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Officer Who Saw 'Face of the Devil' Finds an Angel: His Little Girl

Crime: Joe Alu lives with constant pain after man set him afire, but his daughter's love is balm.

February 25, 1996|TOM WELLS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PLANTATION, Fla. — After another night of bad pain, police officer Joe Alu is prowling through his kitchen at dawn. He sits down at the dining room table and wraps his horribly scarred hands around a hot cup of coffee.

The warmth, he said, helps ease the pain.

Like about 30% of the rest of his body, Alu's hands are covered with transplanted skin to repair the burns he suffered last summer. A man holding two teenage sisters hostage threw gasoline on Alu and another officer and set them afire.

"I saw the face of the devil," Alu said, wincing.

The fire was so hot it melted the policemen's badges.

Alu's life since then has been torturous. But an angel--his 4-year-old daughter--has given Alu the will to live.

Christina's unconditional love. The little kisses on his raw and red arms. The tiny fingers caressing his tortured face.

The child has taught the man what life is all about.

"I thought I knew my daughter," Alu said. "But I didn't. I didn't know that at breakfast she liked one Pop Tart toasted and the other untoasted. And that her favorite Pop Tart is brown sugar cinnamon frosted. And that she likes gobs of butter on her waffles and that the syrup has to fill all the little squares.

"I found out her favorite stuffed toy was Simba from '[The] Lion King' and that she doesn't like McDonald's or Burger King," he said. "I give thanks to God now for my little girl."

*

The day Alu almost died, July 25, 1995, started like any other steamy, summer morning in South Florida, with the sky a brilliant orange at daybreak.

Alu, a creature of habit, made his rounds and headed for breakfast at a police hangout, the Nook.

A night person, Alu was not happy getting up in the dark each morning. He had worked nights for several years, but his wife had persuaded him five months earlier to ask for days so the family could spend more time together.

Many of Alu's interests lay outside the home: Work. Saving the world. Body building. Motorcycles. Getting together with buddies.

He belonged to a group of Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners who got together one night each week and cruised to other towns.

"His arms were so big from weightlifting that I could barely get my hands around one of his biceps," said his wife, Sheila, who at 5-11 has hands that are anything but tiny.

On the job, the 6-foot, 210-pound Alu didn't take any nonsense from criminals. Five years earlier, he had shot and killed a man wielding a machete.

Shortly before noon on July 25, Alu was called to the home of Angela Marie Smith, where a man was reported to be holding hostages. Alu was one of about a half-dozen officers who responded.

The assailant, Steven Joseph, 32, had been living with Smith and her three daughters, but she kicked him out after two of the girls accused Joseph of molesting them. Now he wanted to move back in.

Earlier that morning, Joseph had bought a 7 1/2-gallon can of gasoline and a machete. Now he was holding the girls hostage inside the home. Their mother was outside with police.

"One of the girls escaped," Alu recalls. "She came out running and screaming, 'He's going to do it! He's going to do it! He's going to kill them.' "

That's when Alu and Officer Jim O'Hara barged into the house.

They stepped inside the bedroom where Joseph was holding the girls.

"Jim was in front of me," Alu recalls. "I heard him say, 'You don't want to do that. Don't do that. Please don't do that!' "

Joseph had spread gasoline around the room and threw some on the two officers. He ignited the gas with a lighter and the room exploded in a ball of flame.

"I believed in God before, but I just sort of figured he was there, and that was it," Alu said. "Now I know he really exists. I should be dead. He saved me."

The explosion blew the bedroom door shut. Another police officer in the hallway kicked the door in.

Alu ran out, his body on fire.

"I don't remember anything after the explosion," he said. "I was running down the street and screaming. A lieutenant put me in his car and took me to the hospital.

"Policemen dragged Jim into the living room. His body was so charred and black that the other officers thought he was the bad guy. It wasn't until a few minutes later that someone saw Jim's ankle holster and said, 'My God, it's O'Hara.'

"They kept a garden hose spraying water on him until emergency medical people got there."

O'Hara was burned over 78% of his body.

Joseph and the two girls were incinerated. The bodies of the two teenagers--Hikedo, 15, and Ann Marie, 14--were found clutching each other.

*

Alu is at home now, on disability leave. He spends most of his days with his daughter and goes to physical therapy three times a week.

"Sometimes I come in and find them asleep on the couch together," Sheila Alu said. "They're always together now. He even watches cartoons with her."

After six months of fighting off death, O'Hara in early February was released from Jackson Memorial Hospital and transferred to a rehabilitation center. Doctors had all but given up several times, but O'Hara hung on.

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