Hours before prison, Krystal Gonzalez opens up
BILOXI -- The night before she learned her fate, Krystal Gonzalez slept very little because her one-year-old daughter had an earache.
They have never been apart. The next day, Thursday and her 28th birthday, Gonzalez would stand before Circuit Court Judge Chris Schmidt to be sentenced to prison for first-degree arson. She faced five to 20 years in prison.
She did not know what her sentence would be when she talked to a Sun Herald reporter only two hours before her court appearance. After her long night, and facing an even longer afternoon, she sat in the office of her attorney, Michael Crosby, with her raven-black hair wrapped in a bun atop her head. Without makeup, she looked weary but still beautiful. Her cheekbones are chiseled and her eyebrows dramatically arched above dark brown eyes, a trait she shares with her mother and grandmother.
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She dashed out of the room to apply makeup, and change into a blouse and jacket before being photographed during the interview.
She was composed until the subject of her daughter came up. She could not imagine leaving Khloe Nevaeh. The middle name, she said, is Heaven spelled backward because Khloe was a gift from God.
"The thought of not being with my daughter," Gonzalez said, "it's hard for me to breathe."
The week before, Gonzalez was in the middle of her arson trial when she reversed course and pleaded guilty. Residents had already testified about fleeing for their lives as the fire spread from her third-floor apartment, consuming the 20-unit building at Arbor View Apartments in D'Iberville. It was the night of Fat Tuesday 2014. She and her live-in boyfriend had fought and separated in the afternoon.
She knew he was prepared to testify that she started the fire on purpose. She went back to their apartment that night, he would say, called him on FaceTime from a laptop computer, turned the computer toward the closet so he could watch while she set one of his shirts ablaze.
She convinced herself the fire was an accident, she said. She thought candles she lit must have started it.
"I don't remember much that night," she said. "I was at Mardi Gras, so I only remember bits and pieces." She drank all day and, according to testimony, wandered into a convenience store that night with a yellow Solo cup in hand, reeking of alcohol.
She hasn't spoken to her then-boyfriend since two days after the fire, when he told her investigators suspected her of starting it.
"I lost everything I worked hard for," she said. "I had three jobs. I lost my two dogs that meant the world to me. Wherever I went, they went. So, I haven't really gotten to grieve over that, I was really more protecting myself legally."
She remembers trying to put out the fire, first with water. Then she searched for several minutes before she found the fire extinguisher. She didn't know how to work it. She finally managed to pop the pin, but it was too late. Fire consumed the apartment. She fled without warning a soul.
When residents testified at her trial, she realized the fire had terrified and devastated them.
"When I saw the residents and the hurt I caused them," she said, "I wanted to do anything I could to help the situation, to help them. The way I was raised is, you take responsibility for what you do and your actions. This is what I'm doing -- taking full responsibility for what I did. Whatever I can do to help, I want to help."
At the time of the fire, she had been with her boyfriend for two years, but also was seeing the man who would become the father of her child. The men knew about one another. "A love triangle" she said. She cared for her boyfriend, but loved her future fiance. "He was someone I wanted to have a future with," she said.
Gonzalez was enrolled in cosmetology school in Ocean Springs and worked three jobs, two as a bartender and one at a department-store makeup counter. She liked expensive clothes, makeup, purses and shoes.
All that has changed.
"I do feel that something good has come from this," she said. "I was very into material things. This situation, it was tragic and devastating, but it made me look at things differently. Family is way more valuable to me than 'things' were to me at that time. I was so young, I thought that was all that mattered."
Now, she said, she just wants to raise her daughter the way her mother raised her, to be kind-hearted, responsible and loyal.
She and her family hoped she would have time to settle her daughter with her fiance and other family members before she went to jail. That didn't happen. Judge Chris Schmidt sentenced her to seven years in prison and ordered deputies to take her into custody immediately.
Two of her sisters in the courtroom doubled over, as if in physical pain. A third was outside the courtroom with Khloe, who will be raised by others, at least until she is old enough to attend school.