A Morning of Terror and Flames

Burn victim Yvette Cade, left, comforts Taira Scales, 16, and Terrance James Jr., 6, the children of Patricia Scales, who was set afire Saturday.
Burn victim Yvette Cade, left, comforts Taira Scales, 16, and Terrance James Jr., 6, the children of Patricia Scales, who was set afire Saturday. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Keith L. Alexander and Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Taira Scales awoke to her mother's screams.

Rushing into Patricia Scales's bedroom, Taira recalled yesterday, she saw her mother writhing on her bed, engulfed in flames. She said she saw her mother's former boyfriend, Terrance James, standing over the bed, holding a lighter and reeking of gasoline. She dashed out of the apartment and pounded on neighbors' doors begging for help.

"I felt the heat, and I saw my mom," said Taira, 16, sitting on her aunt's sofa. "I ran out. I kept yelling, "My mother is on fire! Please help my mother. Please help her.' "

In what police consider an incident of domestic abuse, James is accused of setting the fire that left Scales, 45, with second- and third-degree burns covering 40 percent of her body, primarily from her head to her waist. She is in critical condition in the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center.

Taira said she thinks James had entered the Southeast Washington apartment with a spare key he had taken the day before on a visit to see the son he had with Scales, 6-year-old Terrance Jr.

Initially charged by police with assault with intent to kill in the Saturday morning incident, James, 48, appeared yesterday in D.C. Superior Court and was charged with arson after prosecutors reviewed the evidence against him.

His attorney, Heather Pinckney of the D.C. Public Defender Service, unsuccessfully objected, saying that arson is a crime against property.

A gaunt man, James wore a light-colored sweat suit, with both of his hands wrapped in thick white bandaging to cover injuries from the fire. When Pinckney argued that James should be released, she upset some of Scales's friends and relatives, who were clustered in rows near the front of the courtroom. "Oh, no," several said.

Magistrate Judge Aida Melendez ordered James held without bond pending a hearing Dec. 27.

In charging documents filed yesterday in court, police and prosecutors said that at the scene, James made several statements to authorities. When an arson investigator said he was going to go to the apartment to look for whoever did this, James allegedly replied: "You don't have to look for anyone else. I have to stand in account for what I did."

The injuries suffered by Scales are being investigated as the Washington area's third domestic violence arson case in 15 months. Advocates for victims of domestic abuse say they have noticed an increase in abuse in which fire is used as a lethal weapon.

The advocates say they worry about a copycat effect in the highly publicized cases.

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