Family has waited seven years for justice for woman who died from burns

Family has waited seven years for justice for woman who died from burns

awomack@macon.comAugust 6, 2012 

EDITOR'S NOTE -- This story was originally published in The Telegraph on Aug. 5, 2012.

A crowd of family and friends gathered at LaTosha Taylor’s south Macon home on a Sunday afternoon seven years ago.

The young nursing assistant, a mother of two girls, had planned a Bratz doll-themed party to celebrate her oldest daughter’s eighth birthday.

No photos remain of little Elecia jumping on a trampoline or eating her cake, but it’s a day that Taylor’s family hasn’t forgotten.

That night -- Aug. 7, 2005 -- Taylor was burned. The injuries later caused her death.

Elecia and her younger sister, then 4-year-old Jada, went to a friend’s house for a sleepover after the party.

In the hours that followed, Taylor’s ex-fiance, Jomekia Pope, poured gasoline on Taylor inside the home and set her on fire, police say. He had been at the party and stayed behind to help clean up afterward.

For Arleshia Pettigrew, Tuesday night will mark seven years since she rushed to The Medical Center of Central Georgia -- the hospital where she’d given birth to Taylor 26 years earlier.

On the drive to the hospital, she remembers thinking that it must have been just a simple burn, nothing too serious.

But the doctors soon broke the news: Taylor had just a 5 percent chance of survival, but to have even that chance, they had to get her to a burn center in Augusta.

She died 55 days later.

Since then, there has been no closure for Taylor’s family and friends. They believe the justice system has failed them.

Pope was arrested Aug. 8, 2005, and has remained in jail awaiting trial. He’s charged with murder and arson.

Pope, now 35, could be sentenced to death if he’s convicted.

Although a tentative trial date has been set for early 2013, Pettigrew isn’t at all certain that justice is just around the corner. Trial dates have come and gone.

Each time family members get their hopes up.

“It is frustrating,” she said. “I can’t lie and say it’s not.”

****

In Twiggs County, a heart-shaped, pink granite tombstone bears a photo of Taylor in her long, white cotillion dress.

The photo shows a vibrant, smiling teenager wearing pearls, holding a bouquet of flowers in her white-gloved hands.

She was a shy, smart girl with an independent streak. She played clarinet and was a proud member of Southwest High School’s Marching Patriots.

Although her parents bought her a Honda Civic, she worked at a Dairy Queen, then Cracker Barrel and Kmart to earn extra spending money.

As a teenager she also worked as a candy striper at Macon hospitals. She had a dream of becoming a nurse, a dream she’d come close to achieving.

She became certified as a nursing assistant and worked two jobs as she continued her schooling to become a registered nurse. When she died, she was working full time at the Medical Center on the cancer floor and part time at Southern Home Healthcare.

“She always wanted to help everybody,” Pettigrew said of her daughter.

Although Taylor knew Pope from high school, they didn’t start dating until several years later.

By then, Pope had four children from a relationship with a woman in Minnesota, and Taylor had her two daughters.

Pope worked with temporary staffing companies on construction jobs doing odds and ends, said Dennis Francis, one of Pope’s lawyers.

His employers called him a “good worker,” Francis said.

The couple dated for about a year -- at one point they lived together -- before Taylor ended the relationship by breaking off their engagement.

“She had some concerns with him. ... Things weren’t adding up, the things he was saying and the things he wanted out of life just weren’t adding up to his actions,” Pettigrew said.

Taylor confided in family and friends about Pope.

On one occasion, Taylor was talking on the phone when she heard Pope -- who she thought had left for work -- underneath her Lindsey Drive home, eavesdropping on her conversation, said Angela Cummings, a family friend and Taylor’s surrogate aunt.

After Taylor broke off the engagement, the mother of Pope’s children in Minnesota called her and told her about Pope’s “physically harming” her, said Tameka Jackson, Taylor’s high school classmate and a co-worker.

Taylor confronted Pope and he shrugged off the call, saying the other woman simply didn’t want Taylor and Pope together, Jackson said.

Records related to the assaults, however, made public in Georgia during a 2007 court hearing, confirmed the woman’s warning.

Pope pleaded guilty to burglarizing the woman’s home in 1998, and he also pleaded guilty to attacking the woman -- and her mother -- with a knife.

Taylor told Pope to leave the house on Nov. 27, 2004, after the couple argued. He returned and forced his way into the house, according to a Macon police report.

At the time, Taylor told police that Pope pushed her into a wall, making a large hole. She also said he struck her in the face and pulled her hair.

Bibb County State Court records show that Pope pleaded guilty in April 2005 to family-violence-related battery against Taylor and criminal trespass from an incident involving Taylor.

A judge initially ordered Pope to get domestic violence counseling, court records show. But his sentence was changed to a year in the Bibb County jail Sept. 27, 2005, four days before Taylor died.

Taylor’s uncle, Jonathan Pettigrew, said his niece called him on occasion for advice about Pope.

It was clear to him that Pope wasn’t the right man for her.

“Sometimes when you’re in love, you don’t see the reality of the situation and you kind of let love force you to make some bad decisions,” he said.

Recalling a conversation just before her daughter’s death, Arleshia Pettigrew said Taylor was comfortable not having a man in her life.

“She wasn’t worried about a relationship. She just wanted to raise her kids and finish her education and take care of her kids and pursue her career,” Pettigrew said. “She had made up her mind and that was what she was doing.”

****

It was misting rain as Taylor walked to the door with her mother after the birthday party.

“She said she was tired and was going to lay down,” Pettigrew said.

With the girls spending the night away from home, Taylor said she’d ride to church with her mother the next morning.

“We said our goodbyes and she stood there until I pulled off. She just stood there waving. I think back on that a lot of times. ... You never know that’s going to be the last time,” Pettigrew said.

Pope stayed behind to help clean up and return borrowed tables and chairs.

Police have said Pope told officers that he and Taylor argued.

Pope contends that during the argument, Taylor was holding a container of some sort -- and a burning object. He told police there was a scuffle and Taylor’s clothing caught fire.

Pettigrew was at home in bed when her phone rang.

At first she thought it was a dream. By the time she realized the phone was ringing, the answering machine on her night stand was recording a message, telling her what had happened.

“I’m thinking, ‘What kind of joke is this?’,” Pettigrew said.

Worried, she dialed *69, calling the number back. A person on the other end of the line said an ambulance had just arrived.

“I was still in disbelief because I had just left her a couple of hours ago. Something like that, setting someone on fire, I thought it had to be a joke,” she said. “I didn’t want to believe it.”

Pettigrew threw on some clothes and called other family members who lived closer to her daughter.

By the time she drove to Taylor’s home on Lindsey Drive off Bloomfield Drive, an ambulance had already taken Taylor to the hospital.

Not knowing that Elecia and Jada weren’t home, family members were trying desperately to get inside the burning rental house to save the girls.

“I had to stop them,” Pettigrew said.

The doctors at the Medical Center quickly decided that Taylor needed to go to the Augusta Burn Center.

“I don’t think they expected her to make it through the night,” Pettigrew said.

****

Pettigrew spent the next eight weeks almost exclusively in Augusta, supporting Taylor through multiple surgeries, including skin grafts.

She came home for a couple of hours that first night to tell Elecia and Jada that their mother was hurt and in the hospital.

It was hard for the girls to understand, not just how badly their mother was hurt, but that Pope was allegedly involved.

“They knew him at some point and never thought he would do anything to their mom because he supposedly loved them,” Pettigrew said.

Elecia and Jada spent a few weekends in the hospital waiting room, but Pettigrew limited Taylor’s visitors, trying to preserve her granddaughters’ memories of their mother.

Lying in a hospital bed in a medically induced coma, Pettigrew’s once beautiful daughter was covered in bandages. Her face, hair and head were badly burned. Her ears were gone.

“I saw her every day for almost two months. That’s something that will never be away from my memory. That was something I didn’t want them to have to live with, seeing her like that,” Pettigrew said.

Unable to see their mother, Elecia and Jada put their hands on the wall of a hallway near the intensive care unit.

“That was their way of communicating with her,” she said.

Although Taylor never regained consciousness, she was able to blink her eyes and squeeze her mother’s hand when asked to.

“You could tell at times she was aware you were there,” Pettigrew said.

At one point, family members became encouraged that Taylor was making progress and would one day go home. They started making plans for her care.

It wasn’t until the last days, when infection set in and her organs started to fail, that Pettigrew lost hope in her daughter’s recovery.

Taylor died Oct. 1, 2005. That happens to be the first day of domestic violence awareness month.

“Her body just couldn’t take it anymore,” Pettigrew said.

Taylor was buried in the family cemetery in Twiggs County, across the road from Reid Church, where family members have attended services.

It’s not too far from a house where Pope’s family lives on New Bullard Road. Pope’s family declined comment when contacted last week.

Francis said Pope has a lot of family and community support.

Although he’s “very remorseful about what happened” to his former fiancee, “he’s not guilty of what he’s charged with,” Francis said.

****

Pope’s case is the oldest active capital case being prosecuted in Bibb County.

The past seven years have been marked by delays that have included lawyer reassignments and a re-indictment in the case in 2007.

Francis noted that although he and the lead prosecutor have remained on the case since the beginning, other attorneys have come and gone.

There also has been a host of scheduling conflicts.

More than a hundred motions have been filed in the case. The Georgia Supreme Court has done a pretrial review. There’s been no change of venue. The trial is scheduled to be held in Bibb County.

District Attorney Greg Winters said a restructuring of how Georgia chooses prospective jury pools also has contributed to the delay. Because people on trial have a right to a jury of their peers, demographic shifts cause the jury pool to be compared to U.S. Census reports every 10 years.

The state Supreme Court returned its opinion in the case in October 2009, just before the 2010 Census.

Jury data from the Census wasn’t available until 2011, but lawyers in the case knew that Georgia was considering a new jury pool system. That new system took effect July 1, 2012.

In general, death penalty cases take longer to prosecute.

“Everything needs to be done with the utmost care to make sure there’s no problems on the back end if there is a conviction and a death sentence,” Winters said.

Years of waiting have been hard for Taylor’s family and friends.

“The court system hasn’t been fair to us. There have been cases that have come and gone,” said Harold Banks, Taylor’s stepfather.

Banks said he understands that lawyers want to take special care to get things right, but having trial dates set, only to be changed, is tormenting.

“We’re tired of being hurt,” he said. “We need some justice.”

Living in a jail cell with an uncertain future also has been hard for Pope, Francis said.

“He’s frustrated. There’s no question about it. ... He’s frustrated with me. He’s frustrated with the process,” Francis said.

At the jail, Pope has become a resource for deputies. He’s a person jailers turn to when they’re having trouble with younger men.

“They ask him to sort of mediate the situation,” Francis said.

****

Taylor lives on in words she left behind -- in a voice mail for a friend, in greeting cards she sent her stepfather.

Jackson can still play the message when she wants to hear her best friend’s voice. She also carries around the CPR certification card she’d picked up for Taylor, but never got around to giving her.

“I keep that card in my wallet and no matter what purse I change to, it goes in along with everything else,” Jackson said.

Banks keeps the Christmas and Father’s Day cards Taylor gave him stowed safely in his night stand.

“Whenever I want my baby, I go and open one of those cards. ... I read one of those cards and what she said to me about being her dad,” he said.

Elecia and Jada don’t remember much about their mother -- or the night she was burned.

For Elecia, who turns 15 on Saturday, it’s memories of her mom cooking that are the strongest.

Family members say she looks a lot like her mother and shares her shyness.

Like Taylor, Elecia wants to be a nurse one day.

“I like taking care of folks,” she said.

Jada, now 11, said she remembers crawling into bed with her mother at night.

Both girls have lived with Pettigrew since their mother’s death.

Because she was only 4, it was especially hard for Jada to understand what happened to her mom.

She said she remembers wanting to see her in the hospital -- and not being allowed.

Even after the funeral, Jada kept asking when her mother was going to be well again.

“She thought heaven was another hospital,” Pettigrew explained.

Years later, Jada says she thought her mother was going to come back to life.

Her daughter’s death is often on her mind, but Pettigrew tries to put up a strong front, especially for her granddaughters.

She feels like they’re watching her.

“I try to keep a lot of things inside,” Pettigrew said. “I can’t let them see that anger in me. I have to try and keep them on the right track.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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