A bloodcurdling scream. A ball of fire. And moments later, after a co-worker scrambles to get a bucket of water to put out the flames, a woman begs for more water be poured onto her scorched flesh.
That is what happened outside a City of Tonawanda coffee shop on Dec. 17, 2018, according to prosecutors, as the attempted murder trial of Jonathon E. White opened Tuesday.
White, 29, is accused of dousing Jessica Cameron, his estranged girlfriend and mother of his three children, with gasoline and setting her ablaze.
“Seventy-eight seconds. For 78 agonizing, terrifying, uninterrupted seconds, Jessica Cameron was burning alive,” Assistant District Attorney Rebecca L. Schnirel told jurors.
The alleged attack happened inside a fenced-in area near two dumpsters outside the Tim Hortons at Niagara and Seymour streets. Jurors on Tuesday got to watch surveillance video that showed some of the incident.
White, who also faces an assault charge, and the 25-year-old Cameron had been in a romantic relationship since she was 17. But more than 10 months ago, in early December, she decided she’d had enough and moved out of the family’s apartment, taking her three sons and moving in with her mother, Schnirel said.
White, however, “refused to let the relationship go,” the assistant district attorney said.
“He was angry,” she said.
In his 10-minute opening statement, Joseph J. Terranova, White’s defense attorney, said there was “all kinds of friction” between his client and Cameron in the time leading up to the day Cameron was severely injured. “Everything that Jonathon had worked for was starting to crumble before his very eyes,” Terranova told jurors.
But only two people really know what happened behind the fence of the dumpster enclosure, he said. Terranova cast doubt on White's intentions during the incident, noting what he described as White's efforts to extinguish the flames from her burning body.
Prosecutors, however, painted a picture of a spurned boyfriend angered to discover his girlfriend had started seeing someone else, a co-worker at the coffee shop where she worked as a manager.
White, prosecutors allege, carried a gallon of gasoline in a clear container to the area outside the coffee shop. He messaged Cameron to meet him outside, then confronted her about their relationship and demanded to know if it really was over and if she was dating someone else, according to prosecutors.
Then, according to prosecutors, he doused Cameron with the entire container of gasoline and took out his lighter.
Cameron was awake and alert the whole time her body burned. All she could feel was heat and pain, Schnirel said. But she couldn’t get out of the dumpster pen.
“She desperately tried to escape the inferno she was entrapped in,” the prosecutor said.
Video shown in court Tuesday from one of the first City of Tonawanda police officers to arrive at the scene briefly showed Cameron on the ground behind one of the dumpsters. Someone could be heard saying, “Please help me.”
Peter Thompson, a co-worker of Cameron’s, was outside the shop in his truck when he saw what he described as a female voice unleashing a “very loud, bloodcurdling scream.” Then he saw what he called a “huge ball of fire.”
That ball of fire “was moving around,” he testified.
Thompson, of North Tonawanda, ran over. He said he saw Cameron consumed by flames. He said he also saw White.
Thompson ran inside the coffee shop and got a bucket of water and came back out to pour it on his burning co-worker.
He dumped most of the water on her, and then some onto objects burning nearby, including a headset worn by Tim Hortons employees who work the drive-thru. He went back inside to get another bucket full of water.
“She basically begged for more water,” Thompson testified. Her hands and face “were charcoal burnt,” he said.
The trial before State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour is scheduled to continue Wednesday morning.