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Parents charged with setting fire that killed five children

December 12, 1997

WESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ When a fire tore through a house in this Appalachian town last month, all the adults made it out alive and then watched and wailed as firefighters found five little bodies inside.

Now, two of the parents and a stepfather who initially said the children were playing with matches have been charged with setting the fire themselves with gasoline to collect on a homeowner’s insurance policy.

``The fact that anyone could kill their own children is beyond comprehension,″ said neighbor Francie Yeager. ``I can’t imagine anyone being that evil.″

Ricky Brown, his wife, Barbara, and Janette Ables were charged Wednesday with arson. A grand jury will decide whether they should also face murder charges.

State Fire Marshal Walter Smittle would not say whether the three meant to kill the youngsters or if the deaths resulted from an arson plot gone horribly wrong. He also refused to disclose the amount of the policy.

Brown, whose three stepchildren died, had said that the children had been playing with fire and that an extinguisher failed to work as the house went up in flames even before firefighters arrived from less than two blocks away.

As the bodies of her children were being removed from the house, Ms. Ables was forcibly taken away in an ambulance, screaming, ``I don’t want to go!″ The scene was repeated at the funeral and the graveyard.

Neighbors also saw Barbara Brown crying and smoking cigarettes with her husband as the bodies of the children, ages 3 to 10, were retrieved from the first floor.

``I would never believe they did this from the way they cried,″ said family friend Margaret Mayo. ``They should pour gasoline on them and burn them.″

Added Weston resident John Riley: ``If what we hear is true, it was quite a performance.″

Assistant State Fire Marshal Greg Greer said gasoline had been poured in the home and set ablaze Nov. 21.

In two conversations in the month prior to the fire, Ms. Ables heard the Browns discuss the fact that ``financial gain could be made″ by burning down the house, which Brown owned and had insured, according to court papers and testimony at Wednesday’s arraignment.

Brown’s brother, David Brown, also was present during the conversations, investigators said. He and another adult escaped the fire but were not charged.

The three defendants were arraigned Wednesday night and jailed on $250,000 bail.

Fire investigators took additional photos of the home Thursday as firefighters cut away parts of the floor. A procession of cars slowly drove past the ruins. A baseball, a stuffed green frog and child-size shoes were part of a 5-foot pile of blackened debris in the driveway.

A crucifix with red silk flowers, a soggy teddy bear and a wreath remained at one corner of the home. Two blackened Christmas ornaments lay on the sidewalk.

Neighbors in this town of 5,000 about 100 miles north of Charleston remembered comforting family members after the morning fire.

Ms. Mayo said she still has nightmares from identifying the bodies.

``Oh man, you sit there and think about it all the time,″ she said. ``To see those kids laughing and playing, and then have to identify the bodies.″

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