GARLAND — Nancy Harris, 76, remains in critical condition at Parkland Memorial Hospital’s burn unit after the Garland convenience store clerk was set on fire during a robbery Sunday morning.
Police said Matthew Lee Johnson, 36, arrived at the Fina Whip-In at the corner of Broadway and Colonel Drive in Garland shortly after the store opened at 7 a.m. Sunday. Officers said he carried in a bottle of flammable liquid and used it to douse Harris and then set her on fire — after clearing out the cash register.
Harris suffered serious burns to her upper torso and face.
“It didn’t look like there was any resistance from her any time,” said Garland police spokesman Officer Joe Harn. “There’s no reason why you would set a 76-year-old woman on fire.”
Police said the suspect ran to a nearby neighborhood and tried to break into several homes. Officers said Johnson allegedly robbed one man nearby, but police arrested him a short time later.
He now faces charges of attempted capital murder and robbery. Johnson's bond is set at $500,000.
"That lady's been in my prayers since," said Alma Johnson, the suspect's mother. "I just pray that she pulls through all right."
Alma Johnson said she believes her son was looking for drug money, saying he has battled addiction all his life. Johnson recently got out of prison after serving a six-year sentence for a drug crime.
She said she had last seen Matthew at a family gathering on Saturday night. "He seemed fine to me. He seemed fine," the elder Johnson said. "Everybody else was saying it. after I left, I didn't stay that long. After I left they say he came back at 1 o'clock or 1:30."
Garland police have been in close contact with the Harris family. "They're not doing well," Harn said. "Their mother is simply holding on to life.
Loyal customers at the Whip-In were devastated and angry at the news. Harris lived nearby and had been greeting customers from behind the counter for a dozen years.
“She was the sweetest lady on earth,” said customer Dereck Mugara, who said he visited with her at the store several times a week. “Always smiling. Always loving — she was just happy to be here.”
Friends said Harris has three children and at least three great-grandchildren.
Since her husband passed away years ago, she now lives alone in a simple, well-kept home a few blocks from the convenience store where she worked.
“Never seen her mad; never seen her raise her voice,” said neighbor Jimmy Bertucci. “It’s devastating. There’s no amount of money he could have gotten that would replace what he did.”
Customers said Harris loves greeting her customers and could always be seen at work — unless the Dallas Cowboys were playing. Then, friends say, she would take time off to cheer on her team.
“She’s a huge Cowboys fan,” said neighbor Derek White. “During the season, she puts a Cowboys banner in her yard.”
Now, police say, Harris clings to life with serious burns over 40 percent of her body.
Moments after she was ignited, passing police officers happened to spot the fire inside the store. As they pulled into the parking lot, Harris staggered out of the store — the upper half of her body ablaze.
Harn described it as one of the most haunting scenes his officers had ever seen.
“They see a lady completely engulfed in flames in her upper torso,” Harn said. “Torso, head, face — everything was on fire. It’s one of the most horrible crimes that we see.”
An officer used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. Harris was able to briefly describe the suspect before paramedics rushed her to the hospital.
Police said detectives have not yet been able to speak to her because of the severity of her injuries.
“We’re in hopes she will make it,” Harn said.
Friends are praying that Nancy Harris will recover.
“When you meet somebody that’s happy with life or that’s happy to be living, it rubs off on you — she had that in her," Mugara said.