Judy Malinowski found herself in the middle of an altercation with her on-again, off-again boyfriend when she was suddenly doused with gasoline and set on fire.
The 31-year-old, engulfed in flames behind a gas station in Gahanna, a Columbus suburb, miraculously survived. The 2015 attack left 90% of her body covered in third or fourth-degree burns.
The Ohio resident defied the expectations of doctors and lived for another two years, which was long enough to detail her account from her hospital bed and have it recorded. The mother of two died from her injuries in 2017 at age 33.
But her story didn’t end there. Her testimony was admitted as evidence at trial. It was the first time in Ohio history a murder victim was able to testify against a killer.
Malinowski’s case is being explored in an MTV documentary, "The Fire That Took Her," which is available for streaming on Paramount+. The film, directed by Patricia E. Gillespie, features interviews with the detectives and attorneys who were involved, as well as Malinowski’s mother, Bonnie Bowes.
"Judy’s sacrifice, first and foremost, is what compelled me to tell her story," Bowes told Fox News Digital. "The second is the chance to help other women."
The film features footage from the hospital room where Malinowski spent the final years of her brief life. She was in a coma for seven months, underwent 60 surgeries and was resuscitated seven times. An amputated arm had been scorched to the bone.
Malinowski’s charred face was nearly skeletal and her ears were gone. Her eyes were often widened in despair, as she struggled to breathe. Her fully scarred body and uncontrollable wails were captured on camera to give audiences a glimpse of Malinowski’s suffering.
Malinowski, in between gasps, described that the pain was "like a thousand hot needles," which was later heard in court.
"There are no words to describe the agony she’s seen," Bowes explained. "And I don’t have any words to describe what those burn dressings were like, especially on your child. They were all over her body. No amount of medicine was able to stop the pain. There just wasn’t enough for those burns. It was brutal. One doctor said it was like blowing cold air on a nerve of a tooth over and over again, except it was her entire body. And then those burns were rubbed over and over."
"I think, at that point, as a parent, you’re just on autopilot," she recalled. "I was in such survival mode for Judy to sustain life while I was caring for my grandkids. I think that’s what kept me going."
Malinowski, who suspected she wouldn’t live much longer, was determined to give her testimony. She anticipated that her ex-boyfriend, Michael Slager, would be charged with murder upon her death.
Slager was sentenced to 11 years in prison after pleading no contest in 2016 to charges including felony assault and aggravated arson.
"I knew Bonnie had great faith that there would be a recovery here," Judge Warren T. Edwards, who was the assistant district attorney at the time, told Fox News Digital. "But I think, from our perspective, we knew that at some point, these injuries would take Judy’s life. So, from the very beginning, we prepared this case for a homicide trial. That meant I spent hours upon hours at Judy’s bedside preparing her. I was out there just about every week."
"I’ve prosecuted dozens of homicides, but, of course, the victims in them are usually deceased at the time that the case is assigned to me," he added. "I get to meet their families, their loved ones, but never the victims themselves. This was unique. As I got to know Judy the victim, I knew this would be a very different kind of fight."
Edwards said that when he was first assigned the case, Malinowski was still in a coma. He still vividly remembers getting a phone call during which he was told Malinowski was not only awake and communicating, but she had some memory of what happened to her.
"That was one call I never expected to get," he admitted.
Bowes, 60, said Malinowski’s relationship with Slager was "tumultuous from the first day."
"She came to me multiple times and said she was trying to get away from Michael," Bowes recalled. "She would text me and say, ‘Please mom, have the authorities get him out of my apartment.’ This relationship was not healthy. She realized there was something controlling about him. And he preyed on her weaknesses."
Before the attack, Malinowski was a newly divorced mom who battled an addiction to prescription painkillers that developed after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 2015, Malinowski got clean and began dating Slager, then 40. Bowes said it was Slager who fueled her daughter’s addiction by introducing her to heroin and feeding her dependence.
Malinowski had plans to visit an addiction treatment center. She never got the chance.
"She attempted multiple times [in the past] to get help from the police," said Bowes. "There were numerous 911 calls to her home. But I think there was an attitude at the time, without looking at Michael’s [past] record, that she was a prior drug user. … I think that played into it. And I also think it’s because they readily didn’t have information on Michael whenever they would walk into this domestic violence situation blindly. … I do think there was a stigma at that time."
Five months before she died, while clinging to life, Malinowski recorded a three-hour attestation. Her pain medication dosage had to be lowered for her to testify. The goal was to prove that she was of sound mind.
In a video played in court, Malinowski said Slager set her on fire during an argument after he doused her with gasoline. She described how, at one point, the gasoline had gone down her throat as Slager pulled out a lighter. ATM surveillance footage from the incident showed how the blaze shrouded Malinowski’s body. Malinowski said Slager ignored her pleas for help.
"The look on his face was pure evil," said Malinowski.
After Malinowski’s death, a grand jury indicted Slager on murder charges. His defense attorneys argued against allowing Malinowski's testimony, saying prosecutors improperly relied on civil law rather than criminal law to obtain the recording. In 2018, a judge ruled that the videotaped testimony could be used at Slager’s trial.
Edwards said an exhausted Malinowski held on as much as she could to ensure her story would be heard. While he wanted Slager to be put to death, Malinowski did not.
"That didn’t surprise me," said Bowes. "That’s not really who Judy was. She had forgiven Michael throughout her journey in the hospital. We spoke a lot about it. She wanted Michael to find God. She wanted him to be sorry. She just couldn’t get her head around the fact that he could do this to her and not be sorry. But Judy didn’t hold grudges. She wasn’t that type of person, even at that level of pain."
In 2017, "Judy’s Law" was signed by Ohio’s governor. The bill requires six additional years in prison for crimes that permanently maim or disfigure victims. At the time, Malinowski’s 13-year-old daughter Kaylyn said the bill’s passage helped her and her 10-year-old sister Madison know that their "mommy did not suffer in vain."
Slager, now 47, pleaded guilty in 2018. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"My daughter suffered so greatly," said Bowes. "She never wanted another woman to suffer the way she did. She wanted to make a change. She fought to change the laws and help other women."
"Her relationship with [Slager] was only really from April to August," Bowes reflected. "In those few months, her whole life was just destroyed."