Bonfire victims confront suspect in court

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

For the victims of last month's bonfire explosion in rural Cape Girardeau County, Tuesday's preliminary hearing in Jackson provided a tense first face-to-face meeting with the man prosecutors say tossed a five-gallon gas can into a bonfire.

A few of the 14 burn victims cried. One cursed the suspect under her breath as she left the courtroom. Recalling their shock and fear left some witnesses shaking. Tear-soaked tissues were left on the courtroom benches during a break.

Jerry L. Self Jr., 22, of Millersville, is charged with 14 felony counts of second-degree assault in connection with the incident. He listened as victims described the party held at 3901 County Road 621 and their recovery from the burns.

Other witnesses testified they heard Self talk about tossing gas into the bonfire and later saw him do it.

After hearing testimony, Associate Circuit Judge Gary Kamp found probable cause and bound the case over to the circuit court. Self's arraignment will be March 5 at 9 a.m.

For Staci Richardson, 19, the blast burned her so severely, she required surgical skin grafts on both of her legs. She spent 12 days in a burn unit at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. She now wears special compression hosiery that doctors will change every six weeks for the next six months.

"I will always have scars on the back of my legs," she told the court. "There will never be any normality."

Others who suffered physical injuries were Jennifer Mesey, Leah Reisenbichler, Kacie Thrower, Kelsey Proffer, Ashley Farmer, Andrew Hecht, Aaron Oberle, Kevin Seabaugh, Jason Walther, Ben Fadler, Chad Reiminger, Jamie Egan and Mindy Ruch.

None of the victims saw who threw the can into the fire, they said in court. Some broke down in tears while testifying, and a few occasionally glared at Self. Most still had bright red patches of skin on their necks, faces and limbs.

Doctors have told some their skin may not appear normal for up to two years. A few of the young women cut their once shoulder-length hair after the blast because spots had been burnt down to the scalp. One girl suffered a mangled finger from a fall after the blast.

Coat of contention

Witnesses Anthony Becker, Amanda Lange and Josh Biester, were not injured in the blast, but testified that they saw Self throw the can into the fire.

Each described the coat Self had worn that night as a "shadow grass" camouflage and said the person throwing the gas can wore the same coat. Becker also said he saw the side of Self's face at that moment the can was thrown from his hand.

Witness Dustin Penny, 20, testified Self had dared him to toss the gasoline into the bonfire earlier in the evening. However, he said he did not see who threw the can.

Defense attorney Wayne Keller questioned witnesses' certainty about Self's coat and how many others that night wore something similar. One witness said at least two other guests wore such a coat.

Keller also asked all 18 witnesses how many alcoholic beverages they consumed before the explosion. The answers ranged from two to more than 10 cups. The beverages generally consisted of either bottled malt liquors or beer from a keg.

All but one of the victims, Mesey, said they consumed alcohol at the party. The youngest was 16.

Fadler, 19, said the focus of the case should be on the blast, not on whether minors were drinking. His neck, face and right arm suffered second-degree burns.

"The explosion wasn't caused by drinking, it was caused by some stupid person throwing a damn gas can into the fire," he said Tuesday after the hearing.

Handing out invitations

Invitation flyers had been spread among friends about the party, but many of the guests had heard about it by word of mouth. The farm sits just north of Cape Girardeau on County Road 621, with several outbuildings and a two-story brick home.

An outdoor music system was set up, as were three kegs of beer around the bonfire. Some guests paid a $5 entry fee, a witnesses said.

Though several of the nearly 100 guests brought their own alcoholic beverages, the hosts of the party, Jonathon Edwards, 19, James McGee, 20, and Tyler Gerlach, 19, provided three kegs of beer.

They were initially arrested on suspicion of supplying alcohol to minors but were later released pending possible criminal summonses.

More than a month later, no one has been charged for the alcohol, but an investigation continues and charges are still possible, said Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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