JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 56-year-old Golden Corral worker who was intentionally lit on fire Wednesday by her boyfriend inside the restaurant remains in critical condition at the UF Health Shands Hospital Burn Unit in Gainesville, her family said.
Carol Renee Demmons was doused with lighter fluid by Darryl Tyrone Whipple, 58, who then ignited her with a lighter as she ran away, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Whipple has been charged with attempted murder, battery and criminal mischief.
Patrons inside the restaurant witnessed the attack, which began behind the dessert counter, police said.
One witness who News4Jax spoke to said she can still hear Demmons' screams.
“As soon as my mom said, 'OK, I'm going to go get chocolate-covered strawberries,' whoosh -- the flames, and then she just started screaming, and it was intense,” Kai Barber said. “People were running for her, trying to help her -- construction workers, JEA workers, her co-workers -- trying to rip off her clothes and pat the fire out.”
Barber, a Jacksonville University student, said she met her mother and grandmother for dinner at the restaurant on Memorial Park Road, just off Normandy Boulevard, and they were having a pleasant family night until the evening turned tragic.
Demmons suffered burns to more than 70 percent of her body and was airlifted to Gainesville, according to police. The fire set off the restaurant's sprinkler system.
The whole incident was recorded by a surveillance camera, police said.
Barber said that Whipple had a butcher knife and that he walked outside, sat on the curb, put the knife on the ground and told the manager that he was waiting for police to get there.
"The manager was outside. He was furious with him," Barber said. "Everyone was trying to figure out what was going on and why he did it. He didn't say anything. He just said, 'I'm not running. I'm not going anywhere.' He sat down and everyone sat out there and waited, and it wasn't even 30 seconds, and the cops rolled up."
JSO Sgt. Jay Farhat said Whipple was easily taken into custody. According to the arrest report, officers found Whipple sitting on the curb outside. When they arrived, he stood up and placed his hands behind his back, the report said.
He made his first appearance in court on Thursday while wearing a red jumpsuit, an indicator that he is on suicide watch. He was ordered held without bond and will be back in court Nov. 1.
The owners of the restaurant, Janet Murphy and Rick Eggmeyer, told News4Jax that Demmons has always been a kind person and hard worker.
A spokesperson for the Golden Corral franchise released the following statement Wednesday night:
"An employee at our Memorial Park road location in Jacksonville, Florida, was tragically attacked today by an individual known to the employee and not affiliated with our company. We are cooperating fully with the authorities regarding their investigation into this matter. Our thoughts and prayers are with the employee and her family at this time."
Demmons’ brother said that at last check, she was still in critical condition and unresponsive. He said prayers for his sister and their whole family are greatly appreciated.
Barber said she has been praying for Demmons' family.
"We hope for the best. I can only imagine how difficult it is, mentally as well as physically, for her," Barber said. "I just pray her support system is strong enough to carry her through."
She said she'll never go back to the restaurant again.
The restaurant was packed when the attack happened, and many people ran off. Police said they need to interview witnesses, so anyone who was there at the time is asked to call police at 904-630-0500.
Safety analyst: How to protect employees, customers
Though Wednesday evening was a scenario that no one could have expected, News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith explained what employees and patrons should do when random acts of violence occur at a public place.
The customers inside the Golden Corral Wednesday evening described the incident that transpired as terrifying, and many patrons rushed to help put out the fire. At the time, Smith said, employees and customers acted as quickly as they could.
"Keep them from standing. Get them on the ground and that will immediately smother some of the fire," Smith said.
Smith said restaurants and businesses should have a procedure in place to prevent isolated incidents from occurring.
"If they see someone coming in with gasoline or they know they have gasoline, stop them or notify a manager. And if a person is having problems in their relationship with someone, and they know they may be coming up to their place of employment, of their restaurant, they need to let a manager know what type of problems they're having and who to look out for," Smith said.
By law, all restaurants are required to have certain measures in place to protect their employees and customers, Smith said.
Sometimes, he added, employees are even trained based on crimes that occur in the area.
"For example -- surveillance video. They may also, for fast food restaurants, they have certain training for robbery prevention. So it really depends on the restaurant and the demographics of the area. What types of crimes are going on in the area? Then they adjust their crime prevention plan on that," Smith said.