers and the transience of many strip club patrons.
Over the years, Good Guys contributed to the Stoddert Elementary School PTA’s Big Chili fundraiser and sponsored a ride at the Fall Fun Fair. On Glover Park Day, Zanganeh would send a cook and a waitress to serve Good Guys burgers. He advertised in the Glover Park Gazette: “Fine Dining & Exotic Entertainment in Glover Park since 1966.”
Yet as Glover Park has grown more chic and attractive to young families, Good Guys — a windowless facade near a Whole Foods and a baseball diamond — has seemed ever more anachronistic and offensive to many neighbors.
Zanganeh was not present the night of the fire. The club reopened within a week, but the Good Guys community was emotionally shattered. Lazorchack had trembling fits. A sudden loud bang would send dancers jumping from the stages. The club banned “Gasolina” from the jukebox.
At the Christmas party that December, the employees presented Gloria Anez and Predrag Djordjevic with a giant trophy cup for the hospitalized Vladimir. It was inscribed, “V,” and “Our Hero.” A plaque listed the names of 77 employees: Kat, Teaze, Chyna Doll, Royale, Passion, Golden, Gabriella....
Skin — supple, curvy, tight, bouncy, milky, chocolate, caramel, tattooed, stretched, exposed — makes Good Guys possible. But as an organ system, skin’s mysteries are still being explored.
Skin is the first line of defense against bacteria and toxins. It also plays unanticipated roles, Jeng says, in the immune system, nervous system and temperature regulation.
Jeng’s team began a series of more than 100 operations to restore Djordjevic’s envelope of skin. The surgeon harvested outer layers of unburnt skin, then meshed it into a skin net to stretch over larger sections of flesh. Seeding areas with skin would coax new skin to grow, but there wasn’t nearly enough unburnt skin. So, the team turned to pig skin, cadaver skin and artificial skin, to buy time while native skin grew.
“It’s basically a race between getting the wounds closed and having an infection that can no longer be controlled with antibiotics,” Jeng said.
At the edge of the possible, the team turned to techniques it had never used before. Samples of Djordjevic’s skin cells were grown into sheets, and Jeng also tried “postage stamp grafting,” where he spread small pieces of Djordjevic’s harvested skin like stamps, which seemed better able to withstand infection than the meshed pieces.
A year after the fire, Jeng was able to say, “I’m amazed at the fact that we have almost got him covered with his own skin.”
During the first month, Anez, then in her mid-30s, slept some nights in a waiting room. Predrag Djordjevic took an indefinite leave from his job as a high school physical education teacher in Serbia. Vladimir’s mother, Marica, and his younger sister, Nada, came for extended visits. The family helped change the wound dressings.
“I can say I know my husband inside and out, in all senses of the word,” Anez said later. “Muscles. Veins. Tendons. Everything.”
As Vladimir began to wake from months of heavy sedation, his wife and father discovered he was deaf. The powerful antibiotics used to fight bacteria had destroyed his hearing. So they got a white board and wrote messages to him.
It was unclear whether he would be able to walk and use his hands, whether he and Anez would be able to have children. Because of the danger of introducing new bacteria, Anez could only touch her husband through hospital gloves.
But Djordjevic was making progress. In March 2009, 16 months after the fire, he was discharged to the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington. After a period of physical therapy, doctors said, he would be able to move back home with Anez.
“Everybody tells me I’m a hero. What kind of hero am I if I’m suffering every day?” he said to Anez. “How can I live? How can I be able to work and take care of you?”
He said to his father, maybe he should have been “a bad boy,” used drugs, joined a gang. Instead, he had been a good guy — and yet, could the outcome have been any worse?
He tried to look on the bright side, even planning the honeymoon he and Anez had yet to take. He read the inspiring book “On a Ring and a Prayer” by David Borowski, who was badly burned as an infant and went on be an executive at Freddie Mac. Djordjevic began mapping out his own book.
Predrag Djordjevic cooked his son Serbian meals, and Anez picked up chicken Caesar salads at Good Guys.
One day he sat propped up in his bed. He had the gnarled hands of an older person, but his face was the same old “V,” still handsome.
“I think I’m going to get better,” he said. And: “It’s about time [for] somebody [to] pay the price.”
Later in March, Graure was sentenced in Superior Court to 30 years and eight months for assault with intent to kill Djordjevic, arson and other charges. A Good Guys regular — an electronics technician from Takoma Park — had identified Graure as the guy with the gas.
In preparing the prosecution case, Assistant U.S. Attorneys T. Patrick Martin and Kacie Weston spent time getting to know Djordjevic.
“I will never forget a time when we were visiting him in the hospital, and he was still in very bad shape, as he always was,” Weston said. “And he was telling us about his sister who was back in Serbia. They don’t have a lot of money, and he wanted to see if there was a way to send her money so she could buy a car. I remember sitting there and listening to him and thinking, ‘Look where you are and look at what happened to you.’ So many people would be so enveloped in that, and all that he cared about was his family and what was going on with them, and how he could help them. That to me just epitomized him.”
In May 2009, wounds on Djordjevic’s back were reopening. He was readmitted to the hospital. Since the beginning, Jeng and his team had battled the onslaught of bacteria. Djordevic’s body was besieged by so much bacteria, over such a long period, that the microbes became increasingly resistant to antibiotics, Jeng said. Antibiotics are a finite arsenal, while adaptive bacteria are potentially infinite.
“You take your hand of cards of antibiotics and you sit there and you play poker with the bacteria that are setting up housekeeping and causing infection,” Jeng said. “You never have a strong hand.”
Djordjevic spent another year in the hospital, visited every day by his wife and father. In springtime, doctors realized that his burns were proving to lie just beyond the threshold of the possible. The infection moved into his bloodstream. His face swelled almost beyond recognition.
On May 17, 2010, after 926 days in hospital beds — the longest a patient ever spent in the burn unit — in almost constant pain, Djordjevic died of complications from untreatable bacterial infections. He was 28.
The funeral home was a few blocks from Good Guys. More than 100 mourners — family members, friends, hospital staffers, prosecutors and strip club employees — paid their respects.
Anez accompanied her husband’s body to Serbia, where he was buried next to his grandparents. In the Serbian tradition, a photo of him was embedded in the black monument. On his gravestone, he is handsome again, with lively eyes and healthy skin.
Now the matter was murder. At his second trial, in January, Graure — who had remained silent at his first trial — made a startling declaration:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m 100 percent responsible for what happened that night, and for what happened to Mr. Djordjevic.”
Yet, he insisted, he was not guilty of murder. And he would act as his own lawyer.
It’s rare for a defendant who is already serving time for assault to be re-indicted for murder after the victim dies. Most critically injured victims simply don’t live long enough for the wheels of justice to turn so far. The defense claimed double-jeopardy, but prosecutors dug up a precedent from 1912.
Meanwhile, Martin and Weston had that rarest of experiences for prosecutors in a homicide case: They personally knew the victim. Usually, prosecutors handling a murder don’t get involved until the victim is dead.
Shortly before opening arguments, Martin and Weston each received an e-mail whose arrival was so spooky that neither mentioned it to the other. The content was spam. The sender: “Vladimir Djordjevic.” Djordjevic had entered their contact information into his computer in the hospital, and now they supposed a bug had taken over the account.
“It almost felt like maybe some encouragement to keep moving forward,” Martin said.
Graure had immigrated at 18, in 1989, with help from a foundation that aided Soviet-bloc refugees. He became a truck driver and a heavy drinker. He and a then-girlfriend had two daughters in the early 1990s with whom he was no longer in touch.
The court system does not lightly let a defendant represent himself, for fear he will botch the job. Graure was questioned closely about his decision in pretrial hearings, and he elaborated later to a reporter in telephone interviews from the D.C. jail.
He maintained that lawyers get in the way of narrating what he called the “truth.” He rejected a plea deal that could have added just five years on top of the 30-plus he was already serving.
“It was too much time for me to spend in prison without being able to tell everyone basically [about] the banality of the whole thing,” he said. “That it was an accident. . . . I didn’t have the intent of hurting anyone.”
And so the trial boiled down to a duel over the nature of intent, the degree to which alcohol affects intention, and the question of under what circumstances an alleged absence of intent diminishes culpability. But those were mere legal issues. More profoundly, Graure’s arguments threatened to drain meaning from the tragedy. As the hero’s loved ones sifted events for positive fragments, the antihero was betting his life behind bars on a darker moral of banality and bad luck.
Judge Thomas Motley, who did not preside over Graure’s first trial, assigned Craig Moore, a former federal prosecutor in private practice, to be Graure’s advisory attorney for the six-day trial. Graure sat alone at the defense table. He had a shaved head and a goatee, and red reading glasses. He wore a gray sweater, black slacks and security-approved slipper-style shoes.
Graure’s own burns had healed well, leaving the skin on each arm with slight scars.
He did not botch the case. Motley told him he was “very perceptive” and, over Martin’s objections, ruled that Graure’s lengthy cross-examination of Jeng was proper.
Graure even managed to move into evidence a picture of a naked woman’s body. This was the original of the photo deleted from his phone, he said, and the woman was not a dancer. She was a friend’s wife with whom he’d had an affair.
(On the witness stand, Lazorchack insisted that the deleted photo had been of the dancer Gabriella. “You know Gabriella’s butt,” she specified.)
Whether or not he photographed a dancer was legally irrelevant, but Graure said it mattered to get the story right. While his self-portrait was not flattering, he was gambling that his seeming straight talk would earn credibility with the jury. When Motley cautioned prosecutors not to say the defendant “lied,” Graure said he didn’t mind being called a liar regarding times in the past when he did lie.
Graure told the jury that he had felt enraged and humiliated when he was ejected from the club, but that he only wanted to scare the managers. Through it all, he said, he was operating on drunken autopilot, incapable of grasping risk or consequences.
The prosecutors scoffed.
“It is simply not credible or plausible that the defendant didn’t know what was going to happen when he tried to light that can of gasoline on fire,” Weston said in her closing argument.
“There is no good lie that I could tell,” Graure countered. “And even the truth itself, I’m not happy with it.”
Speaking of Djordjevic, Graure said, “His actions were heroic. He was the good guy in this case.”
The jury did not reach a unanimous verdict on first-degree premeditated murder — a sign that Graure had been somewhat persuasive. But the panel found him guilty of aggravated felony murder, for causing a death while committing arson, and guilty of second-degree murder.
Predrag Djordjevic got on a plane back to Serbia. He asked himself: Had it been a fatal mistake to raise Vladimir to be friendly and helpful and to look out for others?
In late March, Anez, who had been trying to take her mind off the tragedy by immersing herself in her work for an international public health firm, arrived early to Courtroom 319 for Graure’s sentencing. She was wearing, as always, the gold wedding band from Djordjevic. From her pocket, she pulled two tightly folded sheets of notebook paper covered with neat handwriting. She stood before the court and began reading aloud, pausing to control her weeping.
“Vladimir was a person with a great future in front of him by just being a good-hearted, loving individual,” she said. “I still wait and look for him at all times.”
The prosecutors asked for the maximum sentence of life without parole, because the crime was “truly at the higher end of atrociousness,” Martin said. Motley agreed that the suffering was “just unbelievable,” though he also noted that Graure had no felony record.
He gave Graure, now 41, 35 years — effectively replacing the 16 years in the earlier sentence that related to the assault on Djordjevic. With the penalty Graure still must serve for arson, destruction of property and other counts, he could be in prison for up to 49 years, 14 more than he had been offered in the plea deal.
Anez stepped outside the courthouse. It was one of the first warm days of spring. Walking a few blocks to the Mall, she sat on a bench in the quiet of the National Gallery Sculpture Garden and checked her iPhone. The screen flashed Djordjevic’s smiling face, the picture that went on his tombstone.
“Life continues; you have to go on,” she said. “But even though you may feel your loved one next to you, you can’t touch them.”
At Good Guys, it’s the cusp of another bachelor party season. Zanganeh has added $3 burger specials on Saturday afternoons, and he just gave the club a new facade of rich wood paneling.
There’s more security, new managers and new dancers. Posters on the walls admonish against the use of cellphones. Lazorchack waits tables near Stage 1, constantly in motion, dressed smartly but unrevealingly in black. Every time she serves a chicken Caesar salad, she thinks of Djordjevic.
The mirrored backdrops of the three stages have signs that say, “Do not touch the dancers.” A tall, tawny blonde on Stage 1 struts for the staring fat man standing before her, gazing up into her eyes and down over her body with a dreamy smile, as he casts about $60 at her feet, one $1 bill at a time. On Stage 3, near where Graure set off the fireball, an alabaster dancer with tattoos that look like red cupcakes grips a lighted pole and swings her body over a table of dazzled young men, the red and blue spotlights bathing her limbs.
After their performances, the dancers scoop the bills into their big purses and walk down the narrow aisle between the lacquered tables. They shake hands with the customers, almost formally, the only time a dancer can be touched.
Three more take their places on the stages. Before they begin, still wrapped in shimmery fabrics, they pick up squirt bottles and rolls of paper towels. They wipe any smudges left on the mirrors and poles. Sometimes they pause to look at themselves — studying their hair, their makeup, the way their skin looks in this reflected light — before they turn to the customers who are eager to see it all.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.