Julio Edeza’s body bears the scars of the attack that left him with burns over 90% of his body two years ago, but he refuses to be defined by them or dwell on the past.
He speaks optimistically about his future, saying he is grateful. He lost a year in a coma, almost lost his life, but also found a new love and an outlook that surprised even him.
“I forgive him,” he said of Jose Ricardo Garibay IV, the man convicted of setting Edeza on fire in San Diego in what has been described as a random and unprovoked attack.
Garibay, 28, was sentenced Friday in San Diego County Superior Court to four life sentences for two counts of attempted murder and one count of aggravated mayhem. His attorney had described him in court as schizophrenic, a substance abuser and a “broken but not evil” man.
“He only burned my flesh, not my spirit,” Edeza said lastthis week.
Outside of his testimony in court, Edeza, 42, has not not spoken much about what happened that day in April 2016. While the attack made headlines as far away as New York, little was written about Edeza.
He’s been described as a transient who’s spent most of his life in San Diego County. He also was described as homeless, which he was at times. He has a 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter from different mothers and said he tries to be a good father to them and sees them when he can.
Born in Los Angeles, he grew up in National City — one of six children raised by a single mother.
A rebellious streak led Edeza to drop out of high school, a decision he said he later regretted. He tried to make ends meet by selling items to a recycler and doing auto-detailing. When money came in, he’d stay in a single-room occupancy hotel. When business was bad, he’d stay in a shelter or outdoors in a tent.
Sometime before noon on April 17, 2016, Edeza was outside a Rite Aid near Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in the Oak Park neighborhood of San Diego. He was going to get ice cream when he ran into a woman he knew, and the two were chatting outside when a man approached him.
Edeza recalled that the man — later identified as Garibay — pulled up in a truck and asked where he could find a “water machine,” then asked Edeza to “give him a hand.”
Edeza followed the man to his pickup.
“I knew something was wrong,” he said. “He had his hands inside the bed of his truck and was staring inside. That made me anxious. Why wasn’t he looking at me or saying, ‘Thank you’?”
The rest seemed to happen in slow motion, Edeza said. He saw Garibay turn around with a small bucket. Suddenly, Edeza was doused with a liquid. He could taste and smell gasoline. He saw a lighter.
Edeza said he grabbed at Garibay with his right hand and tried to knock the lighter down with his left. But it was too late.
“I went and grabbed my last breath and held on, and then right away, I’m up in flames,” he said. “I’m looking around for help. Everyone around me is scared. They’re going backwards.”
Edeza said he could still think clearly and was about to throw himself on the ground and roll, but saw a puddle on the ground below him on fire. He ran into the store for help.
A security camera captured him running — engulfed in flames.
Someone from the back came out with a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. Someone else offered Edeza water.
“I could feel it cooling off my insides,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I might make it. I’m still alive.’ And then I could hear sirens.”
That was the last thing he remembered before losing consciousness. Edeza was taken to the Regional Burn Center at UC San Diego Health and put into a medically induced coma to help him withstand the pain he would endure over the next 11 months.
He remembers waking up, finally, looking at the ceiling and wondering where he was.
“My brain had to reboot,” he said. “I couldn’t talk or think. Why am I in the hospital? Then I looked down and saw all the bandages. I was so happy. I was still alive.”
He soon met Annie Langefeld. Although he had been in and out of consciousness over many months, he recognized her voice.
She was the person who had been talking to him and playing him music. But who was this stranger?
Langefeld, 36, had never met Edeza before he was injured, but she knew his sister, Jessica, as her first friend in elementary school after her family moved to National City. For years, Langefeld had tried to reconnect with Edeza’s sister, and had found her on Facebook only about a month before Edeza was attacked.
The two hadn’t yet reunited, but had been texting one another.
Langefeld, a licensed vocational nurse, was in a doctor’s office for a medical appointment when she saw a news report of a man who had been set on fire. She recognized the victim’s last name as the same as her friend Jessica, and she texted her immediately.
Langefeld learned that her friend was with her brother, just two floors above where Langefeld was sitting. Deeply religious, she has come to see the reunion in the burn unit as more of a divine act than coincidence.
She held Edeza’s hand over his bandages, and a bond began. She volunteered to check on him when his family members couldn’t, and her visits became more frequent.
“After the first month, the need for me to be there for him became very strong in me,” she said. “It was almost like driving me a little crazy that I couldn’t be there.”
Langefeld had been working at a hospital in the evening and at a nursing home in the day. By June, she quit the hospital job to spend more time with Edeza.
There were times when she questioned why she was doing it, and a few times she thought she had come to say a final goodbye. Each time, she said she saw a sign that she was meant to stay.
Edeza also is religious and sees something divine at work.
“I know God sent her,” he said.
The Bible his mother gave him before she died, Edeza noted, was the only thing that didn’t burn in his backpack that day in April 2016. His faith has helped him work through the emotions that followed his attack.
“At first I was mad about it, but I thought about it and knew there was no way I could get revenge,” he said. “It’s just going to cause me bitterness and ugliness. I needed to heal and be happy. I said, ‘God, I’m going to leave it in your hands.’”
Edeza and Langefeld have become a couple and are planning a future together.
He left the burn center in May 2017 and spent two months in Vibra Hospital, a long-term care facility in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood. Since then, he has been undergoing treatment at Amaya Springs Health Care Center in Spring Valley in San Diego County, and he’s now able to take about 25 steps with a walker.
Edeza said he is receiving disability payments, but MediCal no longer will cover will his stay at Amaya Springs. He’s looking for a place to move into and has put in 10 applications, but was turned down by each landlord, he said. He said he hopes to find a place to live soon — possibly another single-room occupancy hotel — and continue his physical therapy.
He said he can’t move in with Langefeld because it could jeopardize her eligibility for a Section 8 housing voucher she has to help pay her rent.