Fairfield fatal fire investigation still inconclusive

December 15, 2010 11:22:09 AM PST
It was never definitively determined whether an apartment fire that killed four young children in April was accidental or intentional, or what caused the fire to spread within the apartment, a Fairfield Fire Department captain testified this afternoon.

At the preliminary hearing for the children's mothers, Latisha James and Shetarra James, Capt. Brad Martin said the preliminary investigation report about the April 28 fire, which happened at 728 Delaware St., hypothesized the fire started next to a television set where one of three candles was burning in the living room.

"On the night of the fire, we thought it was accidental," Martin said.

Combustible materials in the apartment did not spontaneously ignite, or flash burn, as they would at 2,000 degrees, Martin said. He estimated it was between 800 and 1,200 degree inside the burning apartment.

A wall heater was ruled out as the fire's source, but a couch in the living room also burned, Martin said.

Firefighters pinpointed the couch and the television as the two sources of flames but could not reconcile in a second report completed on Nov. 23 how the fire "communicated", or spread between the two, Martin said.

Investigators hypothesized one of the four children who died, 4-year-old Robert Charles Jr., "ran screaming through the apartment and communicated the fire," Martin testified.

Charles was the most severely burned of the four children, and he was found farther from the television set than the girls were, Martin said.

The girls -- Natalie Rogers and Nevaeh Nunn, both 2, and Keviana Morgan, 1 -- were strapped into strollers. Charles was not, according to testimony at today's hearing in Solano County Superior Court.

The cause of the fire should be considered undetermined until more tests are done, Martin said.

"We don't know the primary origin. The television was the initial theory, but we couldn't discount the couch as a possibility,' Martin said.

Defense attorneys believe the issue is crucial because the James sisters are charged with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter and child neglect.

Shetarra James, 24, and Latisha James, 23, went outside the apartment before the fire started to charge their cell phones in an outlet in a laundry room, according to testimony this morning.

Fairfield police Sgt. Rob Lenke testified that the two gave conflicting accounts of what they did before the fire started. Shetarra James admitted she was worried she would get in trouble because the children were left alone inside with the burning candles.

The family was using the candles for light because PG&E shut the off the electric power when the sisters did not pay their bill, according to testimony today.

Lenke said Shetarra James initially said everyone was inside when the fire started in a heater, and that she and Latisha James panicked and ran for help, leaving the children alone. She said they were then unable to re-enter the burning apartment, Lenke testified.

Latisha James said she and her sister were outside when the fire started and that she tried to crawl back into the home to save the children, but retreated when she burned her hand.

Lenke also testified that Shetarra James told her sister she blew out the candles before she left the apartment to charge her cell phone.

Martin's testimony resumes at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday. Attorneys will give closing statements about the evidence before Judge Peter B. Foor decides whether the sisters should stand trial on the charges.


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