Thursday, April 17, 2003

Relatives, friends question house fire

Motive for arson remains unknown

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - As word spread that the weekend house fire that killed five college students was arson, those who knew the victims searched for answers about how this could happen to good-natured people with bright futures.

They weren't troublemakers who invited attack, say friends, relatives and neighbors.

"What made them choose that house? Why was that house specifically targeted?" Jen Stevenson, 21, an Ohio State senior from Springfield, asked as she sat on a porch across from the charred remains of the three-story yellow brick rooming house. "I think everyone's wondering that."

Authorities said on Tuesday that someone set fire to the house shortly after a 21st birthday party broke up early Sunday. They had not determined a motive and had no suspects, but they said they were investigating the deaths of the five - including the man who had turned 21 - as homicides.

A $15,000 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest.

Investigators wouldn't comment on what evidence had been gathered but said the state fire marshal's office was analyzing it. They also would not say whether an accelerant had been used.

"We have to rule out all accidental and natural causes, and that's what we've done," fire Capt. Steve Saltsman said. "Clearly, this was an arson fire."

Authorities say it appears the five died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Franklin County Coroner Brad Lewis said a final ruling would be made when results of toxicology tests are available in two weeks.

The fire broke out early Sunday in a popular student-rental neighborhood on a tree-lined street one block east of Ohio State University.

Two of the 12 Ohio State students who lived in the house, Alan Schlessman, 21, of Perkins Township near Sandusky, and Kyle Raulin, 20, of West Chester Township, died. The other victims were students visiting from Ohio University: Andrea K. Dennis, 20, of Madeira; Erin M. DeMarco, 19, of Canton; and Christine Wilson, 19, of the Columbus suburb of Dublin.

Firefighters saved three students from second-floor bedrooms before smoke and fire blocked the hallway. One student remained in critical condition on Wednesday, and another who had been treated and released returned to the hospital Monday and was in poor condition.

The residence, a licensed rooming house, passed its annual city inspection last April and was due for another inspection next month, records show. Investigators said it had working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Police Detective Mike McCann said authorities did not believe that an argument during the party had much to do with the fire.

Witnesses reported there was a shouting match between two men, including one who lived at the house, but that no punches were thrown.

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