I was two minutes out when the dispatcher toned out the ambulance and fire department, telling me the neighbors were reporting a full structure fire at the house on Sugarberry Lane. I turned on the street passing the point where just over two hours earlier I had the encounter with Penny. I could see the house, smoke was filtering out the front windows.
I pulled up and exited the patrol car, running across the yard. A neighbor standing in the street asked if he could help. I yelled for him to stay away, as I heard screams from the rear of the house. The driveway was in the rear of the house and fed into the back alleyway. I continued to hear a woman screaming as I ran along the side of the house. At the back alley I located the woman, another neighbor, she was screaming, “the kids, the kids!!”
I asked her if any of the kids were still in the house? She responded that she didn’t know, but saw three of them running down the street. Thinking at least two small kids were in the burning house, as well as Penny and Zahhak, I entered the garage and observed the door leading to the kitchen open. I could hear my back-up arriving out front, as I drew my weapon.
I entered the kitchen and came face to face with Zahhak. My back-up entered right behind me, his name was Wilson. Thick black smoke was filling the kitchen and it was burning my eyes and throat. It was obvious that Zahhak had burns on both forearms, severe burns…as well as on his torso. He also had a butcher knife in his right hand and had appeared to have cut his hands…blood was pooling at his feet.
I told Zahhak to drop the knife or he would be shot….he dropped it in quick order. Wilson and I grabbed him and drug him out on the driveway. Wilson quickly returned to the house to attempt to find the children and Penny. I rolled Zahhak on his stomach and handcuffed his hands behind his back. The skin on his forearms was rolling up, burned and shriveling….falling off to my touch. With his injuries, I knew he was not moving, so I left him and ran back into the house.
On the return trip to the kitchen I had to immediately get down on my hands and knees. The only available air was at the one foot level, everything above that was total blackness. I could hear Wilson shouting, still calling out for the kids. Wilson checked several rooms and could not find any sign of life.
I made it as far as the living room and could go no further. I had never experienced heat at that level before. I could feel my eyebrows synging as I faced a veritable wall of hot air. I could not make myself move another inch…my mind wanted to find Penny and the children…my body would not allow it. Wilson had bravely made it farther than I did, but even he was retreating, not making it to the master bedroom. The house belched both of us back on the driveway, along with big billows of black smoke.
What had seemed like an eternity was only about eight minutes and the fire department was now on scene fighting the fire. The Careflight medical evacuation helicopter was ordered by the fire department Captain, as Zahhak’s injuries were life threatening.
Wilson stayed with Zahhak and would be traveling to Parkland Hospital in the helicopter with him. The fire was now extinguished as I looked down the alleyway and saw five small kids standing beside a woman. Thank goodness, Penny and the kids had made it out!! I took a deep breath of the fresh air and sighed. The woman was now running towards me, getting closer….it was sadly not Penny.
The woman was a neighbor from four houses down, she stated her kids were playmates of Penny’s children. They had run to her house in sheer panic, looking for help. I told her to take the kids to her house and keep them inside until someone was sent to get them. She turned to walk back and said that the kids had told her, “Daddy set Mommy on fire!”
The fire department Captain was calling my name and standing at the kitchen door. I met him there and followed him back through the smoldering house. The fire originated in the master bedroom without extending past the attached hall. The bedroom was completely black as we walked through it towards the master bathroom.
The Captain motioned into the bathroom and I entered alone. There was Penny, motionless in the bathtub. From the breasts down her clothes were burned and melted to her skin. I could see several knife puncture wounds on her breasts as well as her neck. She was staring at me in frozen disbelief….Penny was dead.
Zahhak had waited for Penny’s return that day, sitting in the driveway. He shouted as she pulled up and the shouting followed her as she escorted the children into the house. The fight had escalated to the point where Zahhak had grabbed the butcher knife and chased Penny around the house. At one point pinning her down on the floor of the master bedroom, stabbing her repeatedly.
The twelve-year-old son had watched as Zahhak had drug Penny to the bathtub, and threw her down. A waiting gas can was on the bathroom floor. Zahhak poured the gas over a screaming Penny. Zahhak was sloppy in his crime and got gasoline on his chest and arms. When he flipped the lit match into the tub, flames shot up and licked at his body.
I worked the crime scene and didn’t leave the house for four more hours. I helped lift Penny from the bathtub and watched as something shiny fell out of the side of her burnt jeans. Upon closer inspection I could see a gold-colored coin glistening on the blackened floor. I picked it up and found it was a token, a token for games from Chuck E. Cheese.
Officer Wilson was treated for smoke inhalation at the hospital. His valiant effort was done with no thought for his own safety. He was a good officer and had acted heroically on that “slow” Sunday.
Zahhak lived, but had to endure painful skin graphs and the loss of one testicle. He was convicted of murder in a Dallas County District Court. His plea bargain and attached sentence was so incredibly low, I cannot make myself include it in this blog. Zahhak would, at sometime in his life, walk the streets a free man again. I have no reasonable explanation for this fact, as I did not take part in the prosecution, past the point of arrest.
The five children were adopted by Penny’s mother…this is all I know about them. The last time I saw the twelve-year-old is when I walked down the street and told him and his grandmother that Penny was dead.
The coroner ruled Penny’s official cause of death as smoke inhalation. Could I have saved her if I could have made myself move beyond the living room? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can still relive the unbelievable force and heat of that burning room sixteen years later.
I would have liked to have finished this blog with a happy ending or a funny phrase or twist. But there is no such ending to relate….domestic violence ends really badly sometimes….people get hurt…people die.
I would continue to go on domestic violence calls for the rest of my law enforcement career. I would look into the eyes of aggressive men and women…volatile and angry again. I would see others that had intent to cause harm and that were on the brink of madness.
But I would never see the blackness or evil-heart of Zahhak matched again. Nor would I forget a woman named Penny and her last Mother’s Day on Sugarberry Lane.
Well,I am glad I stayed up late for this ending. I know you must carry these horrific memories around with you,but it is good you can write about them. I admire your courage in doing so.
What a devastating experience. Domestic violence has to be the most painful kind.
So sad. Domestic violence has got to end. The abused pays a horrific price and their children left behind live the crimes over and over in their minds. I too wish you didn’t have to relive some of the horrors I am sure you witnessed. Poor Penny.
Wow… Very, very moving and very, very tragic…
I have been so fortunate in my life to have never been involved in such horrific acts as domestic violence and I sometimes forget that such tragedies happen – and all to often! Thank you for sharing your stories, Julya. And, thank you for all you have done to help those who have suffered. You are a blessing to many.
Life is often messy. Thanks for sharing.