Having her face burned and a gun pointed at her didn't kill Della Witt-Denizeri's spirit. She's as full of life today as she was before the armed robbery at the Pit Stop Friday morning.
That's when a 40-year-old assailant, after removing money from the cash register, covered Witt-Denizeri, 57, with lighter fluid and set her on fire.
Witt-Denizeri suffered second degree burns to her head, ears, hands, and neck. She was kept in the hospital overnight for observation for inhalation burns.
“My hair will grow back and my ears will peel,” she said. “All the parts of me that matter are great.”
Friday started like any other day for Witt-Denizeri: It began with a prayer.
Witt-Denizeri said God sent her to the store to check on her friend, Pit Stop clerk Linda Camire. Witt-Denizeri said Camire, who had lost a loved one, was on her heart.
When Witt-Denizeri arrived at the Pit Stop, robbery suspect Robert Thompson met her at the door and told her the store was closed due to problem with the gas pumps.
Witt-Denizeri didn’t recognize Thompson. She knew something was wrong.
Witt-Denizeri said she saw Thompson was wearing a cross. “Oh, you’re a Christian too,” she said. “Give me a hug.” Instead of a hug, she said Thompson dragged her into the store.
He used duct tape to bind her and Camire, and then doused them with lighter fluid before setting Witt-Denizeri on fire and leaving the store.
It was a cold morning. Witt-Denizeri's three layers of clothing kept the robber from wrapping the duct tape tightly around her. Also working in her favor: The chemicals in the lighter fluid dissolved the glue on the tape over her eyes, allowing her to see the flames and quickly break the duct tape.
After she struggled from her clothing and smothered the fire, Witt-Denizeri said her thoughts immediately turned to Camire, on the floor in a puddle of lighter fluid. Witt-Denizeri then tore the tape from Camire and escorted her out of the store.
Caught on security cameras, the robber was apprehended shortly before 5 p.m. by the Palestine Police Department.
Thompson was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault. His bond was set at $4 million – $2 million for each charge.
Witt-Denizeri was transported to Palestine Regional Medical Center, and later transferred to Parkland Memorial Hospital's burn center.
“If I were to see him now, I would probably give him a hug,” she said of Thompson. “I can always forgive what he tried to do to me – but I can't forgive how he tried to hurt Linda – and I guess I'll have to answer for that to the man upstairs.”