'Heinous, atrocious and cruel': Man sentenced to life for setting DeLand woman on fire
When Tracy Adams was set on fire in 2017, she ran into her home, her skin melting, and told her family who attacked her.
And at the end of a murder trial Thursday, Marilyn Adams said her daughter would not have lied about the man who hurt her, causing injuries that would ultimately take her life.
A jury found that man, Bernard Thomas, 54, guilty of first-degree murder, first-degree arson of an occupied vehicle and first-degree arson of a dwelling Thursday.
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"I just want justice for Tracy," Marilyn Adams told the judge about her daughter, who was 39 when she died. "I've known Tracy for 39 years and one thing I know her not to be is a liar. She would not accuse somebody falsely. And she only said the truth."
Bernard Thomas sentenced to life plus 30 years
Circuit Judge Leah Case sentenced Thomas to the mandatory life in prison on the murder count, to be followed by 30 years each on the other two charges. The 30 years will run concurrent to each other but consecutive to the life sentence.
"That death was one of the most heinous, atrocious and cruel ways that somebody can die," Case said. "And she had to live 13 days with those injuries. I'm hoping that she didn't feel much."
Case said she recognized Thomas' defense attorneys' argument that a life sentence meant he would never be released. But the judge said she wanted the 30 years to follow the life sentence just in case something happened with that life sentence. While the judge did not say so, she was apparently referring to whether Thomas was successful in an appeal.
"I want to ensure that you never get out after committing the murder of Tracy Adams and her dying the way she did," Case said.
A jury of six women and six men deliberated for about two hours and 45 minutes before returning the guilty verdict at the S. James Foxman Justice Center in Daytona Beach. Thomas did not appear to show any reaction.
After the verdict, Thomas, who had a criminal record and did not testify during the trial, entered a plea to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 1,135 days time served on that charge. That charge was not part of the trial.
State Attorney R.J. Larizza released a statement after the conviction: “The brutal nature of this crime shocks me. This murder was the act of a depraved and vicious man. His cruelty knows no bounds.”
Thomas lived rent-fee in a gazebo behind Tracy Adams' rented house at 208 W. Volusia Ave. in DeLand. He was treated like part of the family and allowed access to the house, according to testimony. But Thomas wanted a romantic relationship with Tracy Adams; however, she did not have the same feelings for him, according to Assistant State Attorneys Andrew Urbanak and Michael Willard, who prosecuted the case.
On Aug. 17, 2017, Thomas threw gasoline on Tracy Adams and lit her and her car on fire outside her house. An investigator testified that the fire started in the driver's seat of her car before spreading. Tracy Adams died 13 days later as her body shut down from complications from the burns. Prosecutors said Thomas also shot Tracy Adams in the shoulder, but it was the fire that killed her.
Bottles smelling of gasoline
During closing arguments Thursday, Urbanak presented evidence from cellphone records, family members and the deceased woman's own words implicating Thomas.
Urbanak said Thomas called Tracy Adams 32 times in the seven days before the attack, but not once afterward.
He said that two medical personnel who responded to Tracy Adams' injuries testified they saw a white van parked nearby. Thomas drove a white van.
Urbanak said that at the time, Tracy Adams was rekindling an old relationship with a man named Eric Thomas, no relation to Bernard Thomas.
She visited Eric Thomas early on Aug. 27, 2017, arriving at his house on South Frankfort Avenue in DeLand about 1 or 2 a.m.
Eric Thomas testified he heard some noises outside the house and went to check, but didn’t see anything. But the next morning a friend of his found a broken bottle of Corona beer surrounded by a burned area in his yard. The bottle smelled of gasoline.
Urbanak said the Corona bottle was Bernard Thomas’ first attack on Tracy Adams by trying to set the house on fire; but he failed. He didn't stop.
Later that day, around 8:30 p.m., Thomas dumped the gas on her and set her on fire. An investigator later found a Gatorade bottle next to Thomas' gazebo. The Gatorade bottle smelled of gasoline.
Urbanak said that Thomas told two people that he was not responsible for the attack, even though the two had not accused him of it.
After the attack, Thomas vanished, Urbanak said. Thomas never returned to the gazebo and left behind his box of ammunition and his identification card, the prosecutor said. He also abandoned a new job he had started just a month earlier. Within three hours after the attack, Thomas’ cellphone records showed he was in Melbourne in Brevard County, Urbanak said.
Urbanak recalled testimony from Brittany Adams, Tracy's niece. Brittany Adams said on Aug. 26, 2017, Thomas kept calling Tracy Adams, who ignored most of the calls. But when she finally picked up, Brittany Adams said she could hear Thomas tell Tracy Adams: “’If I can’t have you, can’t nobody have you.’”
And Urbanak said Tracy Adams herself had identified Thomas as her attacker when she ran into her house after he set her on fire. He asked jurors to accept that testimony as if Tracy Adams was still alive, sitting on the witness stand and telling them directly.
'He gets it easy'
Assistant Public Defender Brian Smith, who, along with Assistant Public Defender Sara Altes, represented Thomas, said in his closing argument that it was not until nearly five months after the attack that the two medical personnel said they had seen a white van in the area. He said other first responders and family members did not mention seeing the white van. He said cellphone records show Bernard Thomas’ cellphone was hitting a cell tower west of the area at the time they claim to have seen his van.
Smith said that a state analyst testified there was insufficient DNA on the Corona bottle and the Gatorade bottle to do any testing.
“One thing is certain: Bernard Thomas’ DNA is not on that Gatorade bottle," Smith said. "Bernard Thomas’ DNA is not on that Corona bottle."
Urbanak later said that the analyst did not say that Thomas' DNA was not present — just that there was not enough DNA to try to match it to anyone.
Smith said that it was not until about a month later that Brittany Adams told police about Thomas’ alleged statement that if he could not have Tracy Adams, no one could.
Smith said the most severe burns were to Tracy Adams’ hands and face. Smith said the attacker came from the area of the gazebo where Tracy Adams knew Thomas lived. Tracy Adams had recently seen Thomas at another person’s house. And Tracy Adams assumed Thomas was the attacker, Smith said.
“I submit to you that due to the extreme nature of her burns suffered she didn’t know who attacked her,” he said.
Tracy Adams' daughter, Danesha Adams, said after the verdict that justice was served but she would have liked to have seen more.
"It's finally over," she said. "I still don't think it's enough. It's not an even swap. My mom fought for her life for 13 days. He gets it easy."
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Florida man accused of setting woman on fire sentenced to life