Gains: Theft of phone led to fatal fire


Ricky Williams becomes emotional on witness stand as he testifies in trial of Michael Davis 10-9-08.


Julius Crawford testifies 10-9-08 in murder trial of Michael Davis.


Michael Davis, during trial.

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Michael Davis

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Paul Gains

By Patricia Meade

Jurors heard the 911 call that sent firefighters to a burning house on the East Side.

YOUNGSTOWN — An expert witness was expected to testify today that traces of the accelerant used to ignite an old two- story house and kill six people inside showed up on Michael A. Davis’ clothes.

Davis, a short, baby-faced 18-year-old, is on trial for his life in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, charged in a 29-count aggravated murder and arson indictment. Judge R. Scott Krichbaum is presiding over the capital murder case.

The judge is not permitting jurors to take notes, telling them the trial is like attending a play, where they pay attention to what happens in front of them. Trial testimony in the city’s largest mass murder began Thursday.

Prosecutor Paul J. Gains said testimony would resume today with forensic reports from a state fire marshal. The prosecutor said in his opening statement that Davis’ clothes tested positive for an accelerant.

Gains said Davis, “a dangerous man,” was angered over the theft of his cell phone and set the fire to the house at 1645 Stewart Ave. at 5:25 a.m. Jan. 23 while everyone was asleep. Davis’ Bennington Avenue house is just around the corner.

Carol Crawford, 46; her daughter, Jennifer R. Crawford, 23; and Jennifer’s four children, Ranaisha, 8; Jeannine, 5; Aleisha, 3; and Brandon, 2, perished in the blaze. Five others escaped.

Yolanda Conner, dressed in an Air Force Reserve uniform, sat in the gallery and covered her face when photos of the fire-ravaged house were shown on a large projector. Conner said she is the sister of Brandon Owens Sr., father of three of the four children who died — Jeannine, Aleisha and Brandon.

Conner said her brother can’t attend the trial; it would be too emotional for him.

Davis, dressed in a dark-blue shirt and charcoal-gray suit, alternated hands to hold up his head at the defense table and fiddled with the wispy beginnings of a mustache. He slumped between his defense lawyers, James S. Gentile and Ron Yarwood, as the trial unfolded.

Gentile told the jury during opening statements that the investigation produced the wrong person. He suggested a fire survivor’s ex-boyfriend nicknamed “Face” was suspected of setting the blaze.

Survivors who testified Thursday talked about the fast-spreading flames and thick smoke.

The prosecution’s first witness was Retia Crawford, 19, who ran out of the burning house to call for help. Her mother, sister, nephew and nieces died in the conflagration.

The recording of Crawford’s 911 call was played for the jury. While parts of it were unintelligible, Crawford could be heard yelling, “I don’t want them to die! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Jurors had their heads bowed as they listened to the chilling screams.

Under questioning by Gentile, Crawford said she did believe Face started the fire.

Retia Crawford’s brother, 18-year-old Julius Crawford, said his neighbor, 17-year-old Ricky Williams, took Davis’ cell phone. Julius Crawford said Davis kept asking if he could get it back.

Williams, who also escaped the fire by falling out a window, admitted he took the cell phone. Williams wiped tears from his eyes as he testified.

Detective Sgt. Patrick Kelly said in court that Davis felt betrayed by Julius Crawford, his best friend, over the cell phone theft. Kelly said Davis, after first denying involvement, confessed setting the fire and acted alone. The detective said Davis then gave another version, naming another young man, whose footprints were found behind the house that burned.

Gains asked Kelly if there was any way of telling when the footprints had been made. Kelly said no.

“Michael [Davis] could be protecting someone else,” Gentile said to the detective.

Kelly testified that other people of interest were eliminated through the investigation.

Julius Crawford, meanwhile, survived the fire by jumping out a second-story bedroom window, as did a young woman who was spending the night with him, Tameka Wilson, 19.

“The smoke hit me in the hallway, blazes were coming from the stairway,” Wilson, 19, testified. “I panicked. I was shocked. It was hard to breathe.”

Another survivor, Christopher Taylor, 19, said he had been living with the Crawfords. He saw Carol Crawford, who had been asleep downstairs, run upstairs to save her daughter and grandkids.

“I tried to run up but the fire was too hot,” Taylor testified. He said he then ran to the basement to alert Retia Crawford.

Natasha Frenchko, an assistant county prosecutor, asked Taylor what he was thinking during the fire.

“I was gonna die,” he answered. “Once I got outside I dropped to my knees at the side door. All I could hear was kids screaming.”

Thursday’s testimony included Patrolman Aaron Coleman, who spotted the fire during his East Side patrol; Detective Sgt. Joe DeMatteo and Patrolmen Lou Ciavarella and Robert Mauldin of the police crime lab, who collected evidence and took photographs at the scene; fire Lt. Kevin Johnson, an arson investigator; and seven firefighters who were injured at the Stewart Avenue fire.

Lt. Johnson testified that the fire started on an upholstered couch on the porch and broke through the front window. The fire followed the draft to the second floor, where all six trapped victims died, he said.

A state fire marshal dog trained to detect accelerants alerted on a section of the porch, the arson investigator said in court.

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