Monday, May 1, 2017
Tuesday is the 15th anniversary of an early morning arson at 31 E. Lucius that killed two sisters, eight and four years old.
Documentation, handwritten diagrams of the home, and a roster of the firefighters who responded to the deadly arson at 31 E. Lucius Ave in 2002.
By Joe Gorman
Kevin Johnson doesn’t like puzzles, and he has been waiting 15 years to finally have enough pieces to solve the one that still haunts him: the May 2, 2002, deaths of two sisters in an arson at their East Lucius Avenue home.
LISTEN: Lucius Arson Radio Traffic
DOCUMENTS: Lucius Arson-Cold Case
Johnson, who was a city firefighter for 20 years and an arson investigator with the department for several years, has some of the pieces he needs. He has an idea what the puzzle is supposed to look like.
But without the final piece or two, that is all worthless – and he knows it.
He said he still remembers – not only for Rakaylah Clark, 8, and her 4-year-old sister Ranayja – but for the seven city firefighters who were injured while fighting the fire and the others who risked their lives to save the girls that early morning.
“I think about the two girls who died in their sleep, and I think about the firemen who went in to get them,” said Johnson, who retired as a captain and works security at city hall and the municipal court.
One of those firefighters, Battalion Chief Ronald Russo, who was a captain at the time and suffered burns to his face and neck and hands while trying to rescue the girls, said thinking is one of the few things you don’t do when responding to a house on fire in the dead of night – and they tell you before you get out of the truck that there are people trapped inside.
“You just go do it,” said Russo, who has been with the department for 37 years. “Take a deep breath and go do it. You don’t think about that stuff.”
Johnson, who worked the case with his partner, former Capt. Alvin Ware and police Detective Sgt. John Kelty, who is now a patrol supervisor but was a detective then, has a suspect and a possible motive. But without a witness, he cannot make an arrest, he said.
“Someone knows something,” Johnson said, adding that makes the case even more frustrating.
Multiple attempts to reach the family at its last known address have been unsuccessful.
Firefighters were called to the 33 E. Lucius Ave. home of the sisters about 12:50 a.m. May 2, 2002, by neighbors who reported the house was on fire. As firefighters were on the way, additional calls came in: The girls’ mother, Darilyn Clark, and two of the sisters were on the roof, and two of the girls were trapped.
The people on the roof managed to be taken off, but radio traffic from that morning shows how concerned the firefighters were that there were still people inside.
“Somebody gotta get the kids out of the house!” one of the supervisors screamed into his mic.
“All companies: Two [people] on second floor! Supposed to be on side three!” another shouted.
“Where are these kids supposed to be?” another fire company asked on the air as it arrived.
Russo, the only one of the firefighters injured that night who is still on duty today, said he heard that kids were trapped inside, and as soon as he arrived, a ladder went up.
The fire was on the first floor, but Russo said he was burned from firefighters hosing down the fire there. The flames were so hot they converted the water to steam, which wafted up to the second floor and burned him.
“It burned the hell out of my face and hands,” Russo said.
Russo said he still managed to get inside, and the girls were found on the floor of a bedroom underneath a blanket, with Rakaylah on top of her older sister. One of the reports by a firefighter described the scene when one of the girls was taken out of the house.
“I was on the roof when they found the first child, and I took her down the ladder, placed her on a cot and took her along with Rural Metro to the ambulance, and I then put her in it and returned back to the front yard where I found my crew and stayed with them,” the report said.
The coroner’s reports on the girls’ deaths said it took firefighters five minutes to find the sisters and get them out of the house, but it was already too late. They were pronounced dead of smoke inhalation at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital about 1:30 a.m.
Police were called that morning because arson was suspected, and Ware, who was called out that morning, and Johnson were both on the scene at daylight to begin their investigation. The fire started on a side door after a Molotov cocktail was thrown there and exploded.
Johnson said the fire that resulted produced heavy flames on the first floor and lots of thick, black smoke, which traveled up a stairway there and would have cut off any escape routes inside the home.
“It was a chimney effect that cut off all means of egress,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Ware took samples and began canvassing the neighborhood looking for witnesses. One person told them he had a run-in with someone who threatened to burn his house down and maybe burned down the wrong house. But a couple of days later, they received a call from a confidential informant who said the fire resulted from a drug feud – either the theft of money or drugs or both – between Darilyn Clark’s boyfriend and another man.
The samples sent to the state fire marshal’s lab came back positive for gasoline. Johnson said investigators questioned a suspect twice but did not have enough evidence to charge that person. He said they need someone who knows what happened to step forward so they can get enough evidence to file charges.
There have been other attempts in the past to get witnesses to talk in the case and other public appeals.
Johnson said the case will always stick with him because of the deaths of the two little girls, the danger his brother firefighters endured and the callousness of someone who can walk around for years having killed two children.
“We need a couple more pieces to come together,” Johnson said. “There are one or two pieces still out. Someone definitely knows something.”
Anyone with information can call the police department’s detective bureau at 330-742-8911 or the Fire Investigation Unit of the fire department at 330-782-0055.