PALESTINE, Texas - An East Texas woman was released from the Parkland Hospital burn unit and is at home recovering after she was duct taped, doused with lighter fluid and set on fire during a convenience store armed robbery.
Della Witt-Denizeri ended up with burns covering her scalp, face and neck simply because she was trying to be a good friend and happened to stumble upon an armed robbery in progress.
Witt-Denizeri just happened to swing by the Pit Stop Convenience Store in Palestine last Thursday morning to check on her friend, the cashier, whose sister recently passed away. She says 40-year-old Robert Thompson greeted her at the door, claiming to be an employee.
“I got to that store probably twice a day, every day for three years,” she said. “So I knew he didn't work there. And I also knew that Linda was in there, so I wasn't going to leave her.”
Before Witt-Denizeri realized anything was amiss, she noticed Thompson was wearing a distinct rosary around his neck.
“I saw that rosary on his neck,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘You are a Christian?’ And he said yeah. And I said, ‘Well, give me a hug.’”
Shortly after that, things turned and Thompson forced Witt-Denizeri to the ground, where she saw her friend already bound.
Witt-Denizeri says Thompson duct taped her entire head so she couldn't see. Surveillance cameras show him dousing them in lighter fluid.
“He soaked my head pretty good, and it loosened the tape on my eyes so I was trying to see a little bit,” she recalled. “Then, I saw the flames on me.”
Incredibly, Witt-Denizeri was able to douse herself with nearby buckets of ice to put out the flames that had engulfed much of her head. The video is too graphic for broadcast.
By that point, Thompson was gone. But a short time later, police got information his white Chevy Malibu was spotted at another nearby convenience store. When he was arrested, police say he was still wearing the same rosary the women described.
“It's unbelievable that they were able to arrest the suspect the same day,” said Palestine Police Chief Andy Harvey. “He could have gone to other businesses and done the same thing.”
Witt-Denizeri says she's grateful there's an arrest and dreads to think how things might have turned out for her friend all alone in the store had she not walked in that day.
“I have no doubt about what would have happened had somebody not walked in there. None,” she said. “And I don't even want to think about it right now.”
Thompson's criminal history dates back to 2008, including drug charges, theft and DWI. In this case, he's charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated robbery.
Thompson is being held on a $4 million bond.