Originally created 01/07/00

Experts rebut 'backfire' claim



Contrary to what Sajid Leslie told investigators after an ex-girlfriend's body was found in a burning car in April, his facial injuries were burns, expert witnesses testified Thursday.

No way were the injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident, a physician testified. And in 31 years of investigating fires, Walter Ralph Newell never saw burns like those Mr. Leslie had in April that had been caused by a carburetor backfire, he testified.

In Mr. Leslie's fourth day of trial in Richmond County Superior Court on Thursday, the jury heard from Dr. Kailash Sharma, the county's chief medical examiner, and from Mr. Newell, who runs his own fire investigation company with clients in the automotive industry and who has conducted more than 2,500 vehicle-fire investigations.

Both men were called in to assist in the investigation of the April 22 burning death of Lori Hastings, 30, after Mr. Leslie, 29, was arrested on murder and arson charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Leslie told sheriff's investigators that he had hurt his face when he took a spill on a motorcycle. And he explained that on April 21 -- the day before Ms. Hastings' body was discovered in her burning vehicle parked in an isolated parking area off Regency Boulevard -- his face was burned when the carburetor on his car backfired flame into his face.

When asked about the possibility that a backfire could have caused burns like those Mr. Leslie had, Mr. Newell replied: "None that I've ever seen."

In addition to examining Ms. Hastings' vehicle and determining it was evidence of arson by use of gasoline, Mr. Newell examined a carburetor that local investigators told him they had removed from Mr. Leslie's vehicle. That carburetor, Mr. Newell testified, showed no sign of a backfire.

Both Mr. Newell and Dr. Sharma testified the first-degree burns located predominantly on the right side of Mr. Leslie's face were caused by close contact with a very hot flash fire.

The jury in Mr. Leslie's case heard earlier this week that the pathologist who conducted Ms. Hastings' autopsy determined she was alive when the fire began in her vehicle. Although the fire completely charred her body, investigators gathered small scraps of clothing and part of a bracelet and a watch. The watch, the jury saw this week, had stopped at 11 p.m., just 10 minutes before firefighters received a call about her burning vehicle April 22.

That night, Varick Harris repeatedly tried to reach his girlfriend, Ms. Hastings, he testified Thursday. He called so many times from his job site that his boss was getting onto him, Mr. Harris testified, and telephone records confirmed the number of calls.

The next day, investigators came to his job site and showed him the watch and partial bracelet to identify, Mr. Harris testified.

"I put that watch on her arm (the first time) and that bracelet -- she always wore that," he told the jury.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226.