By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Fire changes everything it consumes. But some flames, roaring and dangerous, are more difficult to extinguish.
Patricia Scales still cares for the man who tried to kill her, dousing her with gasoline as she sorted laundry in her bedroom and throwing a lighted cigarette lighter her way.
She still takes Terrance James's calls from the D.C. Jail, listening without saying a word as he cries and tells her that he's sorry.
She keeps dozens of his jailhouse letters to her and their 6-year-old son, Terrance Jr., known as Tank, in two dresser drawers in her bedroom in Bowie. She can't read them all. It tires her fire-damaged cornea.
And yesterday she asked the court to have mercy on this man who disfigured her for life. At the sentencing hearing in D.C. Superior Court was the first time Scales came face to face with James since the attack in December.
"He's my son's father," Scales, 46, said a few days earlier. "He was good. He just lost it."
But Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. had other thoughts. Calling the attack "deliberate and cruel," he sentenced James, 48, to 25 years for aggravated assault and malicious disfigurement.
Fire is increasingly a weapon of choice for enraged, jealous men trying to prevent the women in their lives from ending up with another man, domestic abuse experts say. They want the women to suffer. And they want to watch them suffer.
Yvette Cade of Clinton became a national symbol of domestic violence after her husband walked into a store where she worked and set her on fire two years ago. She often gives speeches on the topic.
But Scales does not want to be seen as another battered woman. In an odd and terrible way, she says, the fire has made her realize it is time to turn her life around. Time to give up the crack cocaine she smoked for more than 10 years. Time to plan for the future by enrolling in college and getting a real estate license.
"I am not a victim," she said. "I am moving forward."
She wants to put the case -- distinct from the man -- behind her.
"I have to forgive him to move on," she said softly, almost pleading. "If I hold on to that anger, it will keep me sick."
* * *
Crack was a big part of Scales's adult life, and her relationship with James.
After graduating from Bladensburg High School in 1979, she enrolled at a local cosmetology school. She didn't graduate but styled hair in her home while taking odd jobs doing clerical work.
She met James in 1999 when he delivered newspapers to her apartment building. It was the first time she had been seriously attracted to anyone since she had separated from her husband, Paul Scales. That marriage ended largely because of her drug problems.
At 40 and with a teenage daughter, Scales got pregnant, long after she had given up on conceiving again.
She and James stopped using drugs until Tank was a toddler, Scales said. Then she started using again, off and on.
James was a good father, Scales said. He reminded his son to do his homework, say his prayers and brush his teeth. He bought matching outfits for himself and Tank and attended Scales's family get-togethers. It doesn't make sense, she said, shaking her head: "I have to believe he didn't want to hurt me."
On the morning of Dec. 16, Scales was sorting laundry in her Benning Heights apartment in Southeast Washington. According to Scales's daughter, Taira, 16, James had come looking for Scales the night before. He told Taira he thought Scales was with another man. Actually, Scales said, she had been getting high with a female neighbor. Before James stormed out of the apartment that night, he grabbed a spare key, Taira said.
The next morning, Scales heard the key in the front door. James kicked in her bedroom door. He was carrying a can of gasoline. He threw the gas on her and lighted it.
Flames engulfed Scales's upper body. Pain shot through her body, she says, as if hot nails were piercing her skin. "I felt like I was being crucified," she said. James stood over her as she was burning, saying, " 'Who is in control now?' " she recalled, according to prosecutors.
Scales suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body. She has had 20 surgeries and is expecting to undergo at least two more. She spent a total of 5 1/2 months in the hospital.
Today, pink and brown scar tissue lines Scales's face, chest and arms. The marks trail down her back and legs. Her neck is covered with open sores from her scratching to ease the feeling of bugs crawling over her body, a result of skin grafts.
She has limited use of her left arm. Such simple chores as making her bed are a struggle with only one hand. She can't stand long in front of the stove to make Tank waffles. And she's awaiting a surgery that will widen her mouth to allow her to eat more comfortably.
Scales ingests 12 antibiotics and vitamins a day, paid for mostly by Medicaid. No painkillers because she's easily addicted. She steps into a cold shower 10 times a day and slathers on medicated lotion to cool her skin.
The walls in her house vibrate from gospel music. As each inspirational tune comes across the radio -- "Let Go, Let God" or "Silver and Gold" -- Scales sings along. The songs keep her from feeling sorry for herself, she said. Depression is always lurking. So is the desire to get high. She can't afford a visit from either.
* * *
Scales had always prided herself on her appearance. A photograph graces her foyer wall. In a portrait taken 20 years ago, she is smiling and looking over her shoulder, her doe eyes sparkling.
Looking in the mirror since December hasn't been easy. In April, three months after doctors removed Scales's bandages, an aunt, Frances Washington, visited her in the hospital. Scales was sitting on the bed, crying. Washington marched her niece to the mirror on the wall and made her repeat: "I am a beautiful queen. I am a beautiful creation that God has made. And God loves me so much." Both women stood there in tears. Then Scales laughed.
Family has become a calming salve in the months since she glimpsed relatives gathering around her bed in the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center.
Tank is her biggest protector. He climbs into bed with her to see if she needs anything. He rubs medicated lotion onto her back and arms. A talkative and energetic boy, Tank remembers the morning when he saw his mother on fire, his teenage sister screaming and his father standing nearby. "If I wasn't awake, I would have been hurt too," he said.
Scales is determined that Tank not grow up hating James. She doesn't disparage the father in front of the son. She wants to make sure that Tank doesn't feel guilty or ashamed of talking about his father. "No child should have to live with that," she said. "This is not his fault."
Some family members question why Scales isn't angry at James and why she even communicates with him. Scales says it's an expression of her faith.
"I don't understand that," Taira said of her mother's attitude, rinsing out a cloth that she presses on Scales's neck. "But my mother is still here. So that's what I focus on."
The fire that damaged Scales's eyesight, turning her world blurry, seems to have cleared a new path for her. She plans to become a real estate agent and attend the University of the District of Columbia. She's applied for Social Security benefits. She's sworn off crack and other illegal drugs. The only stimulants she relies on are nicotine and chocolate. She dreams of taking Tank to Disney World during Christmas break.
Meanwhile, for Scales, yesterday was about moving on. She stood next to Assistant U.S. Attorney George Hazel, wiping away tears as he read from a letter she wrote to Dixon: "I have to forgive him. But I'll never forget. God has a plan for him."
She walked back to her seat in the front row, and James swiveled his head to face her. Dixon ordered him to turn back around, eyes front.
"I was wrong," James said, tears streaming down his face. "I am sorry. Very sorry. I don't know what I was thinking. It hurts. I loved her. I still love her. I love my son and daughter."
Dixon gave James credit for his remorse, for pleading guilty and for having a "minimal criminal record." But his words were unsparing.
"These acts you committed were deliberate and cruel," Dixon said. "You intended to punish the victim, and you committed these acts in front of two children."
After Dixon announced his sentence, Scales slumped over in her chair.
"It's over," she said, walking slowly out of the courthouse.
She can now deal with her most immediate struggles.
"God saved me for a reason, and smoking crack is not the reason," she said. "I can't waste another minute or another day of my life."