One year later: The deadly Flora fire investigation

FLORA, Ind. (WISH) — A vigil will be held to honor four girls killed in a house fire one year ago.

The vigil will be held at 6 p.m. across the street from the home on Columbia Street that started on fire in the early morning hours of November 21, 2016.

Sisters Keyana Davis, 11, Keyara Phillips, 9, Kerriele McDonald, 7 and Kionnie Welch, 5, all died in the fire.

Their mom and two responding officers were injured. 

24-Hour News 8 sat down with Indiana State Police Sgt. Kim Riley the day before the anniversary of the fire to get an update on the case.

“We’ve got anywhere between four and six officers that are working the case and that includes officers from the Indiana State police, from the Department of Homeland Security Fire Marshal’s office, Flora Police Department, Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, with a little assistance from the ATF,” he said.

There have been many twists and turns in the year-long investigation of the fire.

The cause of the fire was initially ruled undetermined. Investigators said the fire originated in the kitchen area, possibly behind the refrigerator. No foul play was suspected and no accelerants were found initially.

But a few months later, investigators with the State Fire Marshal ruled the fired incendiary after finding accelerants throughout the house.

In June, Indiana State Police said tips from the public have led investigators to look into people of interest into the deadly fire.

Indiana State Police Sgt. Kim Riley says they are still looking into persons of interest.

“In an investigation, you’re never really completely clear everybody, there’s always a doubt of, I shouldn’t say a doubt, but there’s always that chance that something would come up that would change the story, the information that we’ve received so, we have pretty much ruled people out, they’re still on our list, they’re still there so as far as ruling anybody completely out, we have not done that,” he said. “But we’ve looked at people that we thought might have been somebody of interest and we have put them down on the ladder so to speak, so they’re not up here anymore, they may be down here so that’s kind of where we’re at with most of them right now. We’re still going with the leads that we come in with, still getting information, so we’re still looking at people, but again, I can’t comment on that simply for we don’t want to hurt the integrity of the case itself.”

Not long after, a state fire investigator with the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s Office resigned as questions were been raised about the investigation into the fire.

At the time, I-Team 8 pressed the department on the stark contrast between the two statements between what investigators originally initially ruled about the fire to what they sent out a few months later.

In a Feb. 16 email to I-Team 8, a spokesman wrote: “While the original release was correct for that time period, early in the investigation, additional scene examinations and cleanup work exposed additional evidence of ignitable liquid.”

I-Team 8 also obtained a copy of an email a private investigator sent to the Department of Homeland Security in early February. That private investigator’s email took exception with the Jan. 28 news release posted by the department.

In the email, which was later forwarded to State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson and other members of the department, he writes:

… the January 28, 2017 press release by the State Fire Marshal about the conclusions of their investigation are NOT CORRECT, and completely based on speculation and NOT evidence.”

Carroll County Prosecutor Rob Ives then asked that investigative agencies refrain from commenting on the case.

In August, 9 months after the deadly fire, Indiana State Police released a reward poster asking for information about the fire.

As questions continued about the investigation, the NAACP said it “smells of a cover-up.”

Barbara Bolling-Williams, the NAACP conference president, questioned the investigation practices at the opening of their Indianapolis conference in October, saying the organization wants answers:

There are people out there who know, it smells, we’re just getting started but it smells of a cover-up because how are you going to go and have investigation for almost a year and doesn’t appear that we are any further along on this. And now there seems to be a silence out there that’s been imposed.”

ISP Superintendent Doug Carter responded saying, “I don’t think anything’s bothered me more than what’s occurred in Carroll County, Indiana, in my entire lifetime. And even the notion, even the notion that there would be the perception of a cover-up, in regards to our investigation involving four little girls, is not only unsubstantiated, but ladies and gentlemen, it strikes me at the very core of who I am and the industry that I represent. I’d give my life to find out who killed those little girls.”

Sgt. Riley echoed those thoughts.

“The Indiana State police don’t cover up anything. I mean, we try to be as transparent as we can. You know, you can’t give out too much information because you don’t want to ruin the integrity of the investigation, but if a family member or somebody wants to come up and talk to me or talk to an investigator, we’ll give them the information as we give anybody information on a case what we can give,” he said. “We can’t give them the whole works, what’s going on, who we’ve talked to and stuff, but we can give them, ya know, open invitation to come and talk to us, feel free to talk to us and answer questions and if we can’t well tell them, we’re not gonna color coat, we’re going to tell them, ‘This is what we’ve got, this is what you can have, if you’ve got anything to add to it, we’d be happy to hear your side of the story and talk to you and listen to you.'”

Approximately two weeks after the NAACP’s statement, the Carroll County Prosecutor announced his resignation to spend more time with his family. 

Riley said his resignation has not hindered the Flora investigation.

“Not really because the prosecutor himself, all weed needed him or her is to get warrants, search warrants or maybe arrest warrants and so he’s not or she’s not kept up on the case as much,” Riley said. “I mean, that person is in contact with us or is aware of what’s going on, but as far as him being involved in the investigation, that person’s not really involved that much just for the simple reason, his job is to prosecute after we’ve submitted the information when the case is solved.”

Riley also said the resignation of the Flora Fire Chief a few days later will not impact the investigation. 

“His job is to put the fire out as the word they use — attack the fire, get the fire put out in the quickest and easiest and safest manner for his officers, his fire department personnel, so as far as the investigation goes none of those people are really gonna hurt us,” Riley said.

But the girl’s grandfather has voiced frustration about the chief’s resignation. He said he does not think the fire was intentional. in a brief conversation with a reporter outside his Flora home, he said he believes there was a problem with the house and he thinks investigators are quote “trying to cover up their own mess ups.”

Asked if investigators are absolutely certain the fire was arson, Riley said: “I really don’t want to comment on that at this point in time because again, that’s still part of the investigation so I don’t want to make a comment and say something that could hinder or hurt the investigation.”

Asked if there is a possibility that it is not arson, he said: “I’m not going to say one way or another at this point. I’m just a public information officer and I’m not an investigator and I really can’t make comment at this point in time. I can tell you this, we are investigating it as an arson, and that’s what we’re doing at this point in time, if it we find out later on that it’s not an arson case, then all the work we’ve done has helped solve that part of the puzzle so to speak.”

Riley says they continue to get tips about the case.

“It comes and goes. Whenever something new comes out on the case, it seems like that kind of drives interest up on the tips that come in and then after a couple three, four days, it starts to die down,” he said.

And he wants those tips to continue.

“We want to make sure we have overturned every rock, looked under every stone to make sure that we follow up on the information that we receive. We want to make sure that we follow through and solve this case. If it is arson, we want to make sure that we get that person and put that person in jail.”