Account of one fire omen of another

Woman killed in fire had given police report of earlier arson attack

October 17, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Two Molotov cocktails crashed through the windows of Angela and Carnell Dawson's East Baltimore house two weeks ago, and as the place filled with suffocating smoke, the couple grabbed their five children and frantically groped their way out.

"My husband and I gathered our babies and led them to safety," Angela Dawson said in a handwritten account for authorities.

"Before getting out of the [house], we experienced choking from the smoke and could hardly see how to get to the door. The heat was very intense coming from the kitchen. ... Every time I threw water on the fire, it flared up even more. I finally got the fire under control and went outside with my family."

The Dawsons' chilling account of what happened two weeks ago foreshadowed yesterday's tragedy, when fire again swept through the rowhouse, killing Angela Dawson and the children, and leaving Carnell Dawson critically burned.

In a written statement to police, the Dawsons blamed the Oct. 3 arson on a neighbor, John L. Henry, whom Angela Dawson had taken to court the day before on assault and property-destruction charges.

As a result of the first fire, prosecutors reopened that criminal case Tuesday and reported the blaze as a possible probation violation to Henry's probation agent that same day, court records show.

Henry could not be reached for comment yesterday. He lives across the street from the Dawsons with his grandmother, Carole Colbert, who said he was not involved in either blaze.

"He did have a dispute with them, with the lady who lived there," said Colbert, 60, a retired nursing assistant. "She called the police on him so many times it was getting to be a nuisance. Last time she called the police he'd be sitting on the steps. I sent him to the store and he'd have to cross the street to get away from her house."

Colbert said two plainclothes police came to her door yesterday but soon "went on about their business" without asking for her grandson, who was not home.

Anti-dealing campaign

At a time when a city campaign is urging residents to come forward with information to convict drug dealers, neighbors, relatives and some politicians called both blazes retaliation against a family who had spoken out against dealing.

But top city leaders offered muted - if any - responses to the tragedy, apparently leery of pointing fingers in the case of a fire that they were not calling suspicious, much less arson. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris declined to comment, as did Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Mayor Martin O'Malley released a brief written statement.

"This is a horribly tragic loss of life," O'Malley's statement said. "The circumstances that caused the fire are under very active investigation. The entire city mourns the deeply tragic loss of this young family."

Long-running dispute

Fire officials and police declined to speculate on a possible connection between the fires and the long-running dispute the Dawsons had with Henry, an 18-year-old high school dropout with a record of drug and firearms arrests.

Colbert said Angela Dawson unfairly accused many neighborhood teens of dealing drugs - making her so unpopular that Colbert's grandson considered circulating a petition calling for the family to move out. Henry, who sometimes uses his grandmother's last name, never followed through with the plan, she said.

A criminal record

"A lot of young people in our neighborhood was messing with drugs. But she said he was messing with drugs, but he doesn't," Colbert said. "She would say things about him, [such as] he needs to go get a job."

Henry was charged with possession of marijuana, a handgun and a firearm in April last year, court records show. He pleaded guilty in Baltimore court to the weapons charges and received a five-year suspended sentence and three years of probation, which began in July last year. The drug charge was dropped as part of a plea bargain.

In a report to police, the Dawsons accused Henry of spray-painting a curse word on the wall outside their house Aug. 22 and slapping Angela Dawson in the face the next day. The couple accused him of throwing bricks through their windows Aug. 25 and Sept. 4.

`Stet' status

As a result, Henry appeared in court Oct. 2 on charges of assault and malicious destruction of property. He was ordered to pay $275 in restitution and stay away from the family, and the case was put on inactive or "stet" status for a year.

About 4 a.m. the next morning, two glass bottles filled with flammable liquid and topped with wicks were tossed through the Dawsons' first floor window, according to a police report.

After the first fire, the Dawsons met with prosecutors, who said they offered to place the family in a witness protection program Oct. 7. The family declined, saying they did not want to move.

Sun writers M. Dion Thompson, Laurie Willis and Walter F. Roche contributed to this article.

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