Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Suspect in fatal fire free

Prosecutor cites insufficient evidence in death of five near OSU

By Jordan Gentile
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - The man police say set the fire that killed five college students, including two from Greater Cincinnati, went free on Monday after the Franklin County prosecutor dropped the charges.

The evidence collected by police wasn't sufficient to bring suspect Robert Lucky Patterson, 20, of Columbus before a grand jury, said Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.

"The standard is 'beyond a reasonable doubt,' " O'Brien said. "We had no choice but to let him go."

O'Brien said he reconsidered the charges of aggravated murder and arson after speaking to witnesses and reviewing the videotaped interview that led to Patterson's Aug 1 arrest.

He said his decision does not mean Patterson has been exonerated.

"Mr. Patterson is not cleared as a suspect. He can be rearrested, indicted, tried, convicted," O'Brien said.

The prosecutor had to formally charge Patterson by Monday or free him because the law requires that a suspect be charged within 10 days of arrest. O'Brien said he would need more time to build a case and had Patterson released from the Franklin County Jail.

O'Brien asked that police provide more information about the man they believe set the April 13 blaze that killed five students, including Andrea Kali Dennis, 20, of Madeira and Kyle Raulin, 20, of West Chester Township.

Detective Mike McCann, lead investigator on the case, said that Patterson made incriminating statements during the videotaped interview that led to his arrest. At the time of his arrest, police said Patterson apparently picked the house at random and set fire to a couch on the front porch.

The prosecutor stressed several times that there may be more than one person responsible for the arson. He said he gave investigators areas to review, but declined to be specific.

Ron Patterson said Monday that his son is not a criminal.

"I'm just as much a victim as anyone else, and my son is, too," he said. "He might have been a little mischievous. ... He's just a little stupid teen-ager."

He said he is sure his son did not start the fire - but said the young man might know who did.

"They just wanted somebody. That's the way I look at it. They just wanted the case closed," he said.

Columbus police have defended their investigation, claiming O'Brien was briefed on the evidence before Patterson's arrest.

"(Investigators) put what they thought was a good case forward," said Sherry Mercurio, spokeswoman for the Columbus police. "They felt they had probable cause."

She declined to comment on whether there were discrepancies between O'Brien's version of events and those of Columbus police.

"We don't want this to become a fight between police, the families and the prosecutor's office," she said. "Everyone's main goal was to bring the right person to justice."

Relatives of the victims were called to O'Brien's office on Friday and told the prosecutor was considering dropping the charges against Patterson. With Patterson free and the investigation still under way, some said they are wrung out by the process.

"It's frustrating," said Dan Burke, Andrea Dennis' uncle. "It's so trying to lose a loved one like that. Now everybody's just doing the best they can to hold together."

Still, Burke said his faith in the investigation hasn't been shaken.

"I'm sure the police are doing the best they can," he said.

O'Brien said he would continue to work with police to build a stronger case. The evidence must be compelling because "we only get one shot," he said.

O'Brien said arson cases can be especially difficult to prove because they must rely on mostly circumstantial evidence. But the hardest part, he said, is dealing with the families of those who've died.

"Regardless of what we do, we can never cure their loss."


The Associated Press contributed.

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