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May 23, 2013

Victim set on fire while pregnant recalls ordeal during testimony

Prosecutor says baby’s father conspired with a friend to murder woman in May 2012

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

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Victim set on fire while pregnant recalls ordeal during testimony
Jamal Rogers and Antonio Mathis were charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and conspiracy last May. Investigators said they hatched a plan to abduct and murder Latonya Bowman because she was pregnant with Rogers’ child. Testimony in their trial in Macomb County Circuit Court began May 22.

WARREN — Latonya Bowman said she feared for her life and that of her unborn son as she was taken from a Warren garage, bound with duct tape, sprayed with lighter fluid and set on fire in Detroit one year ago.

“He doused my whole left side with lighter fluid. I heard, like, a match,” Bowman told a jury assembled in Macomb County Circuit Court May 22. “I still seen the floor, and I could see the flames reflecting. I started to panic more. I could just smell it. I heard the popping noise as my hair went on fire.”

Her account of the harrowing experience capped the first day of testimony in the trial of the men accused of conspiring to kill both Bowman and her unborn child, now healthy and almost a year old.

Investigators said Jamal Rogers and Antonio Mathis, both 23 and from Warren, lived together in a home on Sherman east of Van Dyke, and that Rogers, unhappy about Bowman’s pregnancy, hatched a diabolical plan with Mathis to end both the pregnancy and Bowman’s life.

Both men are charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, and they face up to life in prison. Mathis, who allegedly committed the brutal assault, also faces a felony weapons charge.

Following opening statements by Assistant Macomb County Prosecuting Attorney Jurij Fedorak and defense attorneys Azhar Shiekh and Joseph Kosmala — representing Rogers and Mathis, respectively — and the testimony of two Warren police officers, Bowman said the evening of May 26, 2012, began as a date night with Rogers.

She said she knew Rogers since high school in 2006 and that she became pregnant with his child in 2011. Bowman told the jury that they had discussed terminating the pregnancy early on but that he eventually seemed prepared to be a father. She said they even discussed names for the baby.

But Bowman, 23 and from Detroit, said she only saw Rogers once in a while with varying frequency before she picked him up at his mother’s house on Sherman and drove with him to see “Men in Black 3” at a drive-in theater in Dearborn on the night of her abduction.

After the movie, Bowman, then 37-weeks pregnant, said she drove Rogers back to the house on Sherman just before 2 a.m. and wanted to go inside to use the restroom. She said he instructed her to pull up a grassy driveway into the unattached garage after he exited her mother’s orange Saturn SUV and opened the garage door. Once she parked inside, the garage door closed and she exited the vehicle to retrieve a bag of snacks from the back seat.

“After I handed him the bag, I felt someone grab the back of my neck and put a gun to my head,” Bowman said. Asked by Fedorak what Rogers was doing at the time, she said, “When I looked he just stood there and said, ‘Oh, s---.’”

Bowman then calmly told the jury what happened next.

“The person who had the back of my neck told me to lay flat on the ground. He asked me did I have a cellphone,” Bowman said. 

Fedorak then asked what was going through her mind at the time.

“Do what he said. I’m pregnant,” Bowman said. “I got to make sure my child was safe.”

Bowman went on to describe how her hands were bound behind her back with duct tape. The assailant — allegedly Mathis — also bound her ankles and used the tape to blindfold her and to cover her mouth.

She recalled being bound on the backseat during the short ride from south Warren to a field somewhere near I-75 and I-94 in Detroit.

During the ride, she said her assailant spoke to her repeatedly.

“The whole ride, he kept turning around. ‘It was OK.’ He was taking me home,” Bowman recalled him saying. “He told me to calm my breathing down. Everything was OK. He wasn’t going to hurt me.”

Bowman said she could hear the car’s turn signal, felt a bump in the road she recognized as they went down Eight Mile and sensed the SUV’s acceleration onto the freeway. After about 10 minutes, she said she felt the car go over a curb and then come to a stop.

“I heard the engine shut off and I heard movement. He asked me how many months I was. I couldn’t answer. My mouth was duct-taped,” Bowman said. “He asked me do I know why this is happening.”

She said she heard car doors open and then, underneath the duct tape covering her eyes, saw the top of a bottle of lighter fluid and started to smell it.

“I started to panic, and cry and squirm, and then he kind of like got mad,” Bowman said. “He asked me what I was crying for. He was going to make a deal with me. He wasn’t going to kill me, but he was going to tell him (Rogers) he killed me.”

Bowman then recalled what she felt as her assailant struck a match and set her on fire.

“I felt heat. I was scared,” she said. “The thought me and my son was gonna die. I tried to squirm and get the fire out,” Bowman said. “I tried to kick my way out of the car.”

Bowman said she struggled to free herself and to put out the flames. Eventually, she heard a gunshot, and then a second shot.

“I heard it once and continued to move. When I heard it again, I told myself to play dead,” Bowman said. “I was going to die.”

She told the jury her assailant then took off on foot, leaving the car’s keys in the ignition.

Bowman said she was eventually able to free her arms. She kicked off her shoes and jeans and amazingly managed to drive herself to a gas station, where she used the phone to call her mother.

After driving to her mother’s house, the women drove together to Royal Oak’s William Beaumont Hospital at about 3:30 a.m. where she met with police and was treated for severe burns on her torso, arms and head. It was unclear whether she was shot directly, but doctors reportedly removed lead bullet fragments from her body that could have been the result of a ricochet.

She delivered her baby by emergency C-section two days later.

Based on Bowman’s statements, Royal Oak police summoned Warren officers to the hospital. The investigation quickly led police to Rogers, and ultimately to Mathis.

Warren Police Sgt. Ken Marsee told the jury he went to the home on Sherman with another officer and took Rogers, who denied knowledge of the incident, into custody at about 6:15 a.m.

Fedorak told the jury he planned to introduce evidence to show that Mathis showed up on foot at a friend’s house in Detroit at about 2:40 a.m. and asked her to drive him to the home of another woman.

The jury also saw security camera footage from The Home Depot in Warren, recorded on the night of the assault, that Fedorak said showed Mathis purchasing gloves, a length of rope and the same brand of duct tape used to bind Bowman.

Fedorak said police also recovered Bowman’s cellphone, discarded along southbound I-75 near Seven Mile Road, that allegedly showed a fabricated text message exchange between Bowman and Rogers.

“I feel we’re going to be able to prove the defendants’ guilt on each respective charge,” Fedorak told the jury. “They had an agreement to do this, and thank God it didn’t work. She lived through that night, based on her courage.”

In his opening remarks, Shiekh tried unsuccessfully to introduce statements allegedly made to police by his client, Rogers, that implicate Mathis in the crime. But Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Richard Caretti determined the statements were not admissible based on the rules of evidence.

Shiekh and Kosmala eventually asked the jury to look at the facts to determine whether or not the prosecution proved that both defendants were guilty of all the charges leveled against them beyond a reasonable doubt.

In defending his own client against the attempted murder charge, Shiekh pointed to the alleged actions of Mathis.

“He taped her up. He didn’t shoot her in the head. Again, what he did — I’m not here in any way to defend this man — as gross as it was, you wouldn’t want this to happen to an animal. The bottom line is the attempt to murder wasn’t there,” Shiekh said. “He could have shot her anywhere. He could have shot her in the heart, if that was his intent.”

The trial was expected to continue through May 31 in Caretti’s courtroom.

Look for updates to this story at www.candgnews.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/warrenweekly.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.