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Despite pain, woman in court faces ex-boyfriend who lit her on fire

PORT RICHEY

Sheron Pasco sat in the wheelchair as her mother pushed it toward the man in the orange jail suit.

His name was John Riggins, her former boyfriend. More than a year ago, he doused Pasco with gas as she lay in bed and flicked on a lighter. She still remembers him telling her to burn.

On Friday, he stood before Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip Federico and pleaded guilty to charges of arson and attempted first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 47 years in prison, and must serve at least 30.

Her voice raspy from the breathing tube in her neck, Pasco spoke to him just seconds after his plea.

"I can't take care of my children," she told him. "I'm like an infant that needs its mom."

The 39-year-old mother of eight spent 10 months in a hospital, where doctors tended to the third-degree burns that cover 70 percent of her body, from Pasco's ankles to her face. She moved into her mother's Port Richey home in May, where her days revolve around bandage changes and doctor's visits. She passes the time by listening to Bible passages on tape.

"Sometimes I think," she said earlier this week, "why did this happen to me?"

• • •

Their relationship had become turbulent years before Riggins was charged with burning Pasco.

In April 2014, he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery against Pasco, accused of pushing her twice in front a neighbor's house. It wasn't Riggins' first arrest: A former girlfriend accused him of setting fire to her home in 2011, but a jury acquitted him.

Pasco asked prosecutors to drop the battery case, court records show.

Six months later, Riggins was arrested again. According to an arrest report, he choked Pasco and two of her children pulled Riggins away. Pasco again asked prosecutors to release Riggins.

But this time, they filed charges anyway, including a felony charge of tampering with a witness. Riggins pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison on that offense, plus two others related to resisting arrest.

When Riggins was released in January 2016, Pasco returned to him. Tranda Webb, her mother, said she begged Pasco not to live with Riggins.

Court records chronicle what happened on July 5, 2016, at 7:30 p.m.:

Pasco and Riggins were staying with her uncle, Earnest Neal, at his house on 24th Avenue S in St. Petersburg when they didn't have money to pay for a motel room. They were always arguing, Neal said later in a deposition. He told them to quiet down.

Riggins left the house, but returned moments later with a red gas can used to fill up the lawn mower. He walked into the room he shared with Pasco.

Neal said he heard Riggins curse and walk out of the room. Behind him stood Pasco, her body covered in flames.

Neal rushed her into the bathtub, and Riggins turned the shower on before running out of the house, records state.

"Help me, Uncle Neal," Pasco told Neal. "I'm in so much pain."

Neal called 911. Pasco was flown to Tampa General Hospital.

On her way to the hospital, Webb prayed the burns were minor.

"I didn't know how badly she was burned until I got there and they let me in," Webb said. "I said, 'That's not my baby. That's not my child.' "

Only one person was allowed in the room with Pasco at a time. Webb stayed with her every day. She remembers her daughter waking from a medically induced coma a week later.

"Don't worry," Webb told her. "Everything will be all right."

• • •

Pasco says she feels like a newborn.

Burns on her arms prevent Pasco from feeding herself or brushing her teeth. She spent so many months in a hospital bed that she can't walk flat on her feet and instead tiptoes around the house. A breathing tube in her throat and damage on her bottom lip make it hard for Pasco to speak.

Her youngest kids, ages 11 to 8, live with their father in Alabama. Their other children are grown.

"I can't take care of my kids," she said through tears.

Webb, a former nurse at Tampa General, takes care of Pasco by herself in the home she shares with her husband.

"Everything I do is centered around my daughter," said Webb, 62. "When it came time to take care of her, I found the strength."

Their days begin about 7 a.m. when Pasco wakes up. Webb feeds her spoonfuls of applesauce with morphine pills and muscle relaxers.

It takes Webb more than two hours to change her daughter's bandages. Sometimes, she said, Pasco screams from the pain.

When they're not at home, they're at doctors' offices, from a respiratory specialist to a pain management clinic. On a scale of one to 10, Pasco always feels pain at a range of at least three. Sometimes, it can surge to eight.

On Sundays, they go to church at Community Holiness of God For All People in Clearwater. Pasco smiles when she thinks about the service, where she sometimes stands and claps her hands.

"I love it," she said. "It keeps my faith alive."

• • •

Last Wednesday, Webb leaned on her kitchen counter, her phone in one hand. She closed her eyes as she listened to the Medicaid representative who tried to explain why Pasco's bandages hadn't been mailed yet.

"Whatever it takes, I want my daughter to have her supplies," she told the woman. "She needs these things."

Her phone rang again about 30 minutes later. A woman gave her instructions on how to apply for a service that helps caregivers find jobs to work from home. Then she got a text from Hands Across the Bay, a local nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims. The organization calls them survivors. They would begin the process of reaching out to hospitals across the country who specialize in reconstructive surgery.

In her phone, Webb keeps a photo of Pasco, taken a day before she was burned. Pasco is smiling and wearing a black-and-white-striped dress.

"This is the last time," Webb said, her head bowed, "I saw her."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.


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For donations, visit handsacrossthebay.org or call (727) 573-7720.

     
   
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