DALLAS — Danyeil Townzen thrust a fist into the air at the back of a Dallas courtroom, using what little sensation she had left in her scarred right hand to celebrate her ex-boyfriend’s judgment day.
For setting Danyeil on fire last year and abandoning her at a northeast Dallas apartment, a judge sentenced Matthew Gerth to prison for life — while Danyeil got a new lease on hers.
It isn’t the first time the 41-year-old has had to restart her life. She lost her mother and her marriage in years past, and in the May 2018 attack lost her home, van, job, and her tattoos, which burned away.
But Danyeil never lost her resolve.
“(I’m) starting over again,” she said outside the courtroom, moments after Gerth was sentenced in September. “It’s hard to do, but I got to start over from scratch. I lost everything. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.
“I’m alive, and that’s all that matters.”
Danyeil met Matthew Gerth two years ago on a Greyhound bus ride to San Antonio.
The bus broke down in Austin, and the two started talking after Gerth said he liked her dog, Cowboy. They smoked cigarettes to pass the time while Danyeil waited for a friend to pick her up. She promised Gerth a ride to San Antonio if he paid for gas, and he obliged.
The two spent the next few weeks in the fall of 2017 in and out of hotels in the area.
“He just stayed,” Danyeil said. “We hit it off, and I thought he was pretty cute. And I came onto him.”
Gerth told her from the start he was bad news. He had a drug addiction and an obsession with knives that others thought was odd, but she ignored.
Danyeil was homeless, on probation and addicted to drugs herself. She was alone — and not for the first time.
Solitude defined much of Danyeil’s childhood.
As a latchkey kid in rural Missouri, she learned how to take care of herself while her mother worked a night shift. That independence became essential when Danyeil turned 13, and her mother died from cancer.
At age 16, Danyeil ran away from her father’s home in East Texas and later got an apartment in Dallas. She finished high school under her own supervision. She worked three jobs to support herself before she enrolled in Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch.
Once there, she met a guitarist named David Townzen. He had long hair, plug earrings and eyebrow piercings, and worked for a tattoo parlor in Addison. He liked to drink a little, but was otherwise straightedge, and she fell in love.
The two married in 2004, David joined the military and Danyeil had stability in her life for once. Like most of her relationships, however, that stability was short-lived.
Violence was present in Danyeil’s life years before she met Gerth.
In November 2009, while her husband was stationed in Iraq, Danyeil was living on the military base at Fort Hood when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 30 in a mass shooting.
Danyeil placed her infant daughter and other children in a bathtub and covered them with a mattress. She loaded a 9 mm handgun and an AR-15, and held the rifle tight while she anticipated the shooter’s arrival.
“And we hide in the bathroom until my sister-in-law calls and she tells me to turn on the news,” she said. “They had shot him and it was over, and I could finally calm down. And we were safe.”
The shooting had lasting effects on Danyeil and David, and the marriage fell apart. In 2015, he filed for divorce, and Danyeil was alone again — until she met Gerth.
The relationship with Gerth became violent on New Year’s Eve in 2017. Gerth told Danyeil she “disrespected” him one day as they drove down a highway — a word he’d repeatedly use to signal imminent violence.
“It was like a switch flipped,” she said, “and he wasn’t the same person.”
Doctors blamed his mood swings partly on a brain injury he suffered as a teenager, when he killed a man after crashing into his car in Travis County. He was convicted of manslaughter and served six months in jail.
Danyeil knew nothing of that history when she met Gerth. In the New Year’s Eve attack, he tried to push her out of a moving car before pulling over and repeatedly punching her in the face. She’d endure two more beatings in 2018, but didn’t leave the relationship because she said she had nowhere else to go.
“I thought that I needed him,” she said in court.
By spring 2018, the dynamic of Danyeil’s relationship with Gerth had changed. She secured a new job and apartment in Dallas, and Gerth relied on her.
Days before he set her on fire, Gerth accused her of cheating on him, she said. She’d “disrespected” him again.
“And so I knew right then, I needed to hightail it out,” she said. “So I left. I ran.”
She slept in her van that night, but returned days later, hoping Gerth had calmed down.
Gerth was cooking breakfast when she returned to the apartment the morning of May 21, 2018. He stood at the stove and turned to Danyeil to tell her he was happy she came home. His kindness was eerie, she said. He beckoned her with the false warmth an abusive owner uses to approach a nervous dog.
“And I see that he’s going for his knife,” Danyeil said.
Gerth grabbed the blade from the kitchen counter, and approached Danyeil. She grabbed a bottle of hot sauce from the dining room table, flicking the bottle at him in an attempt to get hot sauce in his eyes. The liquid splattered the ceiling and kitchen floor.
Gerth stumbled on the hot sauce, but continued advancing toward her.
She noticed a butane torch on the table, grabbed it, and lit a flame in front of Gerth’s face to get him to retreat. But he kept advancing and punched Danyeil in the face. He had worked in construction, she said, and his hands were heavy.
Danyeil fell out of the front door and onto the lawn. She crawled to her van as her eyes swelled shut, and Gerth promised to burn her for waving the flame at his face.
A few seconds later, he doused her with a liquid. She didn’t believe he would actually burn her, but then she tasted it and smelled the odor. It was kerosene.
She heard the click of the torch and was immediately engulfed in flames.
“And I can hear it and smell it before I can feel it, really,” she said.
Neighbors came to Danyeil’s aid, and for a moment Gerth pretended to help once he realized bystanders had seen the crime.
He fled once firefighters arrived and drove south toward San Antonio. Witnesses said Danyeil had just enough strength to let fire officials know Gerth was responsible, and that they should call her ex-husband, David.
“And then I let go, and I left it to God,” she said in court in September.
Danyeil woke from a coma five months later in the burn unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
She slept through her 40th birthday, and woke to a hospital room decorated with balloons, flowers and cards left by her ex-husband.
“It was surreal,” she said. “I knew what had happened. I remembered and I knew right away, that’s why I was there.”
Burns covered more than 75% of her body, according to an affidavit. Medicine prevented her from feeling pain at first, but that relief was short-lived.
Victims typically stay in the burn unit for a few weeks — a few months in extreme cases. Danyeil was hospitalized for a year.
Gerth pleaded guilty in June, just weeks after Danyeil left the hospital. And in September, she finally received justice.
It took Judge Lela Mays less than 20 minutes to sentence Gerth to life in prison. He displayed a history of heinous acts, she said.
“You meant to kill that young lady,” Mays told him. “I believe that you have earned every single day of this life sentence.”
After more than a year in the burn unit, Danyeil is starting fresh — again.
She spent the last few months in a women’s shelter run by Hope’s Door New Beginning Center, a domestic violence agency with shelters in Garland and Plano.
Doreen McGarrett, interim CEO of Hope’s Door, said Danyeil’s case is one of the most extreme the shelter has ever seen, but she’s hopeful for her future.
“I totally see her going forward, maybe not right now, but in her future, as being a support for other victims,” McGarrett said. “I think she has the strength in her to someday provide moral support and tell her story to other victims and give victims hope for themselves.”
As for the immediate future, Danyeil recently got a new apartment, and hopes to work at a jewelry repair shop. She’ll even be reunited with her dog, Cowboy, soon.
Her hair is slowly returning. She has permanent scars to her body, and lost the use of her left hand. Nurses say she’ll have a difficult life ahead filled with rehab and surgery.
But she survived. And for her, that’s what’s important.
“Seeing him in handcuffs and knowing he won’t ever be a bother to me, I can close this chapter in my life and move forward. And not have to be scared,” she said. “It’s amazing. An amazing feeling.”
ON THE WEB
A GoFundMe campaign was established for Danyeil Townzen and can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/9p8br8-a-fresh-start.
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