Murder, arson charges dropped in fire

February 09, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore prosecutors yesterday dropped murder and arson charges against a 34-year-old woman who had been accused of setting a fire that killed three residents of a downtown women's shelter last year.

Charges against JoEllen Lee Johnson were dropped because evidence of her innocence surfaced just days before her first trial date in November, and further police investigation did not build a case to establish her guilt, prosecutor Gary Honick said yesterday. Ms. Johnson's trial on arson and three counts of murder had been rescheduled to begin yesterday.

The evidence that cleared Ms. Johnson came in test results showing traces of gasoline on the shoes worn by another resident of the women's shelter. Defense lawyers said those test results erased the impact of the key piece of physical evidence against Ms. Johnson -- traces of gasoline on her slippers -- because they showed the women probably picked up the fuel on their footwear while fleeing the fire.

Scott Keller, a homicide detective who investigated the case, said, "We didn't have a case we felt we could have gone before a jury with and won. . . . If there are other explanations for [the gasoline on Ms. Johnson's slippers], obviously it gives them a ready-made defense."

Detective Keller said the investigation into the fire remains active and he said Ms. Johnson remains the only suspect.

Mr. Honick, the prosecutor, said, "I'm not going to say the exculpatory evidence is proof positive she didn't do it. It's not."

In the group home in which she has lived since December, when a judge granted her release from jail to await trial, Ms. Johnson said, "I've been through a lot. I'm glad it's over."

Ms. Johnson was a resident of My Sister's Place Lodge, a group home operated by Catholic Charities for women with mental illnesses then located at 609 Park Ave. in downtown Baltimore. ++ She lived there from January 1993 until the group home was destroyed by fire April 3. Killed in the 2 a.m. fire were three residents of the home: Vibha Kohli, 28; Ethel Paugh, 42; and Barbara Taylor, 46.

Ms. Johnson's lawyers, Rosemary Motsay Ranier and Maureen L. Rowland, said the woman was first questioned by police the night of the fire, when she complained that her purse was missing. A warrant charging Ms. Johnson with setting the fatal fire was issued April 9, and she was arrested a day later.

Ms. Johnson was ordered held without bail and she entered an insanity plea at her arraignment in July.

Her trial was scheduled to begin Nov. 8, but the case was postponed to allow authorities to investigate evidence that had surfaced just days earlier. Detective Keller said yesterday that the evidence did not come to light earlier because the shoes were among the last items analyzed.

In opposing prosecutors' request for a postponement in the start of the trial in Circuit Court, Ms. Rowland said the new evidence is "extremely exculpatory" and that it was an "outrage" to hold Ms. Johnson in jail to await trial.

Dec. 21, Judge Joseph P. McCurdy ordered the woman released from jail on her own recognizance on the condition she live in a group home while awaiting her trial.

Charges were dropped during a brief hearing yesterday before Judge McCurdy.

In a written statement, the Rev. Tom Bonderenko, administrator of shelter programs for Catholic Charities, said, "We are pleased that this ordeal has ended for JoEllen Johnson and that the months of anguish for our staff, volunteers and the former residents of the Lodge may finally begin to fade." He added that during her stay in the home Ms. Johnson showed no violent or aggressive behavior.

Father Bonderenko said the lodge is temporarily operating at a site downtown on Saratoga Street but that his organization hoped to find a permanent location by August.

Ms. Johnson's lawyers said they talked to all of the residents of the group home.

"I just can't believe any of them would have been capable of carrying this out," Ms. Rowland said. "This is the only place they had to live."

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