The last she remembers, Yvette Cade was working at her job at a T-Mobile store in Clinton, Md., on the morning of Oct. 10, 2005. But witnesses will never forget what happened next. Cade’s estranged husband, Roger Hargrave, 34, entered the store carrying a Sprite bottle full of gasoline. Walking up to Cade, he doused her with the fluid. She bolted into the parking lot, where he caught up and touched a match to her, setting her afire. Stumbling back into the store, Cade was helped by customers who frantically tried to beat out the flames that almost engulfed her upper body. “Some of my nose melted off,” says Cade, 32, who miraculously survived the attack despite being burned over 65 percent of her body. “I was told that I was dripping flesh.”
Vicious attacks are not uncommon in cases of domestic violence. But something about Cade’s experience struck a nerve. Perhaps it was the gruesome means that Hargrave chose, and the fact that much of the attack was captured on a security camera. Or the fact that three weeks before the attack, a local judge had airily dismissed Cade’s pleas to extend an order of protection against Hargrave. Or perhaps it is Cade’s courage in coming forward to tell her story, baring her soul and her scars for all to see. Whatever the case, she has quickly become a national symbol of the awful toll of domestic violence, even featured in a memorable segment on Oprah last month. “Yvette has been such a gracious and dignified spokesperson,” says prosecutor Glenn Ivey, who in April won a conviction for attempted murder against Hargrave. (On June 2 Hargrave was sentenced to life in prison.) “The message here is that we need to do more to address the problem of domestic violence.”
In some respects, Cade’s path to becoming a domestic violence victim was distressingly familiar. She and Hargrave wed in 2001 and from the start he verbally abused her. “He would call me a fat, beached whale,” she says. Cade, who has a daughter, Champane, 13, by a previous relationship, would threaten to leave him but would then back down. “I stayed because I wanted a happy family.” Cade’s mother, Joyce, often talked to her daughter on the phone and could hear Hargrave berating her in the background. “I heard some distress in her voice,” says Joyce.
Six months after they separated in December 2004, Cade finally found the strength to go to court and get an order of protection against her husband, who had taken to repeatedly calling her, wanting to reconcile. By last September that order was about to expire and she feared for her life. At a hearing before district court judge Richard Palumbo, she implored him to extend the order. A hearing transcript shows he refused. When Cade said she wanted a divorce, Palumbo replied sarcastically, “I’d like to be 6″5.” He suggested instead that she consider marriage counseling. (Palumbo has insisted that the order of protection was not renewed because of a “clerical error,” though a supervising judge found no evidence to support that. Palumbo, who now faces charges of judicial misconduct, contends he is a victim of “character assassination.”)
Cade still feels bitterness toward Palumbo. But for the moment she has more pressing concerns. She spent 92 days in the hospital. She has undergone 18 surgeries and will need as many as 15 more. She goes for physical therapy three times a week and wears a mask to hold the skin grafts in place and ward off the formation of scar tissue. Her body dries out easily and she itches all over. “It’s really hard,” she says. “My skin just eats lotion.” She takes solace from the fact that she can detect some improvement. “Slowly, but surely, my face is coming back,” says Cade, who is hoping to set up a home office to answer the enormous volume of mail, some of which includes donations.
But the psychological scars are still fresh as well. One of the toughest moments of the past months—one that almost made her physically sick—was sitting in court and seeing the man who tried to burn her to death. “It hurt so bad,” she says. “That he could do something like this to me. Because I loved him.