By Joe Gorman
For Retia Crawford, Carol Crawford never stopped being “mommy.”
Speaking recently of her mother, who died with Retia’s sister, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s four children in Youngstown’s worst mass murder, every reference to Carol begins with “mommy.”
Retia said she will never forget the Jan. 23, 2008, arson at her Stewart Avenue home on the East Side that killed all six, and she wants to have a public remembrance of her mother, sister and nieces and a nephew.
But Retia also said she wants to meet the man sentenced to 180 years in prison for setting the fire, Michael Davis, now 28, who was a neighbor and by some accounts friends with Retia’s brothers, Julius and Conovis Crawford.
“I want to ask him, ‘Why?’ that’s all,” Retia said as her own children played in the apartment. “I want to know. I ain’t got the strength yet. But eventually, I’m going.”
Investigators said during Davis’ trial in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court that Davis set the fire because he was upset because the Crawfords would not return his stolen cellphone that was in their home.
Carol Crawford was 46 when she was killed in the fire, which was set in the early morning and was first spotted by city police officer Aaron Coleman. He was patrolling the neighborhood as part of his midnight- shift beat.
Jennifer was 23 when she was killed. Her children who died were Ranaisha, 8; Jeannie, 5; Aleisha, 3; and Brandon, 2. Retia and her brother Julius were both in the home when the fire started that bitterly cold morning, but they managed to get out safely.
The lot at 1645 Stewart Ave. is now vacant, the ruins demolished after the home was no longer needed for evidence at Davis’ trial. But in the days after the fire, it was filled with stuffed animals, flowers, candles and notes left in the snow for the victims. People across the city and region pitched in to pay for funeral expenses and to help the survivors with food, clothing and shelter.
As they did that, the wrath of some in the community turned on Davis and his family, who were forced to flee their nearby home on Bennington Avenue. Davis declined a request through the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to be interviewed for this story.
Within hours after the fire was put out and the bodies were taken from the home, Davis was a suspect.
The main investigators on the case – retired fire department arson investigators Capt. Kevin Johnson and Capt. Alvin Ware and Detective Sgt. Pat Kelly of the city police department – heard Davis’ name from interviews with neighbors. Ware, as well, had been investigating a recent arson on the street on New Year’s Eve, and Davis was a suspect in that case.
It appears Retia is the rock holding the family together now. Her brother, Conovis Crawford, who was in prison when his mother died and was released last year, was at her apartment, and both spoke to a reporter. Her brother Julius declined to speak for this story.
Another daughter of Carol Crawford’s, Shannon, who had spina bifida and was not in the home but in a treatment facility when the fire started, died a couple of years after Carol Crawford.
Retia always referred to Carol Crawford as “mommy.” When asked about her mother, she said she thinks of when they were small children.
“We did kids’ stuff,” Retia said. “We would play basketball. We would go on walks with mommy.”
Retia said she remembers every detail of the fire but did not go into detail about it when asked. She said the hole left by the loss of her mother, sister and nieces and nephew is still inside her and she thinks it always will be.
“It’s always gonna be the same,” she said.
Her brother, Conovis, said he was devastated and confused at the same time.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Still, Conovis said, the memory is fresh even now.
“I remember it like it just happened,” Conovis said. “I remember everything. Step by step.”
Johnson was the on-call arson investigator who responded to the fire first. Coleman said while on patrol he “saw the sky was lit up,” followed the light to the Crawford residence and saw it was on fire. Then he said he tried to knock on the side of the house to warn the people inside.
No one answered his knocks, and he went to find a ladder from a neighbor when, “all of a sudden, it went, poof,” Coleman said. “It was a matter of maybe a minute or so.”
The fire started on the front porch, and Johnson said it took some time to figure out it was an arson, but once he did, he had a suspect right away. He said he had questioned Carol Crawford about a fire across the street from her home shortly before the blaze that Davis was suspected of setting.
Looking back 10 years later, Johnson said he remembers every detail, every thing he did that day. Being no stranger to violent death from arsons and dealing with his share of hard cases, the Stewart Avenue arson has never left him, Johnson said.
“I can tell you everything I did from the time I got the call to the time I passed out that night,” Johnson said. “It was a needless loss of life.”
One of the things Johnson did was call in Ware because of the large loss of life. Ware was no stranger to fatal arsons and has won awards for his work. Kelly, who now heads the Community Police Unit, was the on-call detective who was called out, as is standard whenever there is a fatal fire in the city until it is determined whether it is an arson.
Kelly said he remembered the fire was determined to be arson quickly. He also said he vividly remembered the bitter cold of that morning.
“It was so cold from the mist from the fire hoses that we had ice on our clothes,” Kelly said.
At first, Davis denied any involvement when questioned, but Kelly said he could not keep his story straight, and that’s when he knew they had their arsonist.
“We started catching him in this lie and that lie, and by that time all the lies were rolling together, and he couldn’t keep up,” Kelly said.
At one point, Davis confessed, Kelly said. “He was remorseful at the end.”
Johnson said the fire was so deadly because of its speed and where it was set on the porch. Once the heat broke out a window to the first floor, it was fueled by a wind out of the southwest at 7 mph that Johnson later learned when researching the case for trial with the National Weather Service. The wind fanned the flames, accompanied by dense smoke.
“It was like a chimney effect,” Johnson said.
Retia and Conovis both said their mother was devoted to her children, and both try to follow her example.
From his mother, Conovis said he learned about “being dependable.”
Retia said her mother did not have it easy as a single mom, but she always made sure her children were cared for.
“No matter the struggle, she always made it happen,” Retia said.
As a parent now, she often acts like her mother as a means of keeping her alive and as a way to also honor her sister, nieces and nephew, Retia said.
“Keeping them alive is what keeps me sane,” she added.
For Johnson, Kelly and Ware, there were more calls to answer after the Crawfords died, more deaths to see, more suspects to talk to. They never worried much about why.
When asked if something as mundane as a cellphone causing the death of six people is a surprise, Kelly and Johnson both said, in the worlds they traveled in, it is not.
In fact, Kelly said it is not the worst crime he has ever responded to. That would be a murder/suicide of an entire family on Scott Street when he was a patrolman.
“I’ve seen it all,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen everything a human being can do to another human being.”
“A cellphone in somebody else’s world may be a big deal, but for us it was nothing,” Johnson said. “It’s not a big surprise.”
As the 10-year anniversary approaches, Retia said she wants to have that public remembrance, especially for Conovis, who could not grieve with his family after the fire. But Johnson said he needs no ceremony or event to remember. It is ingrained in his memory.
“This is another one of those calls that will stay with me forever,” Johnson said.