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Parents Charged in Deadly Fire

December 12, 1997

WESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ After a fire killed five children in their home, some neighbors feared the unthinkable _ that the five adults who escaped without a scratch were somehow to blame.

The adults had watched, along with their horrified neighbors, and wailed as firefighters pulled out five little bodies, children ages 3 to 10.

As suspicion of them mounted in the days afterward _ partly because the house was engulfed in flames before firefighters arrived from just two blocks away _ a friend, Margaret Mayo, gave them the benefit of the doubt. Stop placing blame, she urged. Let the children rest in peace.

Her hope gave way to a feeling of betrayal and the worst fears of some in this Appalachian town were realized: Two parents and a stepfather were accused of pouring gasoline in the house, then setting the fire to cash in on an insurance policy.

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

Ricky Brown, 23; his wife, Barbara, 32; and Janette Ables, 22, were jailed on $250,000 bond, awaiting a preliminary hearing on first-degree arson charges filed Wednesday. A grand jury will decide whether they also will be charged with murder.

Two other adults who were in the house were not charged.

State Fire Marshal Walter Smittle would not say whether the three meant to kill the youngsters or if they died in an arson plot gone horribly wrong. He refused to disclose the amount of the policy on the house, owned by Brown.

With news of the arrests, rage swelled across this town of 5,000.

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

Three weeks to the day since the Nov. 21 fire, debris is piled in the driveway. Among the charred planks and sooty clothing is evidence that children lived there: a baseball, a stuffed green frog, small blackened shoes.

A crucifix with holiday flowers and a soggy teddy bear rested at the corner of the house. Two Christmas ornaments lay on the sidewalk.

Brown, whose three stepchildren died, has said one of the children started the fire by playing with matches. He said his fire extinguisher didn’t work.

Mayo first believed his account.

Other people’s minds were made up earlier. Neighbor Sharon Pinkney said she had contacted child welfare authorities after a screaming 3-year-old was locked outside in the rain.

Ms. Ables’ stepmother, Catherine Buhl, spoke harshly of the younger woman and said she believes her deceased 5-year-old granddaughter, Rayshell, went hungry at times, The Exponent-Telegram of Clarksburg reported today.

``She sold her food stamps,″ Ms. Buhl said of Ms. Ables. ``She’d say she needed money for diapers and turn right around and go to the bar.″

When Rayshell would visit her grandmother, the girl would eat until ``she was about to pop.″

Neighbor Scott Hathaway said the children were often neglected while their parents partied late into the night. He said he believes the children are better off now.

``That’s a bad thing to say,″ Hathaway said. ``But they won’t have anything to worry about this Christmas. They’re with God now.″

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