“Forged through fire: A story of forgiveness"
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Bethany E. Starin grew up scribbling away in her free time, writing short novels and also dreaming of becoming a teacher. After spending nine weeks in India teaching English while attending Virginia Commonwealth University, Starin realized her real passion was to educate through the written word, telling true stories of those with gripping, unsung lives. Starin returned to Richmond, VA, and switched her major to print journalism, graduating in 2008 as the top print journalism student in her class. Upon graduation, she claimed a job as Staff Writer at Richmond magazine and soon became Associate Editor, winning several writing awards from the Virginia Press Association. Now, Starin works as Managing Editor for The Town Courier in Urbana, MD. Starin also freelance writes for area publications while also pursuing photography in her spare time.
Reproduced from Frederick Gorilla © April/May 2012with permission of the publication and is available at www.frederickgorilla.com.
Darryl Lafratte, Sr. sits at his dining room table, combing his hair through his hands as he talks about the gift of second chances.
“God gave me another chance in life,” he says in coarse tones, placing his leather driving hat on his head and leaning forward. “God has done a mighty thing in me.”
Lafratte talks gruffly and uses short sentences — but not because he’s cold-hearted.
It’s partly because he is moved with emotion as he shares his experience and is trying to contain himself. Mostly, however, he sounds rough because he was the victim of a heinous crime two-and-a-half years ago which singed his vocal cords and caused his lungs to lower in his chest, so that he quickly runs out of oxygen when talking.
The crime? Lafratte was torched.
“For the first three weeks, I was unrecognizable,” Lafratte says, pausing and pointing to the right side of his face. “Half of my right ear was off, my eyelid was burnt off, my right nostril from my nose down ceased to exist. It is all reconstructive surgery.”
The Back Story
Before he discusses the crime, though, Lafratte insists on setting his story’s context.
A graduate of Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, Lafratte worked for 30 years as a subcontractor with his company, One Day at a Time, Lord, Painting Company — formerly Fine Lines Painting Company — painting home interiors and exteriors.
Lafratte also spent 35 of his now 52 years addicted to cocaine.
“If 35 years ago I could have walked through fire not to go through my addictions, I would have done it,” he says candidly. He repositions his gold-rimmed glasses and reaches for a cigarette.
“Under substance, I did not want to live,” he says. In 2006, Lafratte said he started attending church and a path to a new life began. He swore off cocaine and stayed clean for a while, but continued to slip into his old ways.
Lafratte clears his throat as he begins to talk about the evening of December 4, 2009. He was at his girlfriend’s house on the 5000 block of Oleander Place, about three miles south of downtown Frederick.
A man came to the door and Lafratte’s girlfriend answered, letting the man in, he says.
“It’s Josh, and he wants to talk to you,” she said to Lafratte.
“I said, ‘What do you mean — Josh?,”’ Lafratte says, adding that he went into the living room, where the man — later identified as Joshua Mashburn — was standing. Lafratte says Masbhurn started “kicking it around with him,” saying he knew Lafratte.
“Don’t you know me?” Lafratte says Mashburn said to him.
“Man, I don’t know you,” Lafratte responded.
Lafratte says his girlfriend began angrily yelling, “What do you mean? He says he knows you!”
Lafratte knew something was wrong. “My wits have been on the streets for 35 years with addiction and I have never been busted,” he says. “I know how to read people.”
He says he then led Masbhurn out of the house and walked with him around the neighborhood.
“I wanted to know what he was up to. I wanted to pluck his brain to absorb what he was thinking,” Lafratte explains, adding that Masbhurn kept trying to lead him outside the neighborhood.
As they walked back towards his girlfriend’s house, Lafratte says Mashburn began suspiciously knocking on doors and waiting for people to answer, telling Lafratte that he lived in this neighborhood.
“He was schizophrenic,” Lafratte says. “I told him …. Don’t come back, ever.”
But Mashburn did return — at four the next morning, December 5, 2009.
Lafratte relates that he went to the door and Mashburn was bent over on the porch, appearing to be gagging. Lafratte, who says it’s his nature is to help people, went outside to see if Mashburn were okay.
“As I did, he raised up and blew butane [through] a little lighter… at me,” Lafratte says. “I had about a two-foot beard and three-and-a-half feet of hair back then, and it engulfed me.”
Lafratte says he turned around and in the pitch black darkness, he saw a ghastly reflection in the glass door.
“All I could see is the image of a body burning. All I could see is fire, but you could see there was a body there — but you couldn’t see through the fire.”
Lafratte opened the door and says something pulsed through his mind, telling him not to drop and roll, but instead to get to the shower.
“Five feet into the door, I felt a splash; I heard a ‘poof’ and I saw it ignite,” he says. “[Mashburn] threw a quart of gas on me. I felt my knees bend, and I could feel the intense pain of the burning.”
Trying desperately to make his way to the shower, Lafratte says he was knocking things over to keep Mashburn away from him. About 20 feet into the house, Lafratte says there was yet another ‘poof,’ splash and array of flames — another dousing with gasoline.
“The only way I could describe the scene is to liken it to former Washington Redskins running back John Riggins, carrying two linemen across the goal line. I was resolved to not go down, but to keep driving forward. My knees were bent; I was crouched but I would not let my knees touch the ground.”
Lafratte says he finally made it to the shower and, when he stood under the water, it extinguished the flames — and then some.
“I saw all this goop and gum and flesh roll off of me into the bottom [of the shower]. It was an inch thick in the bottom of the shower,” Lafratte says.
Getting out of the shower, Lafratte says he headed for the living room to find Mashburn there. On the way, he passed a mirror — and backed up.
“I did not even recognize myself,” he says. “I looked at myself and I growled.” Lafratte pauses. “I growled and said, ‘And this is what it is.’”
About 15 minutes later, Frederick County Sheriff’s officers arrived. Mashburn, however, had already fled the scene.
According to Corporal Jennifer Bailey, spokesperson for the FCSO, the emergency call came in at 4:05 a.m. When deputies arrived, there was a strong odor of gasoline coming from inside the house, where burns on the carpet and things thrown in disarray could be seen — evidence of a crime whose brutality, according to FCSO Detective Dan Romeril, had never before been seen in Frederick County.
Lafratte was taken by ambulance to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C. Medevac could not be used that night because of an imminent snow storm, which eventually dumped three feet of snow on Frederick, Lafratte explains.
“They wanted to put morphine in me, but I said, ‘I won’t have a controlled substance in my body. I am pure now and I will be alright.’” Lafratte adds that he’d been clean for about eight months at that time. He explains that medical staff told him that once his adrenaline went down he was going to “know pain beyond all pain.” But he says he continued to refuse morphine.
Four hours after the fire, Lafratte fell into a deep coma: “I couldn’t take the pain anymore,” he says.
His Ultimate Turning Point
When Lafratte awoke from his coma three days later, he couldn’t see. He actually didn’t see again for three weeks. He recalls that his recovery process was very slow.
Incredibly, his forgiveness of Mashburn was not.
“The first words I spoke were, ‘I forgive you, Joshua.’” Lafratte says, adding that as the words came out of his mouth, he was surprised. “I asked God, ‘Why did I say that?’ He told me, ‘You will know when you need to know.’” Later, Lafratte says, he would discover the power of those words.
During his coma, however, Lafratte says he clearly had a vision suggestive of verses in the Old Testament’s Psalm 23. Lafratte points to the weathered pages of his Bible, the words of Psalm 23 highlighted in yellow. He says his vision included this line: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil. For you art with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”
Lafratte explains that the horrible crime and the burns on his body were the vital turning point of his life — that the burns gave him purpose.
“I found myself when I came out of the coma,” he adds, his lips and bearded chin quivering with emotion. “God had to turn his face and allow this to happen — to take something from me in order to put something in me. I was living a hypocritical life… It was the ultimate turning point. Now, I know what I was created to be.”
The second week after being burned, Lafratte says, he heard the voice of Kathy Smith, his old girlfriend (not the lady in the house the night of the attack), who shortly before the incident had also turned around her life.
“She uprooted and came to Frederick,” he says happily. “She told me this: ‘God wants you still.’”
Then and there, Lafratte says he knew God intended for them to be married, adding that, as his recovery progressed, he never doubted that forgiving Mashburn was the right thing to do.
“[God] put forgiveness in me for Josh,” he says, adding that he refused to make a statement about the incident to officials when they came to the hospital to prepare charges in the case.
“I told them to take their pictures and leave, because I cannot say anything or testify because God told me to forgive. I cannot allow that beast to rise [again in me], the person I used to be —very corrupt, very persuasive. God allowed that to be burned out of me.”
Forgiveness as a Choice
But Lafratte explains that his road to forgiveness was not always so easy.
In early February 2010, after 18 facial surgeries using skin grafts from his own body and pig skin for his chest, he was released from the hospital. Now it’s hard to tell that Lafratte’s face ever sustained third-degree burns.
Lafratte returned to Frederick to continue his recovery. The next day, he says he checked his bank account.
“I learned that my bank accounts were drained, because all of my [information] was at that lady’s house; she took everything out of it,” he says.
Suddenly, Lafratte says he knew why God had told him in the hospital, “You will know when you need to know.” He says he knew God wanted him to extend forgiveness.
Lafratte points to his living room, explaining that for next 30 days he spoke out the words, “I forgive you,” as he prayed. He says he would even cry from the pain of the prayer. But, in this case, forgiveness was an active choice, he explains.
“On the 30th day… peace beyond measure came upon me,” he says. “It is very simple: the corrupt that is in you, the distortion that the Devil will tell you is this: that it is alright to be bitter.”
Mike Albro, Lafratte’s pastor at Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Frederick, says he watched Lafratte’s journey to forgiveness.
“Through this ordeal-by-fire, literally, he has come out a man who understands the reality of forgiveness,” Albro says. “He has come out of a very difficult life. He has done a lot of things he could hold against himself. Through the understanding [that God has forgiven him], he has been able to understand and extend forgiveness.
“He has every right to be bitter,” Albro adds. “[But] forgiveness is not a point in time, but rather, a process someone engages in.”
Albro explains that “in life there are only two ways someone can come out of a situation — bitter or better.” He says that Lafratte has chosen to come out better — and says he’s done it well.
After his forgiveness experience, Lafratte took Smith, his then-fiancé, and paid a visit to the woman (and former girlfriend) who had witnessed the attack and allegedly drained his bank accounts. There, as a sign of forgiveness, he gave her ownership of his Land Rover, which she had been using while he was in the hospital. He told her he forgave her for everything, and wanted to move on.
“That was the beginning of a healing,” he says, pausing to breathe deeply.
But the physical side effects of the crime were still evident, as, at first, Lafratte had trouble walking and had to use wheelchairs when running errands.
Now, however, walking is not a problem, but Lafratte has lost sweat gland function across 80 percent of his body and he has dead nerve endings on the right side of his face and in parts of his upper body.
Holding both arms straight up towards the ceiling, Lafratte says that, because of the skin grafts, his right arm no longer extends as far as his left arm and he has restricted mobility of his head and neck. Perhaps most disconcerting of all to him, however, is the fact that his entire chest is covered in pig skin grafts.
But Lafratte laughs about it.
For being torched and spending 64 days in the hospital, he’s looking pretty good.
Lafratte and Smith were married on January 7, 2011. Two months later, he began full-time work in Christian ministry, and now says his life is all about “giving back.”
His ministries include Anchor Point, a nonprofit founded by longtime Frederick resident Alan McRae in 2008.
Once a week, Lafratte and McRae travel to the Cambridge, Maryland area, to work with 30 juvenile delinquents. Partnering with Vision Quest, a national outreach organization, Anchor Point selects kids for its program mostly from the Baltimore Juvenile Justice System. Lafratte is a team teacher who talks to the youngsters about career exploration and character-building.
“Because he has a history of incarceration and drug abuse, the kids immediately connect with him and are willing to listen and participate in the learning materials,” McRae says.
“I help guide kids and give them a different way of looking at things,” Lafratte says, his voice catching. He reaches for a white rag sitting nearby and wipes his face. “I show them the evidence of this body, these scars — evidence of lusts and fleshly [desires]…. [I tell them] not to take 35 years to find [the spiritual side]. You don’t have to go through fire to find it.”
Back in Frederick, Lafratte and McRae work to match the kids — once they are released from the program — up with mentors. They do this by working with candidates from Baltimore’s Rescue Mission and from Frederick’s Beacon House, another rescue mission.
In addition, Lafratte hosts a weekly breakfast at his home for men who want a new perspective on life. Dubbed “Strong Men in Tough Times,” the program’s morning agenda includes breakfast, prayer, Bible reading and discussion of topics in faith.
Lafratte explains that he talks to the men about thinking differently and about continuing to struggle.
Then on Wednesday evenings, Lafratte makes his way to Albro’s church on West 2nd Street to help serve free meals to 200 street people in “Celebrate Recovery”— an addiction recovery program there — and assist with the church service. Albro notes that a third of the congregation at Centennial are homeless street people, and describes Lafratte, who he’s known for a long time, as a loyal, committed man, who is truly serving the community.
“He is one of those before-and-after pictures in a spiritual register of some kind,” Albro says, adding that after the crime and his recovery, he became a different person.
Releasing the Criminal
Mashburn was found and arrested by police in Little Rock, Arkansas, a few days after he set Lafratte on fire. He was brought back to Frederick County and held at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center on attempted, first-degree murder and arson charges, according to official case reports.
In the summer of 2010, however, Mashburn was released into the custody of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, his charges dropped due to a successful insanity plea that was supported by the DHMH-affiliated Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Baltimore.
But his tormentor’s release is just how Lafratte would have it. “It wasn’t his fault,” he says.
David Callahan, a deputy state’s attorney for Frederick County who prosecuted the case, remains impressed with Lafratte.
“I have the upmost respect for the victim in this case — that he was able to reach that place [of forgiveness],” he says, adding that it is now up to DHMH to determine when and if Mashburn is ever well enough to be released to the public.
As for the future, Lafratte hopes someday to be able to speak with Mashburn personally.
“I need to at least let Josh know [that I forgive him],” he says. “Because sometimes we need to hear that someone forgives us, so we can forgive ourselves. That is my dream, that he could forgive himself.”
When asked how he would respond to someone who thinks his definition of forgiveness is odd or perhaps even insane, Lafratte responds, “All things are possible through Jesus. The Bible says it: All things are possible through Jesus Christ, your Savior.”
Printed in theFrederick Gorilla, April/May 2012 (Frederick, MD). Story written by Bethany E. Starin. Photos accompanying the story online taken by Bill Millios.
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