The Austin Film Festival screened The Fire That Took Her. An Ohio mother-of-two Judy Malinowski was doused in gasoline and set on fire by her crazed ex-boyfriend, Michael Slager. Judy would go on to become the first person to testify at the trial for her own murder. “The Fire That Took Her” is a 94-minute documentary directed by Patricia Gillespie that examines the defects that exist in protecting abused women like Judy from their abusers.
As Gillespie told “Screen Rant” in an October 20th interview the day before the film began screening in theaters, “The police, try as they might, didn’t have the systems in place to protect her or the laws in place to prosecute repeat domestic violence offenders like Michael Slager. You can clearly see in his records that he was ramping up to commit a crime like this, and he was pretty much uninterrupted.”
Gillespie, with the assistance of cinematographers Tom Hurwitz, Martina Radwan, and Lisa Rinzlerloin and the astute editing of Emiliano Battista, goes inside the landmark case with extensive interviews with Malinowski’s family, including her mother, Bonnie Bowes, her children (daughters Maddie and Kaylyn) and her siblings.
Danielle Gorman, Judy’s sister, upon seeing her in the hospital after the assault, burned over 95% of her body, went into the hallway of Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University, and vomited. As the film says, “Nothing could possibly prepare you for the condition she was in.”
Judy had begun dating Slager after meeting on the Internet. His many tattoos caused mother Bonnie to urge her rebellious daughter not to let her children near Slager. But Judy, over the years, beginning with having two children in her twenties and continuing through a drug dependency brought on by surgery for ovarian cancer, had become addicted to pain pills and was in a downward spiral. Still, meeting Michael Slager was the beginning of the end.
Slager, it turns out, was the kind of man who made a practice of preying on women with addictions. He would then become their “supplier” and he would be able to manipulate them in any way he wished, including physical abuse. Slager had something like 38 convictions for everything from receiving stolen property to domestic abuse to burglary to rape (plea-bargained down) and even attempted to manipulate Judy’s mother, leading her to believe that money she would give him to “take care of” Judy was being used for that purpose when he was securing drugs for her with the cash, moving on to heroin in March of 2015.
The couple began dating in April 2015 and Slager moved in with Malinowski and refused to leave. Near the end, Judy is trying everything she can think of to rid herself of the toxic relationship, including telling the police that Michael had threatened to kill her if she left him. Nothing was done because he would paint her as a drug-addicted liar.
Finally, Judy decided to enter Parkside Rehabilitation Center on Sunday, August 2, 2015. Michael offered to drive her to the rehab center, where she hoped to escape from him once and for all. On the way there, he pulled his truck into a gas station near the Heartland Bank. They argued and Judy threw a cup of pop on Slager. Retaliating, he went to his truck, took a full gas can from it, and poured gasoline over her body, from the head down. He then went to his truck but returned to the woman, now on the ground. Witnesses said it looked as though he intended to punch her. Instead, he used a green plastic lighter to set fire to his ex-girlfriend, who said, “I just remember crying and begging for help. His eyes turned black.”
Later, Slager—who refused to admit that his actions were intentional—would say that Judy had asked him for a cigarette and he had no idea that lighting it would set fire to another human being. Judy’s remembrance of some of the gasoline going down her throat and burning her internally would put the lie to that story, even if cameras at the nearby Heartland Bank had not captured the entire incident on film.
Said Chad Cohagen, the lead detective who Is filmed asking Slager about his actions, “I had never seen trauma like that to a human body that wasn’t deceased.” When Judy reached the hospital she was “clearly processing” her ordeal and detectives tried to get a statement right away, in case she should die immediately, which many thought would be the case. Judy, when asked about the attack said, “I don’t think I can express what it feels like to have your whole body set on fire. It was beyond excruciating.”
It should be noted that Michael Slager reached out to the film’s director, Patricia Gillespie, and wanted to be interviewed, but each time she showed up at the prison to interview him, he had committed some new offense that made him unavailable to her. The best summation of Michael Slager came from Judge Julia M. Lynch when Slager agreed to plead “no contest” rather than risk having a jury trial. Judge Lynch said, “You’re one of those people who has no soul. You need to be incarcerated. Take him out.”
Unfortunately, under Ohio law, the maximum sentence she could give Slager for his attempted murder of Judy Malinowski was 11 years. Recognizing the gross injustice of this light a sentence for such a heinous crime, Franklin County Attorney General Ron O’Brien and Warren Edwards, Franklin County Prosecutor, set about to try to make it possible for Judy to testify in Slager’s trial from beyond the grave, via videotaped statements made from the hospital bed she occupied for nearly 2 years before dying.
The Ohio law House Bill 63, known as Judy’s Law, passed the Ohio house and moved on to the Senate, where it passed, making penalties for such acts much more severe and acknowledging harsher sentences for those who intentionally attempt to mutilate or disfigure their victims in the course of an attack. Judy also testified that, in her opinion, a just punishment for her former boyfriend would be life in prison without the ability to be paroled, as she did not believe in the death penalty. The film ends by saying that they hope Judy’s Law will become national law in 2022, although I have heard no talk of that happening and the year will be over in 2 months.
Judy Malinowski courageously began weaning herself off pain medication in order to be allowed to testify. The question was not only about whether she would be coherent and lucid but also was an attempt to keep from embarrassing both the victim and the prosecutor’s office. When she did get the green light to testify on her own behalf for the first time, a precedent-setting opinion that will affect future trials, Judy went without many pain pills to keep her comments coherent and to the point and testified for 3 full hours. Her assailant demanded the right to be present in the room and to cross-examine the woman he tried to kill, but that was denied. One thinks about victims like O.J. Simpson’s wife and wonders if she might have left more than just photos of the abuse she suffered at O.J.’s hands, would the verdict have been different?
Judy spent nearly 2 years in the hospital, undergoing over 50 surgeries and coding 7 times. Her nurse, Stacy Best, testified to her courage and spirit in working towards the goal of testifying in what would become her own murder trial. As one prosecutor said, “It’s the first time I ever had a conversation with a homicide victim.” As her mother said, “It’s terrifying to feel this way. There’s nothing that’s okay about this. I want him to be sorry because she’s a human being.”
Judy’s Down syndrome brother is shown reciting some of the lyrics to the Beatles song “Let It Be” and the family is shown accepting the verdict of life without parole, because that was what Judy wanted, and, more importantly, in the words of the chief investigator, “I wanted Judy’s voice to be heard as quickly as possible.”
After years of trying to get help against pure evil, Judy emerges as a courageous voice for all abused women and a force for change. Human interest stories in the Columbus Dispatch and other papers followed the case and even defense attorney Bob Krapence admitted that what his client had done was inexcusable.
As Judy’s mother says more than once in the film, we don’t want to accept that anyone could willfully do that to another human being. Yet it is clear that this horror completely destroyed Judy Malinowski’s life and that of her family and loved ones.
The documentary is 94 minutes long, but it is well-paced, a tribute to the editor, and the MTV documentary certainly makes its point, aided by Katy Jarzebowski’s music and the testimony of all involved (with the notable exception of the convicted murderer.)
One particularly effective stroke—beyond the actual footage of the attack—is the use of frames of film that appear to be burning up. “The Fire That Took Her” was shown at the Austin Film Festival on October 29th and will be screening on Paramount Plus in late November. Don’t miss it. The truth is not always pretty, but, as Chief Investigator Chad Cohagen said, “We are about the truth.” This documentary was truly disturbing. To quote Cohagen, “That scene has played out in dreams more times than I can count.”