Crime & Courts

Man braved ‘ring of fire’ to help woman attacked in Fairmount Park

Scorched grass marks the area where a woman was set on fire Friday night in Fairmount Park. (Nov. 15, 2014)
Scorched grass marks the area where a woman was set on fire Friday night in Fairmount Park. (Nov. 15, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Deon McPherson says he took a few breaths on a cold, foggy Friday night in Fairmount Park and ran into a 100-yard-wide “ring of fire” spreading across the lawn to help a badly burned woman.

His girlfriend, Johnnye Marshall, says she woke him up after hearing someone in the park south of their apartment shrieking over and over, interspersed with cries of “help.” At first, they thought it might be someone engaged in late-night foolishness.

But after McPherson pulled on some clothes and arrived at the fire, he says, he quickly realized how serious it was. He spotted a woman, who according to Wichita police had been sexually assaulted, hit on the head and set on fire. On Monday, a Wichita police official pleaded for the public’s help in solving the “disgusting crime.”

McPherson gave the following account Monday evening of what he saw and what he did that Friday night.

The woman was on the ground, almost in a crawl, barely moving and naked.

McPherson, a 40-year-old building maintenance worker, said he thought: “What if that was my daughter? I’d want somebody to go in and get her.” So he did.

He could see that some of her hair had burned away and that she was severely injured. “Where there wasn’t blood,” he said, “there was a burn.”

She reached for him, and he reached under her arms and tried to pull her to safety, then realized that the fire, with flames 2 to 4 feet high in places, was moving away from them. So he backed up with her and stayed with her until firefighters arrived.

Earlier Monday, Wichita police Capt. Troy Livingston said the 36-year-old woman had suffered burns on 55 percent of her body and remained in critical condition but that her condition had improved slightly.

Police aren’t sure whether it was a random crime or whether the woman was targeted, Livingston said.

At a briefing for reporters, Livingston called it “a disgusting crime,” pleaded for the public’s help in providing information and stressed that any tip could help. He asked people to call investigators at 316-268-4181, 316-268-4191 or to call Crime Stoppers at 316-267-2111.

Police have been able to get only limited information from the woman, he said. According to a police report released Monday morning, the woman said she had been raped and burned by an unknown black man. That was the only description of the attacker in the report.

A woman reported seeing a fire and hearing someone yell, the police report said. According to the report, that person was Marshall. From inside the ring of fire, her boyfriend screamed for someone to call 911.

At the police briefing, a somber Livingston said, “Our hearts go out to the victim. This is a tough deal.”

He added: “Somebody out there knows what happened, and we need that information.”

He said he was limited in what he could say about the crime, including how the woman came to be in the park Friday night. Livingston said the crime, which he called a sexual assault, aggravated battery and arson, occurred between 10:50 and 11:15 p.m. Friday. The park, in northeast Wichita, is just south of Wichita State University. Investigators are trying to determine whether some of the attack might have occurred outside the park, east of Hillside and south of 17th.

On Tuesday, the university is scheduled to host an open forum on safety. In a statement Sunday, WSU’s vice president for student affairs, Wade Robinson, said, “We join the community in being horrified. Our concern is for the victim and for the safety and security of the community south of campus, which includes WSU students and employees” and residents. The meeting is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. in the Campus Activity Center Theater.

Wichita police also soon will be holding a meeting with neighbors about the crime, Livingston said. Wichita police also will be working with WSU police and realize there is a concern for student safety, he said.

Because of the seriousness of the woman’s injuries, Livingston said, homicide detectives are investigating the attack.

Police officers have knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood around the park and have called in a number of people for interviews, but “right now we have very little to go on,” Livingston said.

Although there have been other crimes fairly close to the park, those were “vastly different,” and there appears to be no connection to Friday’s crime, Livingston said.

Fire investigators are involved in processing the arson case. Livingston said he didn’t want to speculate about or discuss how the fire was started.

McPherson, the man who went into the fire to help the woman, said it was damp that night, and he wonders whether the attacker used an accelerant.

He said his response was natural, but his girlfriend called him a hero.

“No ‘hero’ stuff,” he said.

“I was just being human.”

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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