The first thing Jessica L. Cameron did when she woke up in the hospital was ask if her short-staffed co-workers at Tim Hortons had made it through the rest of their shift without her.
She thought it had only been a few hours since her ex-boyfriend doused her with gasoline and set her ablaze behind the City of Tonawanda coffee shop where she worked on Dec. 17, 2018.
In fact, she had been in a coma for 27 days.
On Friday, a judge sentenced Jonathon E. White, her ex-boyfriend and the father of their three children, to 25 years in prison for nearly killing her.
"I've gained a lot of peace from this," Cameron said after State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour imposed the sentence, the maximum allowed under the law.
A jury in October convicted White, 29, of attempted murder and assault. The judge put him on probation for five years after his prison release and issued an order of protection barring contact with Cameron and their three children through December 2051.
Joseph J. Terranova, White's defense attorney, said a notice of appeal would be filed.
Cameron asked the judge for the maximum sentence, as did prosecutors.
Cameron, now 26, told her story to the judge in numbers before the sentence.
She burned for 78 seconds, she said, based on surveillance video that showed parts of the attack.
She spent 80 days in the hospital.
Two months passed before she could have a drink of water.
She underwent more than a dozen surgeries and hundreds of bandage changes.
She still can't close her eyes completely when she sleeps. She had been scared of taking a shower, because when she did, she felt like she was on fire again. Her kids run and lock the door when she puts her coat on to leave the house, afraid she won't come back.
Despite all the difficulties she faces, how long her attacker spends in prison won't make a big difference.
"It’s not going to change how he feels. It's not going to change how I feel," she said, addressing reporters after the sentencing. "And that’s OK."
"I don’t hate him for his actions. I am not angry about it. I’m not even sad about it," she said. "What upsets me is the time I lost with my children that I can never get back, and that my children will not only not grow up without their father, but one day have to learn what he did.
"I’m sure every person at some point in their life thinks about what parts of their parents they’ve gotten and if they’re going to end up like them. And I don’t want my sons to ever have to feel worried that they’re going to turn into anything like him," she said. "Because they are the sweetest boys you could ever meet. And it’s heartbreaking to know that someday they’ll have to know that not only is mommy hurt and damaged for the rest of her life, but that their father did it."
Jessica Cameron says it’s unfortunate that her children will have to grow up knowing what happened and “that there are people out there that do horrible things for reasons that nobody might ever know.” https://t.co/NVxUHqOhOI pic.twitter.com/H230JdQ9M2
— Aaron Besecker (@AaronBesecker) January 3, 2020
Many people in the right place at the right time allowed her to survive, she said, from the police officers who responded from the police station less than half a mile away to the firefighters and EMTs who provided immediate care and kept her conscious so she could tell them what happened.
A co-worker outside the coffee shop on a smoke break helped extinguish the flames.
Then there was also the woman in the hospital who had been burned by her husband. That woman, at home with her children when it happened, put the flames out herself, Cameron said she told her.
The woman spoke little English, but having her in the hospital to talk to — someone else who survived — helped her get through it, she said.
Cameron knows her situation has touched more lives than she could have imagined.
“I am awestruck by all the attention I’ve gotten, because in my mind, I’m still just a Tim Hortons employee that was making your coffees wrong in the morning,” she said with a laugh, “and trying to get my job done.”
She said she wants to embrace a role as a domestic violence advocate.
"And I don't feel like I survived this just to ignore it and brush it off," she said, "because when you experience a miracle, it's hard to say that that's not what it is. I would love to be able to help anybody that needs it, even if they just need a voice to speak for them."
— Aaron Besecker (@AaronBesecker) January 3, 2020
The reason her first question after awaking from the coma was about others, Cameron said, was because, as long as she knew her family and friends were all right, she knew she could make it through anything.
"Throughout this entire thing, I continue to tell myself that this is the path I was meant to be on.," she said. "And there’s no point in going backwards or stopping because it won’t get you anywhere. You can only move forward to get to the better life.
"I consider it like a phoenix that burns and rises from the ashes again, new and better than before. This has cleansed every toxic thing that I had to deal with in my life before him," she said. "Without these actions I would still be arguing with him everyday."
She would still be fighting, she said. She and her children would still face "countless problems."
"And he removed himself from the situation by doing this," she said. "And doing so, I can start a new life a better life with the people that are truest to me."
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Where to turn for help
The Family Justice Center is a one-stop center for victims and their families to safely escape abuse. Call 558-7233 or go to fjcsafe.org.
Child and Family Services operates a hotline for Haven House: 884-6000. Go to cfsbny.org/programs/haven-house/.
The Erie County Domestic Violence Hotline is (716) 862-HELP (4357).
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