Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Fire that killed 5 was no accident

Police treating student deaths as homicides

By Shelley Davis, Enquirer Columbus Bureau
and Erica Solvig, The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] A shaft of light strikes Rita DeMarco and a communion portrait of her daughter Erin DeMarco, who died in a fire early Sunday at a Columbus student rooming house.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
COLUMBUS - A fire that killed five students, including two from the Tristate, turned into a homicide investigation Tuesday when authorities ruled that it was not accidental.

"All evidence clearly indicates arson," said Capt. Steve Saltsman of the Columbus Division of Fire.

Police are now treating the deaths as homicides and officials are offering a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of the person or people who set the Sunday fire at a 12-bedroom rooming house east of the Ohio State University campus.

Saltsman wouldn't reveal the cause of the fire, any suspects or motives for arson, but said investigators are fairly confident they know what happened.

He said the blaze started on the porch of the house and spread to the back.

Officials have declined to comment on reports that some students threw an incendiary device onto the porch, but they did rule out several other causes.

Columbia Gas verified that gas played no role in the fire and all appliances in the home were in working order, Saltsman said.

Investigators also looked into what appeared to be tiki torches on the front porch of the house, but determined they were golf-ball washers.

About 75 students were celebrating the 21st birthday party of Alan "Big Al" Schlessman on the night of the fire.

Schlessman, from Sandusky, Ohio, was one of the students killed early Sunday morning. Housemate Kyle Raulin, 20, a Lakota West High School graduate, also died in the blaze.

Three members of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority visiting from Ohio University also died. Among them was Andrea Kali Dennis, 20, a Madeira High School graduate.

Dean Dennis, Andrea's father, said he suspected it was arson since he first heard reports Sunday from students who heard sounds of glass breaking and popping before the fire.

"It doesn't change anything," he continued. "We don't have her anymore. We'll never talk to her again. We'll never see her again."

Dennis said his daughter, a journalism major at Ohio University, would have forgiven.

"She probably pities them and is sorry they would be so irresponsible."

Dennis said it doesn't make sense anyone would be so reckless.

"If their intent was malicious, to hurt somebody, it was unforgivable. It wouldn't be my job to forgive. ... I would only forgive them in the sense that I know my daughter is compassionate and is so against the death penalty."

Kyle Raulin's father, Terry, said the family was disappointed to learn that the fire was an arson case.

"We're saddened by that, but it doesn't take away from the fact the final result was that we lost our son," said Raulin. "But we knew it was a possibility. ... As a father, I feel there is accountability. People have to be accountable for their actions."

Kyle Raulin was a sophomore studying business at Ohio State.

Police are still questioning students about what exactly happened in the hours leading up to the fire, said Mike McCann, a homicide detective with the Columbus Division of Police.

Investigators have not yet talked to Josh Patterson, 20, a Lakota West graduate and resident of the rooming house. He remains at the Ohio State University Hospital Medical Center in critical condition.

McCann said police will reinterview several students about a loud popping sound several students claim to have heard before the fire. Investigators did verify that a fight took place shortly before the fire, but McCann said the fight was between intoxicated people and was minor.

McCann said investigators haven't had difficulty getting students to cooperate in giving information, even though many of those in attendance at the party - said to have four kegs and a dozen cases of beer - were under age 21.

"It's pretty well known that alcohol was involved, but there's no evidence that the people involved were intoxicated," Saltsman said.

The first arriving firefighters entered the house from the front and rescued one female from a left rear bedroom, Saltsman said.

He said firefighters entered the house without a hose line, which allowed them to rescue three more people.

A "fire flash," or rapid buildup of heat and smoke, in the second-floor hallway kept firefighters from rescuing the five students who were killed.

A memorial service is tentatively planned for next Wednesday, said Bill Hall, OSU's vice president of student affairs.

The university gave $5,000 to the reward fund. A Fire Victims Assistance Fund has also been set up by the university through Fifth Third Bank.

Seventeen students have been relocated from the three houses affected by the fire.

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