Ashes to ashes
But her last breath damned him
Her voice was weak and rasping, but Judy Malinowski was insistent as the doctors and nurses gathered around her hospital bed.
They couldn’t believe their ears. She lay in the bed, having suffered horrific burns to 90 per cent of her body, but now she was telling them she didn’t want any more painkillers.
It would mean unbearable agony – she knew that. But there was something she needed to say…
Her mother, Bonnie, gazed at what was left of her poor daughter and wept silent tears.
That burnt woman had once been beautiful. In fact, Judy had been crowned Miss Albany, Ohio.
Now, the gorgeous face looked like that of a melted doll, with just a point for a nose and eyes almost fused closed. Her blonde hair was gone and her ears had fallen off.
The burns on her back and buttocks were open wounds that the doctors couldn’t heal. Judy had to spend some of the time on her front, heavily sedated, just to give them a chance to improve.
But here she was, volunteering for more agony. Why?
It was almost a year earlier that Judy’s life had changed for ever – and, by then, she’d already been through so much.
In her 20s, she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She’d been determined to fight the disease for the sake of her two little girls, Kaylyn and Madison.
And Judy, 33, won the battle – but it left her with an addiction to prescription drugs.
That was a fight she’d been determined to win, too, and she signed up for rehab. But sometimes it was so hard…
The morning of 2 August 2015 started as a normal day. Her boyfriend, Michael Slager dropped her off at rehab, agreeing to meet up a few hours later at a nearby petrol station in Gahanna, Ohio.
After her appointment, she caught Michael’s eye across the road. There he was, waiting in the petrol station, as he’d said.
‘Hiya,’ she smiled uncertainly, and then she dropped her head. The sessions could be draining.
Michael didn’t understand that. It had been a long day, and she didn’t fancy a grilling. Suddenly, they were arguing on the petrol station forecourt.
Judy chucked her soft drink over him… and then things escalated terrifyingly.
At first, the people standing around reacted with amused curiosity or embarrassment. Just a lovers’ spat, they thought.
But then, their expressions changed to stunned horror. In full view of everyone, Michael grabbed the pump hose and sprayed Judy with petrol, starting at her head and soaking her right down to her feet.
The fuel went down her throat, causing a burning pain as she screamed for help and begged him to stop.
But, despite her pleas, Michael flicked on his lighter and set her ablaze.
Screams filled the air as Judy staggered on to a grassy area, engulfed in flames.
Then Michael grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put the fire out, sustaining burns to his hands in the attempt.
But it was too late.
Suddenly shocked into life, the people standing around all started calling 911 at once.
‘Somebody just set a woman on fire,’ one cried. ‘She ignited immediately.’ When asked if she was still on fire, the man replied, ‘He just grabbed a fire extinguisher. I mean, it’s bad.’
Michael stood watching as the police arrived to cuff him, and the ambulance carrying Judy sped away. When she arrived in the emergency room of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Centre, she was burned so horribly that parts of her body had melted away.
The medics measured the rest of her life in minutes. But, against all odds, Judy stabilised, and so began her gruelling treatment.
In all, Judy endured more than 50 operations, agonising treatments and infections. She was immobile and couldn’t breathe without a ventilator. Nurses at Ohio State said they couldn’t recall any other patient who had survived so long with such severe burns. Yet, still she clung on. Judy’s mum, Bonnie, who visited every day, was desperate for her daughter to pull through. At first, Bonnie screamed at doctors, ‘Tell me there’s hope!’ because they wouldn’t even let her see Judy.
Bonnie was eventually allowed in and warned she wouldn’t even recognise her own daughter. ‘They were right,’ she said later. ‘It just didn’t look like a human being. But all I could see was my baby in that bed. All I could see was that she was alive.’ When reporters asked Bonnie if Judy would want to live with her terrible injuries, Bonnie reacted with fury.
‘Would she want to be like this? Would she want to go on? She would,’ she shouted. ‘She’d want to stay to help someone – anyone. Do you
know why she was Miss New Albany? Because she was the sweetest kid there was.’
Then one day, eight months after the attack, Judy woke from her long sleep.
Bonnie could hardly bear to speak, scared she would break the spell and send her back to oblivion.
The first thing Judy saw was Bonnie’s tearful face.
Then, slowly coming into focus, were the pictures on the walls – Bonnie had taped photos of Judy’s girls all around.
She’d told the nurses at the time, ‘If she remotely wakes up out of this coma or knows anything of what’s going on, or has any memory, the first thing I want her to see is those two little girls.
‘If anything will motivate someone to live, a mom will – being a mother will motivate you to take care of those children.’
In December 2016, Michael Slager pleaded ‘no contest’ to charges of felonious assault, aggravated arson and possession of criminal tools.
He claimed the fire was an accident, and that he adored Judy. The witnesses were wrong, he said. He’d only been lighting a cigarette when she caught fire. Besides, he had been badly injured himself when he tried to put out the blaze.
Though he received the maximum sentence of 11 years, his crime was so horrific there was a public outcry. It didn’t seem enough, given that Judy’s life had been destroyed.
Ohio politician Jim Hughes was determined to change the law, to reflect what had happened.
And so, Judy made a decision.
She would meet him and bear witness to what had happened to her. And to do that, she would have to come off her meds that helped numb the pain.
She needed a clear head... After the meeting, Hughes said she was a ‘very brave and courageous lady, and an inspiration for everybody’.
Because of her testimony, and her courage, the state of Ohio passed Judy’s Law in June 2017.
It meant six additional years in prison for crimes that permanently disfigure or maim the victim.
On 27 June, Judy died. But not before one more act of courage had made her killer pay…
After speaking to Hughes, she’d agreed to give testimony that would convict Michael of murder in the event of her inevitable death.
Again, she’d weaned herself off the pain-numbing drugs so she could be of sound mind to testify.
In her rasping voice, ruined from petrol burns, and from the hospital bed that she never came home from, Judy spoke to prosecutor Warren Edwards in January 2017. The video began:
Q: What keeps you going? A: My girls. Q; Have there been tough questions from them? A: Mm-hmm... ‘When are you going to look like my mom again?’ They’re too little, you know?
Then, Judy described the moment of the shocking attack.
He ran around to me and started pouring gasoline...
Some got into my throat as he did that.
That burned really bad.
He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and he started walking toward me. I just remember crying and begging for help, and he lit me on fire. I don’t think words can describe what it feels like to have your whole body set on fire. I can remember fire on my face and eyes. I can remember screaming for help… looking over and seeing him standing there staring at me with a look on his face… pure evil. There’s no other words to describe it. It was like a thousand hot needles penetrating my body. And then it got to the point that I couldn’t see anything and everyone’s voices were sounding far away.
I thought for sure I was dying. I just prayed to Jesus to please forgive me for my sins and to take care of my children. That was when I blacked out…
Yet it was Judy’s wish that the man who did this to her should not face the death penalty.
‘A life sentence. I think he deserves that,’ she said.
Just over a year after Judy’s death, her recording was played at Michael’s trial at Franklin County Court, Columbus, Ohio.
He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
Bonnie said, after she had passed away, ‘That child suffered for two years to tell her own story. Who has the strength to do that?’
Bonnie and stepdad Dan now care for Judy’s girls – Kaylyn, 14, and 11-year-old Madison.
In court, Michael gave a brief apology to Judy’s family.
‘I’d like to think it was genuine,’ Bonnie said. ‘Judy was so kindhearted. She would have said, “Mom, that’s acceptable. It’s what I would have wanted.”’
The fire felt like a thousand hot needles
‘She was the sweetest kid there was,’ says mum Bonnie Pretty Judy had won a beauty pageant Madison and Kaylyn lost their mother too soon
Incredibly brave: Judy testified from her hospital bed Her boyfriend got life in jail without parole for the attack Bonnie visited her suffering daughter in hospital daily