'I felt I was going to die' Victim testifies in burning case

September 04, 1993|By Larry Rohter | Larry Rohter,New York Times News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- With the case against the accused in disarray, a black New Yorker took the witness stand yesterday and told in chilling detail of being kidnapped, showered with racial insults and doused with gasoline by his laughing abductors before being set ablaze last winter.

Near the end of almost four hours of testimony at the Palm Beach County Courthouse, the witness, Christopher Wilson, 32, a stockbrokerage clerk who lives in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, pointed to Charles Rourk, 33, and Mark Kohut, 27, a pair of white day laborers. He calmly identified them as the men who attacked him in a Tampa suburb on New Year's Day, while he was on vacation in Florida.

The two men have been charged with attempted murder, armed robbery and kidnapping in the case, the conduct of which has made it one of the most controversial in recent Florida history.

The prosecution has been thrown into turmoil by the resignation in midtrial this week of the lawyer in charge of the case. He said that his boss, the Hillsborough County state attorney, Harry Lee Coe III, had created an "intolerable situation" with his questions and behavior.

The prosecutor's departure and a series of unorthodox actions on Mr. Coe's part have led prominent blacks and others here and in the Tampa area to predict the case will be lost, and to urge Gov. Lawton Chiles to replace Mr. Coe.

Yesterday, Judge Donald C. Evans of State Circuit Court and the jury were attentive and respectful as Mr. Wilson told how a simple trip to buy a newspaper became an ordeal that left him with burns over 40 percent of his body.

Speaking softly and calmly in a slight Jamaican accent, Mr. Wilson told how his abductors taunted him with racial slurs as they held a gun to his side and made him drive for "what seemed like hours."

Asked by a member of the prosecution team, Eric Myers, what he was thinking during his captivity, Mr. Wilson replied, "I was just terrified, shocked this was happening to me."

Later, he added: "I felt I was going to die then. I was thinking of all my friends and the people I was not going to see anymore."

Mr. Wilson and his kidnappers drove to an isolated field, where the men ordered him out of the car and told him, "Now you're going to die, nigger." Mr. Wilson said he began to cry, asking: "Why are you doing this to me? I've never done anything to anybody."

But, he said, the men ignored his plea for mercy, telling him to "shut up, nigger," then doused him with gasoline and set him afire with a lighter after efforts to strike matches had failed.

Mr. Wilson said he heard "this noise -- fwoomp!" -- and felt a sensation "like when you are lighting a stove."

After that, he added: "I was running, I fell. I got up, ripped my shirt, I continued running. It seemed like I was running for hours," until he reached a house whose owner came to his aid.

As the lone black member of the jury daubed at her face with a tissue, Mr. Wilson, acting at Mr. Myers' request, showed where his hands and arms had been severely burned.

His steady and self-assured testimony, which elicited sniffles from some in the courtroom, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the prosecution case, which has been beset by a remarkable series of lapses, mishaps and conflicts.

On Monday, the prosecutor, Len Register, abruptly quit the case after Mr. Coe, his boss, rose in court and objected to one of Mr. Register's questions.

"I can't take it anymore, and I'm in no emotional shape to finish this trial," Mr. Register said during a hearing in the judge's chambers Tuesday morning, according to a transcript of the meeting. "I'm not going to be treated like that by somebody that does not know what's going on."

Mr. Coe became the Tampa state attorney in January, after serving 22 years as a judge, and decided to lead the prosecution of Mr. Rourk and Mr. Kohut against the advice of his staff.

While being cross-examined by defense lawyers late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Wilson disclosed that a tearful Mr. Register had phoned him to tell him he had resigned. When the defense team tried to shake Mr. Wilson from his account of the attack, he held his ground, reiterating that his memory was clear while acknowledging his anguish.

"Even now, talking about it, it hurts" he said. "I'm so mad they did this to me for no reason at all."

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