Police: Savannah man poured gasoline on woman, set her on fire during argument


SAVANNAH, GA – The Chatham County Police Department has arrested a Savannah man for setting a woman on fire during a domestic dispute.

Police have charged William Gary Wright, 42, with aggravated assault and aggravated battery. Wright was transported to the Chatham County Detention Center after his arrest.

Officers were called at about 10:30 p.m. Oct. 1 to the couple’s home on the 200 block of Larchmont Drive in Savannah for a report of a woman on fire. The 31-year-old female victim told the officers that Wright poured gasoline on her and then set her on fire during an argument.

The woman was transported to a hospital in the Savannah area and has since been transferred to the Augusta Burn Center with second- and third-degree burns. 

While police calls for domestic violence in Chatham County are up this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Savannah’s domestic violence chief advocate said her numbers are down from historic levels.

Cheryl Branch, executive director at the SAFE Shelter Center for Domestic Violence Services, is concerned that domestic violence calls are up at the same time the SAFE shelter has helped fewer people.

Branch explained:

“Last year we helped more than 1,300 victims, including about 500 children, receive services. This year, domestic violence calls have risen nearly 20% since March in Chatham County due to the COVID virus.”

Branch said that the shelter, which is at an undisclosed site, has a capacity of 48 beds.

She said:

“We’re at 34. Normally in the summer we’re over capacity . . .  I know the numbers are lower than this time of year historically. It concerns me because I’m worried about the people who should be here but aren’t.”

Chatham County police reported 593 domestic calls between Jan. 1 and July 18. This is an increase of 17.2 percent from 506 for the same period last year. At the same time, county police reported a 55.9 percent decrease in domestic aggravated assault cases, from 34 for the same time frame last year to 15 for 2020.

Savannah police reported a slight decrease in domestic violence calls for service, with 1,669 from January to June of this year, compared with 1,789 for the same period last year. 

Only in March and June did the numbers increase for 2020 over the previous year.

Those numbers show a 4.8 percent overall decrease in domestic violence calls or a 4.9 percent decrease from Jan. 1 through July 17.

Domestic violence aggravated assault cases decreased by 19.7 percent overall or 19.8 percent between Jan. 1 and July 17, Savannah police said.

Advocates are worried that since the coronavirus pandemic is forcing people to remain indoors, abused family members might not be able to flee for help.

Branch explained:

“They are just being trapped in with their abuser and they don’t have any way to escape.”

Chatham County Police Chief Jeff Hadley explained the department’s response:

“Law enforcement around the country reported spikes in domestic violence cases during the stay-at-home orders, so we feel our numbers are reflecting a nationwide trend.

“As soon as we saw the increase, we launched a domestic violence awareness campaign that included numerous media outlets, social media, and grassroots communications.”

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He also admitted that reactions to the stress of the pandemic can sometimes be negative:

“Sadly, many of the stresses brought on by COVID-19 – which include job loss and economic uncertainty, health concerns, sheltering-in-place, and the overall anxiety of living in the midst of a global pandemic — can have a very negative impact on how people deal with each other at home.”

Police Sgt. Michael Kerr, supervisor of the Family Violence Unit at the Savannah Police Department, said:

“Overall, between January and July 2020, there has been a 19.8% reduction in aggravated assault (Domestic Violence Act) cases. There has also been a decrease in calls for service.”

This is not specific to Savannah, however. A man in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Joel Murn 39, has been formally charged with setting a woman on fire.

Prosecutors say that Murn, who lives in Las Vegas, traveled to Waukesha to kill his family members. Melissa Zilavy, assistant district attorney for Waukesha County, said:

“His behavior was extremely random, violent, and unprovoked. He is clearly someone who is a danger to the community.”

According to authorities, Murn poured liquid on Amber Fuller, a woman walking her dogs along a trail. During the attack, she tried to run but tripped. When she fell, Murn ignited the accelerant, engulfing her in flames.

In the complaint, family members say Murn has a history of mental health issues due to a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. The complaint states that Murn intended to kill his cousin, whom Fuller resembled and who owns similar-looking dogs.

Zilavy said:

“He is facing significant prison time, he does not live here and is a flight risk.” 

Investigators say after he attacked Fuller, he went on to commit more violence, setting his grandparents’ cars and a detached garage on fire. He then tried to run them over with his car.

Zilavy continued:

“This is a man who appears to be extremely out of control, erratic behavior, dangerous behavior.”

When police caught up to Murn they reported he was under the influence of crack cocaine and he smelled of alcohol. Zilavy said he was extremely uncooperative with police officers. She said:  

“Up until now, the defendant has been living in Las Vegas, and other than coming here to randomly kill and injure his family members, he has no ties to Wisconsin.”

Murn has been charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide, first degree recklessly endangering safety (two counts), arson of a building, and arson of property other than a building (two counts). Murn’s cash bail was set at $1 million.

In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, two 13-year-old boys were arrested for setting an 89-year-old woman on fire.

The victim said she had never seen the boys before. The woman had just left her home when the two teens approached her near 16th Avenue and 77th Street. She said one of them struck her in the face, and then she felt a sharp pain on her back.

When she realized she was on fire, she pulled her hair up so it wouldn’t burn. She then rubbed her back against a wall to smother the flames. The fire left a large scorch mark on the back of her shirt. The teens, who are charged with third-degree assault, did not steal anything from the victim. 

In Kingston, North Carolina, police arrested 41-year-old Venice Taylor, who was accused of dousing a woman in flammable liquid before lighting her on fire. He was taken into custody hours later during a traffic stop in Kinston.

Kingston resident Khloe McNeal, 24, was found on a sidewalk with severe burns on her upper body. A passerby flagged down a patrolling police officer, interim Kinston Police Chief Tim Dilday said.

McNeal was able to tell police that she was driving and came to a stop when a man approached her car. He threw a flammable liquid on her and set her on fire. Investigators don’t think Taylor knew the victim. Dilday said.

“She was in that vehicle by herself. An unknown individual approached her. There was apparently some conversation. A flammable liquid was poured upon her, and she was set on fire while seated inside the vehicle. I’ve never seen such a breach of humanity.”

McNeal was airlifted to a burn center. Her condition isn’t known.

Taylor faces charges of attempted murder, malicious maiming, and resisting public officials, among other counts, the police statement said.


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