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Girl travels long, hard road since fire

Tayler Mack suffered third-degree burns in the attack by her former boyfriend. She wears a scarf to hide the scars.

GEORGE SKENE | Orlando Sentinel

Tayler Mack suffered third-degree burns in the attack by her former boyfriend. She wears a scarf to hide the scars.

ORLANDO — Tayler Mack's mother tried to hide the mirrors.

Lying in a hospital bed for two weeks, 14-year-old Tayler, who had been voted the best-dressed girl in the eighth grade only a few months earlier, hadn't yet seen the devastation inflicted by a boyfriend who set her on fire.

"She's very smart, and she noticed I had been trying to protect her from mirrors, so she asked to see my bracelet," said Tayler's mother, Tiffany Roberts, who was wearing a large reflective bangle that day. "I quickly removed it and stuck it in my purse. I saw in her eyes that she knew what Mommy was trying to do, and she just laid her head back on her pillow as if silently saying, 'So it's that bad?' "

Eighteen months after the attack by Calva Haskell, then 15, those closest to Tayler see a brave and beautiful young woman, struggling to live a normal life while enduring painful reconstructive treatments.

The first glimpse in the mirror was painful for Tayler.

Her left ear was gone, amputated by doctors who couldn't save it. Most of her hair had been seared away by third-degree burns that nearly killed her. Her head and shoulders were covered with peeling and scarring skin.

"When I first came home from the hospital and saw myself, it was really hard," Tayler said, her injuries veiled by a black fringed scarf. "A lot of teenagers, our main priority is how we look. I was big on how I looked. I cried a lot at first. I'd think, like, 'I'll never look the same.' I'd think, 'I look like a monster.' "

She had sneaked out of her mother's house in Clermont to meet Haskell for a late-night walk Aug. 19, 2009. They had met in the eighth grade and regarded each other as girlfriend and boyfriend. She wanted to talk with him about his seeing another girl. Both said they did not argue.

As she walked in front of him, he pulled out a knife and stabbed Tayler 12 times, striking her neck, arm and abdomen. As she lay bleeding on the ground, he pulled out lighter fluid, sprayed her and lit her on fire.

Haskell, described by a court-appointed psychologist as defensive and evasive about the incident, admitted at his sentencing in January that he was angry at something Tayler said but couldn't remember what it was.

"I guess I just snapped," Haskell said.

Tayler's father, Dale Mack, did not want her to answer questions about the attack or speculate on Haskell's motive. Mack, a veteran Orange County sheriff's detective, said he preferred his daughter focus on moving forward.

In a closed courtroom, Tayler, now 16, removed the scarf she wears to hide her scars and missing ear, revealing the depth of the devastation to Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson, who had to decide Haskell's punishment.

Johnson sentenced Haskell to 30 years in prison for attempted first-degree murder. The judge said he thought a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevented him from giving a life term to a juvenile who was not charged with murder.

Tayler and her parents, who remind her daily that she is still a beautiful girl, think her injuries are an emotional life sentence. The knife damaged a kidney, which requires quarterly checkups, and left other physical scars. She once loved swimming but won't put on a bathing suit now.

Tayler, who has been in counseling, has leaned on friends, too.

She said when she returned to school last year, some kids thought she was a Muslim because of her head wrap. Others thought she was just having a bad hair day. Her friends tell her she still looks pretty.

"I try really hard not to feel sorry for myself. People still say that I look nice. My friends say I'm still the same Tayler," she said. "I don't know. People can tell you things, but you still have to believe them yourself."

Girl travels long, hard road since fire 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 10:38pm]
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