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Bikini dancer recovering slowly from fiery attack in Tarzana

Single mother is undergoing skin grafts to her body and face. The woman accused of setting her aflame pleaded not guilty to attempted murder, mayhem and torture and is being held on $1-million bail.

February 24, 2009|Catherine Saillant

Roberta Busby's daughter Gabriella turned 5 recently. But the 27-year-old single mother of two couldn't join the family celebration.

Busby remained secluded in an intensive care ward at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, recovering from second- and third-degree burns over 40% of her body. Nearly three weeks ago, she was set ablaze in what police say was a vicious attack at a Tarzana club where Busby worked as an exotic dancer.

She's undergone several painful skin grafts and faces still more.

Her wounds extend from her waist to her face and are so severe that she can barely talk, her brother Rodrigo Busby said. Doctors say she is stable but needs to remain in the hospital for at least several more weeks, leaving relatives to take turns caring for her two daughters, Gabriella and 8-year-old Marissa.

Police say Roberta Busby had a heated argument with Rianne Theriault-Odom, 29, on Feb. 5 at Babes N' Beer, a funky bikini-dancing and sports bar near the gritty intersection of Reseda Boulevard and Oxnard Street.

Theriault-Odom then allegedly doused Busby with gasoline from a soda bottle and set her on fire, police said. A district attorney spokeswoman said that Theriault-Odom and Busby didn't know each other and that the motive for the attack is unclear.

Rodrigo Busby can't understand why someone would want to disfigure his sister.

"I don't care who you are and what you have to do to make a living," said Rodrigo Busby, who recently spent a day cleaning out his sister's Simi Valley apartment. "What happened to her is just unfair, cruel and unreasonable."

Theriault-Odom, a Tarzana resident, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, mayhem and torture and is being held on $1-million bail, authorities said. Nathaniel Petrillo, 22, who was arrested with Theriault-Odom, was released after authorities found insufficient evidence to prove he participated in the attack.

Friends say they're confident Roberta Busby will pull through. Candy Douglas, who's known her for two decades, described her as "vibrant, beautiful, loud and strong."

"She laughs at herself more than anyone else," Douglas said. "Dancing was just a way to get money. It was a way to put food on the table and to give her daughters a little extra."

Her brother said she could be generous, especially with her daughters. For Gabriella's fourth birthday, she hired a limousine to pick up friends and families and rented a children's entertainment facility for the day.

"Even though she was a single mom, she tried to make special occasions really grand," Rodrigo Busby said. "Her kids never had just a cake and a couple of friends over."

Family and friends say the Brazilian-born Roberta Busby was raising the girls on her own, with little financial help from the father. Tall and attractive, she had danced in nightclubs off and on since high school to earn quick cash, friends said.

The family moved to the United States when she was 5 and settled in Simi Valley, her brother said. Their father died from cancer was she was 11.

"It was really hard for her," Douglas said. "She was daddy's little girl."

Their mother remarried, and they acquired two step-brothers, Rodrigo Busby said. His sister went to Simi Valley schools and played basketball briefly. She graduated from Royal High School, but college did not follow.

Roberta Busby became pregnant with her older daughter and, once she gave birth, "it was all about her kids," her brother said.

She cut back on dancing and found work as a bill collector, happy about the stability of a 9-to-5 job, Douglas said. However, friends said, she sometimes turned to dancing to pad her meager income.

"If it was just her, she wouldn't care if she slept in a car," Douglas said. "But she wanted to provide the best she could for her daughters, and she did. She had a nice two-bedroom apartment in Simi Valley."

Busby held one collections job for several years but was laid off about a year ago, Douglas said. She found another job as a bill collector shortly after that and things seemed to be going well, she said.

"She's a happy person. She loves her life," her friend said. "The only part she would complain about is being broke."

But the economy took a turn for the worse, and Busby was again laid off: Her last day was Jan 15. For two weeks she tried to find another regular job, family and friends said. With no success, she decided to return to dancing full time.

"Being a single mom, it was going to be tough to make ends meet," her brother said. "She thought of it as a means to an end."

Douglas said that she tried to talk her friend out of it, but that Roberta Busby said her rent was due.

"She said, 'I'll just go check it out,' " Douglas said.

Busby had performed at Babes N' Beer as "Mia" off and on for months, said a female bartender and dancer who asked to go by her stage name, Cali. She returned to the stage full time three days before the attack, Cali said.

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