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CLEVELAND TRAGEDY News of arson leads to anger, questions



Published: Mon, June 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The arsonist used gasoline to set the house on fire, authorities say.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- With the speed of the fast-moving house fire that killed nine people, eight of them children, the word that an arsonist was to blame quickly spread among neighbors.

"It's kind of amazing," said Tom Tolliver, 46, walking by the growing pile of balloons and stuffed animals that became a shrine to the victims: a mother, four of her five children and four extended family members and friends invited to a birthday sleepover.

"It's hard to believe someone would do it," Tolliver said. "It's hard to believe people would set fire with people inside the house."

Funerals for the last eight victims were held 10 days after the May 21 fire, and within hours tests by city firefighters and the state fire marshal came to the same conclusion: An accelerant, later determined to be gasoline, was used to set the fire.

"We have to figure out what happened," said Mayor Jane Campbell, who met with victims' relatives after the last funeral to tell them about the arson ruling.

Ruling reversed

The arson determination reversed the accidental fire ruling that fire Chief Paul Stubbs had announced on the day of the blaze.

It turned out that a smoke detector inside the 99-year-old frame house had a charged battery, meaning it likely sounded an alarm.

The loss of life in spite of an alarm raised investigators' suspicions. "We had young, able-bodied people who we believe had a smoke detector warning and weren't able to evacuate. I think that got our attention the most," Stubbs said Wednesday.

All the dead were on the second floor. Another woman was badly burned and survived and a man fled the basement unhurt.

Neighbors also had been asking why none of the children managed to escape.

Tried their best

"The fire department came and did the best job they could," said Ray Austin, 32, who lives in the poor neighborhood three miles from downtown.

"I saw the sincere looks on their faces when they came out of the house on the news. It was like they had done all they could, the expression on their faces," Austin said.

With the arson ruling, homicide detectives started re-interviewing 30 to 40 people who had talked earlier with fire investigators: neighbors, relatives and people who had visited the home on the day before the pre-dawn fire.

Neighborhood talk

Neighborhood talk focused on whether a bad relationship -- a drug deal or the like -- led to the arson. Was the car of victim Medeia Carter moved from its regular spot? What were police searching for when they impounded the car? Was the father of one of the victims under suspicion? Was the back door nailed shut? Had anyone been given a lie-detector test?

Investigators kept a lid on information.

"No one has been ruled out as a suspect," said police Lt. Thomas Stacho, assigned by the mayor as the clearinghouse for questions on a case now including state and city fire investigators, city police, federal agents and the coroner.

The car was checked and apparently provided little information. Detectives "don't have any leads that the car is going to lead to anything at this time," Sgt. Daniel Galmarini said late Friday.

One resident, fearful for his safety because of rumors that he might have been involved, surrendered to police on unrelated warrants. He has not been identified as a suspect.

Two tip lines

Arson posters on the boarded-up house offer a $5,000 reward for information, and the city established two tip lines, one for anonymous callers.

After the fire, firefighters and Red Cross workers canvassed the neighborhood to offer residents free smoke detectors.

"It takes an incident like this to wake people up," said fire Lt. Tim Corrigan.

The Red Cross distributed about 115 smoke detectors in the neighborhood that day. One week before the fire, the Red Cross had marked the giveaway of its 100,000th smoke detector in the Cleveland area since 1992.




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