Family sure mom didn't plan death

Saturday, July 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Debi Stotler, with grandson Caine Parks.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
The way Kristi Stotler's family sees it, the 20-year-old Mount Washington woman had many reasons to live.

Kristi Stotler
Kristi Stotler
She was four months' pregnant, had a 6-month-old son and family and friends who loved her.

The way police see it, she also had reasons she wanted to die.

She was about to be evicted, was suspected by fraud investigators of stealing checks, and had written in a journal about problems with her boyfriend.

Three years ago today, she came home from a Fourth of July picnic and put her son to bed. Within 10 minutes, she was on her balcony with her body set on fire.

Neighbors heard her screams and rushed to put the fire out. She hung on to life for 35 days.

The Hamilton County coroner's office ruled her death a suicide. Doctors and detectives say they're convinced no crime happened.

But her family doesn't want to accept that Ms. Stotler would have killed herself. They've hired a private investigator, had a psychic look into the case and have spent more than $40,000 to try to prove someone could have killed her.

Police say, sadly, the family may never get the answers they seek. But her mother says she'll never give up.

"I wake up trying to put the fire off her," said Debi Stotler, whose Columbus home is adorned with angels and pictures of her brown-haired daughter with the cherub-like smile. "Sometimes I don't even want to go out of the house."

Horrific memories

For Mike Chappell, the nightmare began on the holiday when he was working the 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift as a security guard at Ms. Stotler's Spindlehill Apartment complex.

He was talking with tenants in the parking lot when he noticed a reflection of fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran toward the flames.

Then he noticed what looked like a human torch. Ms. Stotler was ablaze on her balcony, still conscious and screaming words marked in Mr. Chappell's memory: "My baby! My baby! My baby!" she wailed.

"She was basically telling us to check on her baby," he said. "She mentioned that she wanted to die because of the pain."

Her son, Caine Parks, was inside, safe in his crib. Neighbor John Kennedy came in first, found a blanket and ran out to the balcony. He was about to throw it over her when Mr. Chappell bolted in and began dousing her with water.

"At first, I thought it was an accident with the grill," Mr. Chappell said. "But the grill hadn't been used."

Police found a purple butane lighter and a can of lighter fluid beside Ms. Stotler, but they were unable to take fingerprints from the evidence.

Thinking back, Mr. Chappell, now a 26-year-old construction worker in Glencoe, Ky., has the same questions as Garry Proper, the private investigator in Columbus.

Would Ms. Stotler have put her 6-month-old son in danger by setting a fire so close to him? Could someone have set her ablaze and hid in the storage closet off the balcony? Mr. Chappell thought he saw someone standing in the woods below her apartment that night. Could that have been the killer?

"They'll never convince me that it's a suicide because it's not," Mr. Chappell said. "She was worried about her child way too much to do that. A mother wouldn't do that."

Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, Hamilton County chief deputy coroner, disagrees. He has conducted or reviewed more than 30,000 autopsies. About 20 percent were suicides, including suicides by fire.

"We always wonder why people commit suicide," he said. "But people do it. They're the hardest types of deaths for families to accept. We don't take them lightly. None of us would want a murderer to get off the hook because we didn't do our jobs."

He is convinced Ms. Stotler killed herself.

"If someone came and confessed, I'd say they're lying," he said. "That's how sure I am it's a suicide."

Hope and a prayer

From the moment she flew from her home near San Diego to be at her granddaughter's hospital bed three years ago, finding out what happened has become Audrey Eller's crusade.

Mrs. Eller hired the an investigator nine months after Ms. Stotler died. She and her daughter also went on Leeza Gibbons' talk show in April with nationally known psychic Dorothy Allison to search for answers.

Mrs. Allison, who has worked on the Son of Sam and Patty Hearst cases with police, traveled to Cincinnati to walk through Ms. Stotler's old apartment. She said on the show that she thought Ms. Stotler was murdered.

"This is not about her relationships with people," Mrs. Eller said of her granddaughter. "The story is how and why Kristi was burnt like she was. There was no suicide note. There was no indication she would do anything like this."

Ms. Stotler's co-workers at the Hyde Park Kroger described her as sweet and a bit naive. She graduated from Springfield North High School in Columbus in 1993 and moved to Cincinnati to live with an uncle. She was punctual until the months before she quit. Her bosses told police she seemed to be having personal problems and started coming in late or not at all.

She had settled in Mount Washington with live-in boyfriend Tony Parks -- the father of her newborn son. Her mother said she worried because by 1995, things were not going well in her daughter's love life.

Ms. Stotler had an on-again, off-again relationship with an old boyfriend and caught Mr. Parks cheating on her several times, Mr. Parks said in a statement to police. He had decided to move out for a few days after they got into an argument that July 4.

In an undated journal entry, the single mom -- who was pregnant again -- vented her frustrations:

"Things have changed. Nothing the same. A new baby to bring us much joy. . . . The love is still there but not like it was. I guess love is as love does. Somebody please hear my cry. There's something special here. I don't want to die. This is the person with whom I want to share my life. The sad part is he no longer wants me to be his wife. Lord if you hear my prayer bring us love and happiness. I know you'll do what you think is best."

There were other problems. She and Mr. Parks were behind on their rent and were about to be evicted. Mr. Parks wasn't working full time. Ms. Stotler was now working at Bob Evans, but the bills were more than they could handle.

Records show they tried to pawn their 1989 Honda Accord before the bank repossessed it. And Ms. Stotler was being investigated by the Cincinnati Police Division's fraud unit, accused of stealing a book of checks from her uncle and passing 18 bad checks worth about $2,500.

All of those things, plus statements from neighbors who heard no arguments and saw no one else at Ms. Stotler's apartment that night, led police Spc. Bill Davis, the lead detective, to rule out homicide and go along with the coroner's suicide ruling.

Grace Schmits, a registered nurse at University Hospital trained to work with burn victims, bolstered that opinion. She told police she was able to communicate with Ms. Stotler while she was still conscious, and that Ms. Stotler nodded that she set fire to herself.

"There's nothing to indicate this was anything other than a suicide," said Sgt. McKinley Brown, Spc. Davis' supervisor. "If there was anything there, we'd be on top of it."

The homicide unit has continued to check leads from Mr. Proper, the private investigator, but the ruling remains the same.

The family is desperate for evidence that would change authorities' minds. They've put inserts in newspapers and had businesses post signs listing their investigator's hot line -- (800) 752-4581 -- for anyone who might provide a tip.

Capt. Richard Biehl, commander of the police division's criminal investigation section, said he is sympathetic to the family's plight.

He said his detectives will follow leads on any new information, but that he doesn't think there's much more police can do.

"We believe this case was thoroughly and fully investigated, and there continues to be, three years later, not one shred of evidence that Kristi died as the result of a criminal act," he said. "The evidence indicates there is no crime."

That is not the end for Ms. Stotler's family.

"It was just a cruel way to go, and pretty devastating to us," said Angie Tolbert, Mr. Parks' older sister. "When I have to look at her son -- and there's so much of her in him -- how can it get easier?"

Mr. Parks has custody of 3-year-old Caine, and Debi Stotler keeps him one weekend a month.

"I feel Kristi's sadness when I watch him in the sandbox, when I watch him in the swimming pool -- and he just learned how to ride a tricycle," Debi Stotler said.

Sometimes the little boy breaks her heart.

"Grani, did my mommy love me?" he asked as they rode in the car one afternoon last month.

"Of course she did," she said.

"My mommy cried for me, huh?" he said.

"Yes, your mommy cried for you," she said.

"Grani, was my mommy scared of the bad guys?" he asked.

Debi Stotler took a deep breath, looked down at her grandson.

"Yes," she said, answering the best way she knew how with what she believes to be the truth.

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