PASCAGOULA -- An Ocean Springs man pleaded guilty Friday to multiple felony charges related to him dousing his girlfriend in gasoline and setting her on fire.
Richard Lee Luss II, 28, was indicted on charges of aggravated domestic violence, tampering with a witness, conspiracy to commit perjury and subornation of perjury in the case. He was scheduled to go to trial next week, but ended up pleading guilty to all the charges.
Circuit Court Judge Dale Harkey sentenced Luss to a total of 30 years on all charges, with 20 years to serve, a total of $8,000 in fines plus courts costs and a payment to the Victim's Compensation Fund.
"It's kinda like what the judge said at the end, sometimes the 20 years just doesn't seem like enough," District Attorney Tony Lawrence said. "Well, that's exactly right in this case. What happened to Karla (Villafranca) in this case is like a nightmare you can never really imagine.
"When he was pouring gasoline on her, her first
reaction was to protect her eyes. Within a second later, a match was thrown at her feet. Well, you can imagine a gas explosion on her body.
"It was so bad that a neighbor heard the explosion. She immediately started running to the shower when she started burning. She was in a four-month induced coma. She developed one infection after another. What started this for Karla was her courage to stand up to this guy and recognize it was time to end this relationship and for that, she will remember what happened to her for the rest of her life with the scars on her body."
Gautier Police, along with agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshal's Office, investigated the case.
Authorities responded on Nov. 27, 2011, to a fire at a Gautier home where the victim, then 22, lived.
Authorities found the victim suffering from burns over more than 80 percent of her body.
She was in critical condition, unconscious and unable to tell authorities what had happened to her until March 26, 2012.
That's when authorities said the victim told them Luss had thrown gasoline on her and set her on fire after the two argued.
The other charges accused Luss of inducing an inmate at the jail to sign an affidavit saying he, not Luss, had committed the crime. The inmate, however, was in jail at the time of the assault on the woman.
Luss on Friday apologized for what he'd done, calling it an "unfortunate accident," something Harkey pointed out was no accident at all.
Remembering the pain
Villafranca told the court what she's had to endure as a result of what happened to her.
"I had to relearn how to do everything," she said. "Everything hurt. Sometimes just breathing hurt. I felt like I was on fire all over again.
"By the grace of God, I am able to do quite a bit more on my own. Some days, I look down and see my arms and my scars and I remember the pain I felt. I remember seeing my skin peeled off my fingers. I remember how I felt when my skin was melting off my body.
"What I had to go through when I was hospitalized and when I finally came home does not compare to how I feel when I wake up in the middle of the night wanting to cry because all I see are (Richard Luss's) eyes when he threatened me. I can't stand silence and I'm afraid to be in the dark. I can't go out in the sun because my skin begins to burn.
"I lost my independence. I almost lost my life."
Changing the law
Lawrence pointed out that under an amended law that took effect in July 2013, Luss could have been charged with attempted murder, a crime punishable by up to life in prison.
Prosecutors opted to charge Luss on the aggravated domestic violence charge because the penalty, a maximum of 20 years, was more than the maximum 10-year sentence under the old attempted murder statute. Lawrence's office worked to get the amended law passed.
Assistant District Attorney Cherie Wade worked closely with the victim throughout their time preparing for trial.
"Karla is a brave woman," Wade said. "Her life was changed forever at age 22 at the hands of the defendant. Since the day she was burned, she has demonstrated courage by fighting for her life at the hospital, by telling the police that her boyfriend set her on fire, and today, by showing her strength at the plea hearing.
"Karla has to live with both physical and emotional scars of domestic violence. I hope her bravery is an example for victims of domestic violence that they, too, can find the strength to stand up for themselves against their abuser."