THE FIRE ON HARVARD AVENUE
How Junk Arson Science Convicted a Mother of Killing Her Own Daughters
Angela Garcia waves goodbye to her family as she is led out of Judge Bridget McCafferty’s courtroom on June 8, 2000, by Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputies.
March 5 2017, 10:43 a.m.
On a Monday morning last spring, as downtown Cleveland got a facelift before the Republican National Convention, 39-year-old Angela Garcia sat anxiously in a courtroom wearing jail scrubs and clogs. It was the day after Mother’s Day, the 16th time the holiday had passed since her children died. Garcia waited for the judge’s cue, then stood up to do something she had sworn she’d never do.
“Guilty,” she said when asked how she pleaded to the killing of her daughter Nyeemah Garcia, age 3. “Guilty,” she repeated, her voice cracking at the name of her second daughter, 2-year-old Nijah Evans. In the back of the courtroom, her sisters quietly wiped away tears. Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Astrab asked her to reiterate that she had, indeed, set the fire that killed her children. Yes, Garcia said, suppressing a sob.
Nobody had expected the day to go this way. Not Garcia’s family, who stood firmly by her side over the past decade and a half as she swore the 1999 fire had been a tragic accident. Not her lawyer, Assistant Ohio Public Defender Joanna Sanchez, who had prepared for months to make the case for a new trial. And not the two expert witnesses for the defense, Richard Roby and John DeHaan, distinguished fire scientists who flew hundreds of miles to testify that “there was no evidence of arson,” as both insisted afterward. All of them left the courtroom certain that Garcia had just pleaded guilty to a crime that was never a crime at all.
Garcia had been convicted of setting her house on fire, intentionally killing her daughters. Prosecutors said she was driven by greed: tens of thousands of dollars in insurance money and the freedom to pursue a life with her fiancé. The state of Ohio tried to convict her three times — at first it sought the death penalty — and after two hung juries, finally succeeded in May 2001. Garcia was sentenced to life, with a shot at parole after 49 1/2 years. She would be 72.
But as with many arson cases that have come under scrutiny in recent years, the evidence against Garcia was flawed — based on circumstantial evidence, a flimsy fire investigation, and junk science. Garcia spent more than a decade in prison before her case was taken up by the Ohio Public Defender in Columbus. In 2015, she won a rare evidentiary hearing, with Sanchez arguing that advances in fire science should qualify as new evidence in Garcia’s case. The motion was based on a review of the evidence by Dr. DeHaan, whose book, “Kirk’s Fire Investigation,” is a staple in the industry. DeHaan, who has since retired, has spent years working to exonerate people wrongly accused of arson. His report exposed the lack of scientific validity behind Garcia’s conviction, pointing to accidental scenarios that were never explored, along with recent scientific studies that have further undermined the state’s case. “The court should be forced to realize it was a wrongful conviction, set it aside, and be done with it,” DeHaan said on the day of the hearing.
For Dr. Roby, who testified at Garcia’s final trial in 2001, the hearing was a second chance to set the record straight about a fire scenario that had grown even more dubious with each new scientific revelation about fire behavior. “As the years have gone by, this case has looked more and more and more egregious,” Roby told Sanchez when she asked him to return to Cleveland for the evidentiary hearing. He flew on his own dime.
But the chance never came. On the morning of May 9, 2016, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Richard Bell pre-empted the proceedings with an unexpected plea offer. The deal required Garcia to admit she set the fire, keeping the aggravated arson conviction intact while reducing the charge of first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. Rather than gamble on the hope of a new trial — which, if granted, still carried the risk of another guilty verdict — Garcia could be out of prison in less than six years.
Plea deals are central to the machinery of the criminal justice system — and often the best of a bad set of options for the innocent and guilty alike. But the result is that people often plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, a problem so pervasive the Innocence Project just launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the issue. In cases that turn on flawed forensics — a growing concern across the country — the effect is to preserve junk science rather than expose and correct it.
In the time since Garcia went to prison, more than 50 people have been exonerated in arson cases across the country, with many more convictions overturned. Spurring the trend is the debunking of long-held myths that once guided fire investigation, along with some shocking miscarriages of justice. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for killing his three children over the protests of fire experts who had dismantled the forensic evidence in his case. While the state has refused to admit its mistake, the Texas State Fire Marshal subsequently took the unprecedented step of re-examining old arson convictions in collaboration with the Innocence Project. Last November, Texas finally exonerated 68-year-old Sonia Cacy, 25 years after she was wrongfully convicted of a 1991 arson murder. More recently, Utah prosecutors dropped charges against a man named Herbert Landry, who fled Hurricane Katrina only to be arrested for trying to burn down his apartment complex in 2006. Like Garcia’s conviction, his two-day trial hinged on visual evidence that had long been discredited in the scientific community — burn patterns found at the scene of the fire, which investigators claimed as proof that he had poured a flammable liquid. In fact, the fire was an accident.
In the courtroom last May, one of Garcia’s sisters muttered what others were thinking: The state’s case was weak, and Bell knew it. “They ain’t got nothing,” she said under her breath. “That’s why they’re doing that shit.” Bell was the same man who convicted Garcia in 2001; he had never shown signs he would strike a deal. Garcia herself had declined a plea offer from a different prosecutor years before, refusing to say she killed her children. But now, after 15 years in prison, she suddenly had a glimpse of freedom. She would take it. As the decision sunk in, Garcia’s mother, Lucy, left the courtroom abruptly, unable to bear the sight of her daughter pleading guilty. “We’ve been doing this for so long,” Garcia’s older sister Judy said afterward, with a weary mix of sadness and relief.
The official ending, as told by the state of Ohio, is that Angela Garcia was guilty of arson all along. “Garcia’s plea comports with the 2001 testimony of a jailhouse snitch named Tonya Lanum,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “who said that Garcia told her: ‘I didn’t mean to kill my kids. It was all a misunderstanding and it was supposed to be an insurance thing.’” But an investigation of the case by The Intercept reveals a more likely scenario, in which the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office aggressively prosecuted an innocent woman using unreliable evidence, then orchestrated a plea deal to cover it up.
In the years since Garcia went to prison, state actors central to her conviction — including the trial judge — have been arrested for ethical crimes, seriously calling into question their handling of her case. And perhaps most importantly, evidence uncovered in the months after the plea deal last spring shows that Bell and his colleague Mary McGrath were perfectly aware that their 2001 conviction of Garcia was based on junk science. Rather than grapple with the possibility that they had wrongly imprisoned a young mother who lost her children, Sanchez says, they “offered the deal as a way to make the case go away as fast as possible.”
Today, Garcia’s guilty plea leaves several unanswered questions. What caused that tragic fire in the fall of 1999? Does the state really believe its own arson theory? If so, why did Bell offer Garcia a plea deal before the court ruled on her motion for a new trial? And if not, shouldn’t she be exonerated, rather than being slapped with more years in prison and a lifelong felony record?
One person who found the outcome disturbing was Cuyahoga County Judge Mike Donnelly, an outspoken advocate of transparency in plea deals, who observed the case from afar. Prosecutors are not obligated to protect their convictions, he told me the day after the hearing, in his chambers at the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas. “They’re obligated to seek the truth. And do justice.”
“The question needs to be asked of the state in this case: Why did you do what you did? Why?”
Cleveland firefighters respond to the scene at 9618 Harvard Ave. on November 20, 1999. Photo: Cleveland Fire Investigation Unit
The fire at 9618 Harvard Ave. began around dinnertime on November 20, 1999. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Next door, Shirley Brandon was on the phone when she heard someone banging on her door. It was her neighbor Angela Garcia, “hollering, help me, help, me,” as Brandon would later testify. Brandon’s sister, Penny, was there too; she later told the Plain Dealer a panicked Garcia said “her babies were inside.”
Brandon dialed 911, then raced with Garcia toward her house. Brandon tried to get in but both the front and back entrances were locked. Firefighters arrived in minutes, but it was too late. The flames had ripped through the two-story home. “It was like it had a face,” Brandon would recall. “It was just reaching in and out the windows. It was spinning all around in the house and like saying, ‘anything in my way, I am taking it with me.’” A crowd gathered as firefighters searched for Garcia’s toddlers, Nyeemah and Nijah. One at a time, the men emerged holding their small, limp bodies. The girls had been found in the master bedroom upstairs, both severely burned. Nyeemah had gotten tangled in the window blinds, which “melted all around her,” one firefighter later testified, calling it “a nightmare.” Both were declared dead from smoke inhalation.
Cleveland Fire Lt. Albert Lugo went to the city’s MetroHealth Medical Center later that night with his boss, Capt. Richard L. Patton. Lugo became a firefighter straight out of high school, joining the Fire Investigation Unit in 1986. Since then, he’d determined the origin and cause of nearly 2,000 fires. In Ohio and around the country, men like Lugo had been trained on the job, working alongside more experienced investigators who taught them to spot the signs of arson. Such work was considered more art than science, rooted in instinct, experience, and the sharpest skills of observation. In Cleveland, like many cities, fire investigators were trained primarily as cops, armed with police powers and working alongside detectives and prosecutors in the Justice Center downtown.
Lugo took a statement from Garcia at the hospital, where she had just viewed her daughters’ bodies. In a report the next day, he summarized her version of events. She had been talking on a three-way phone call with her mother and sister when she went to use the bathroom upstairs. There were scented candles burning in the dining and living room. Nyeemah and Nijah were in the spare bedroom. Garcia couldn’t say how long she was in the bathroom, just somewhere between five and 10 minutes. (At first, Lugo wrote, Garcia said she had to “change her ‘pad’. She then corrected herself and said that she did not change her ‘pad.’”) At one point, Nyeemah tried to come in to tell her something, but Garcia shooed her away. Shortly after that, Garcia began coughing. She tried washing her face, but it didn’t help. As she left the bathroom, the lights went off. “She noticed that the hallway was starting to fill up with smoke,” Lugo wrote. “She then started to go downstairs but was met with a gush of smoke coming up the stairway.” Garcia “gathered her children,” leading them to her bedroom, but lost them in the dark. “She then broke the glass from the window and exited out into the porch roof. She slid out of the roof and fell to the ground,” then ran next door for help.
The house at 9618 Harvard Ave. after the fire. Photo: Adrian Scott
Returning to the house the next morning, Lugo concluded that the fire was likely a tragic accident. Although it had spread fast and left some unusual burn patterns, a private investigator swept the grounds with his accelerant-sniffing dog, Pyra, to search for signs of an ignitable liquid — the dog did not alert. No materials were collected for testing. Instead, Lugo based his conclusion on an area of significant destruction: a gaping hole in the dining room floor where a large candle had once stood, perhaps knocked over by “one of the children,” as he wrote in his report. Lugo drew a diagram of the house, identifying this as the area of origin — a puddle shape in the northeast corner of the dining room. There were few additional details. “After carefully reviewing the fire scene,” Lugo wrote, “it was determined that this was an accidental fire.” The cause was “undetermined,” pending further investigation. But the next day, on November 22, the house was torn down.
Patton, the head of the FIU, remained suspicious. He had examined the bedroom windows, noticing they were pretty narrow, and that the glass was only partially broken. At the hospital, Patton had seen only a small cut on Garcia’s hand, writing in a report that she showed “no other obvious injuries, cuts, bruises, burns or tears to her clothing.” She had also refused treatment at the hospital that night. “All these facts together indicate that Angela did not exit the house through the 2nd floor windows,” he wrote.
Neighbors were suspicious, too. No decent mother would leave her children to die in a fire — something had to be wrong. They began sharing what they knew with investigators. There were rumors Garcia was suicidal, that she had called her relatives to tell them she loved them before the fire. There were parties at the house, people coming and going. In one anonymous phone tip, a woman told police that Garcia had confessed to her that she intended to kill herself and her kids but had changed her mind. Another caller had seen a TV news segment claiming that Garcia had been preparing a candlelight dinner for her fiancé, Mario Watkins; she wanted investigators to know that Watkins was just a live-in boyfriend — and Garcia might be a crackhead, based on “the fact that Angela has very dark lips, has a wild demeanor about her and has no morals,” as Lugo wrote in his report. “This caller made it sound as if Angela had plotted to kill the children,” he added. The kids and the house were covered by insurance, the woman said. Garcia planned to “collect on the insurance money and then take off with her boyfriend.”
Some of the tips came from Garcia’s own extended relatives, which was disconcerting. But Garcia’s harshest accuser was her next-door neighbor, Shirley Brandon, to whom she had run for help. “She’s a bitch and killed those babies,” Brandon told investigators. Garcia made no effort to save her children, she said. In fact, she only mentioned them when Brandon asked where they were. She swore that the window Garcia claimed to climb through had been intact — and that when Brandon asked how she’d escaped, Garcia said, “I just ran out.” The statement was recorded by investigators in all caps.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Patton’s investigators visited Watkins at home. They found him upset, saying he hadn’t discussed the fire with Garcia because she was just “constantly repeating that she should have stayed with the children.” Watkins insisted Garcia was a good mother and denied that she had mental or financial problems — “If she needed anything she got it from her family.” That same day, Garcia’s mother, Lucy Ahmad, and her older sister Judy Nichols met with Patton and Lugo downtown. Garcia was in shock, her mother said, and “has not fully realized what has happened.” Judy, who was particularly close to her sister, said she had been happy with her life; Angela planned to buy the house on Harvard and get married. One detail caught investigators’ attention: Judy told them that over the summer, Garcia had tried to join the Navy but was ineligible because of her dependent children. Garcia took steps to transfer custody of Nyeemah and Nijah to Judy, “at a recruiter’s urging,” but never followed through.
Later, Patton and Lugo reflected on Garcia’s demeanor, recording their impressions. It had been four days since the fire. Both remembered Garcia as “well aware” of what was happening at the hospital. In fact, during their interview, she had been “pleasant almost to the point of being cheerful.” She did get upset while talking about her daughters, but her demeanor changed depending on who was in the room. She seemed to be gauging their reactions as she spoke. Patton and Lugo agreed “it was inappropriate and unusual considering the circumstances.”
By early December, Patton’s suspicions had escalated. An insurance agent had revealed he sold Garcia a renter’s insurance policy in October, the same day Garcia and Judy met with a mediator about transferring custody of her kids. Soon, Patton lost patience with Watkins, who had refused to sign a statement typed by one of his investigators, then failed to show up for a follow-up interview. On December 13, Watkins was arrested at work. Accompanied by an agent with the federal U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Patton interrogated Watkins, who refused to talk without a lawyer “despite repeated assurances that he was not a suspect.” Patton threatened him with obstruction of justice, keeping him in jail until late that night. The next morning, Watkins agreed to sign a statement. It included a description of the large candle in the dining room, which he estimated sat one foot from the wall, apart from any combustible materials.
The next day, December 15, Patton laid out his findings. He included the candle’s location, noting that it sat on a sturdy iron stand, kept firmly in place by a spike at the center — not something to fall over easily. But he had also obtained more crucial evidence: phone records and reports from ADT, which maintained a security system in Garcia’s house. The documents revealed an incriminating timeline on the night of the fire. Garcia’s three-way phone conversation had ended at 7:20 p.m., less than 15 minutes before the first 911 call. In the meantime, at 7:30 p.m., ADT received a “tamper code” from the alarm panel. When ADT called the house three minutes later, the phone was picked up. For 12 seconds, the person who answered was silent.
The only phone in the house was downstairs. The ADT panel was by the front door. At 7:33 p.m., Patton concluded, Garcia had to have been downstairs. She had lied about escaping through the window. She must have run out the front door.
“Based on this and other information,” Patton wrote, “all accidental causes of ignition have been eliminated and the cause of this incident will be changed from #00 UNDETERMINED to #11 INCENDIARY.”
On February 23, 2000, Garcia was arrested for murder.
Angela Garcia waits for her sentencing in Judge Bridget McCafferty’s courtroom at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer
THE FIRST TRIAL
The Angela Garcia case was big news in Cleveland, one of the first death penalty trials under Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason, who called it “the most twisted and depraved type of crime we prosecute.” Mason took office in 1999, “polishing the image of a straight-backed, stiffed-lipped lawman,” as described by the Cleveland Scene. Critics soon began accusing him of overreach — in his first year, indictments spiked, including in low-level drug crimes. But the Angela Garcia case was no petty prosecution. “A mother being accused of killing her child certainly was somewhat exceptional,” former Assistant County Prosecutor Robert Glickman recalls.
Glickman was the lead prosecutor at Garcia’s first two trials. Now in private practice, he speaks dispassionately about the case. Yet he was ruthless in his prosecution of Garcia, taking particular advantage of the trial judge, Bridget McCafferty, who was brand new to the bench at the time. Elected in 1999 despite virtually no trial experience, McCafferty soon became notorious for having her decisions overturned on appeal. In 2003, the Cleveland Scene asked attorneys to anonymously rate Cuyahoga County judges; McCafferty won in two categories: Most Political and — in a landslide — Least Intelligent. “She has no idea what she’s doing,” one lawyer said.
Indeed, transcripts from Garcia’s trials show McCafferty had almost no grasp of the rules of evidence, let alone the standards that should guide expert testimony on complex areas of forensics in a capital trial. Over the vociferous objections of the defense, Glickman and his co-counsels, Mary McGrath and Michael Sullivan, got away with introducing new evidence without warning. Defense attorney Tom Shaughnessy accused the state of misconduct, calling it “trial by ambush.”
Garcia’s first trial began in August 2000. In opening statements, the state cast 23-year-old Garcia as a promiscuous single mom — “each child had a different father” — who had fallen into financial straits and decided to kill her kids. “Prosecutors said she was a cold, greedy schemer who wanted to be rid of the children one way or another,” the Plain Dealer reported. The state relied heavily on circumstantial evidence: After trying unsuccessfully to hand off her daughters to Judy in the summer of 1999, Garcia purchased two insurance policies: a renter’s policy for $40,000, covering the contents of her home, and a life insurance policy for herself, along with $5,000 riders for her children. One day after her insurance kicked in, she burned down her house, murdering her daughters. She then tried to profit from their deaths, filing a fraudulent insurance claim. Garcia was so remorseless, neighbors saw her at a local bar weeks later, “joking, laughing, carrying on.”
There were holes in the state’s theory. For one, apart from trying to transfer custody to Judy, there was no evidence that Garcia did not want her children, let alone that she wished to kill them. There were no signs of neglect or abuse; the coroner found them “healthy and well nourished” and their pediatrician had last examined them the month before. On the day of the fire, Garcia had the called the doctor with concerns that Nijah, who had been born with breathing problems, was wheezing and having nose bleeds.
Nor, upon closer inspection, did Garcia’s purchase of life insurance in the weeks before the fire look quite as calculated as the state made it seem. The man who sold her the policy testified that Garcia had been reluctant to buy it. Judy had met him to purchase insurance for herself and convinced her sister she should be covered, too.
Finally, prosecutors never explained how, exactly, Garcia set the fire. State witnesses merely insisted that it could not have been caused by the candle in the dining room accidentally falling to the ground, as Lugo initially wrote in his report. The candle was “introduced to some available combustibles in the room at floor level,” Patton testified, offering no further specifics. Since all physical evidence was destroyed with the house, Patton relied on photographs of the scene, pointing out some telltale signs for the jury. Central among them was a heavy char on certain wooden surfaces, he explained, a phenomenon called “alligatoring.” This was evidence that a liquid accelerant had been used to set a fire, he said.
Patton was no longer in charge of the arson unit by the time he took the stand at Garcia’s trial. Whether by choice or not, he was back fighting fires on the city’s east side. His total tenure on the FIU was brief; Patton had joined in 1996 – 10 years after Lugo, his former subordinate. This made him inexperienced to lead the FIU. Yet, in a sense, the timing might have made him a better fire investigator. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Agency had released a landmark publication: NFPA 921: Guide for Fire & Explosion Investigations, the “single most important treatise ever published” in the field, according to renowned fire expert John Lentini. The guide revolutionized arson analysis, dictating that investigators could no longer rely on their training and experience to decide whether a fire was incendiary, but must instead use the scientific method: gathering all available data to form a hypothesis about the fire, and then rigorously testing that hypothesis.
Outrage and controversy followed the initial publication of NFPA 921. In his subsequent book, “Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation,” Lentini describes how the guide “aroused the ire” of veteran fire investigators who had spent their careers abiding by their own subjective analysis. DeHaan recalls how many investigators confronted with NFPA 921 said, “Ooh, that isn’t what I’ve applied in my past cases. I don’t want to apply this because that would mean that I’ve gotten some of these cases wrong.” Among the tools eliminated by the guide were go-to visual signs like the alligatoring Patton pointed out to Garcia’s jury. Today, alligatoring is a long-discarded myth; NFPA 921 warns sternly against using it as proof that an accelerant has been used to start a fire.
If Patton was not qualified to say the fire was arson, a second development, on the heels of NFPA 921, should have kept him off the stand. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major ruling about expert witnesses in cases like Garcia’s. The case, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, stated that such testimony had to be both scientifically valid and relevant to the matter at hand, with judges playing the role of gatekeeper for both tests. While many courts still struggle to apply the Daubert ruling, Judge McCafferty appeared to have no idea what it was.
The result was witness testimony that was both scientifically flawed and far out of bounds. State expert Ralph Dolence was particularly problematic. An independent fire investigator and master electrician who testified that he had investigated some “15,000 fires” — a dubiously high estimate — Dolence said Garcia could not have escaped through the second floor window, despite little basis for such speculation. He never went to the scene or saw any of the evidence before it was destroyed with the house. Yet he emphatically endorsed Patton’s findings, relying on photographs and a series of experiments conducted in his lab. Using exemplar candles and a modified stand that he deemed similar to the original (there was no way to know the actual dimensions), Dolence said he repeatedly knocked the candles over, letting them fall on combustible materials like carpet and wood. Each time they failed to ignite. Other accidental scenarios were summarily dismissed. “The cause of the fire was an intentionally lit fire by lighting some combustible material in that area on fire,” Dolence testified, adding, “There is no doubt in my mind.”
Garcia’s lawyers were capable in their cross-examination of state experts. They invoked the dictates of NFPA 921, asking why no evidence had been collected at the scene and why Pyra, the accelerant-sniffing dog, had failed to alert — a big red flag. Yet Garcia’s attorneys never called a fire expert of their own. In fact, for the first two trials, no one testified for the defense at all.
In contrast, Glickman introduced a parade of witnesses to testify against Garcia, many of whom described behavior that seemed inappropriate for a mother whose kids had died in a fire. Although early news reports — and several witnesses — said Garcia had been hysterical at the scene, prosecutors invited everyone they could to describe her apparent lack of emotion. An EMT said Garcia seemed “almost annoyed” after seeing her dead children at the hospital; an ADT employee testified that, over the phone 10 days later, Garcia “didn’t sound like she was in any type of distress.” And despite early reports showing that Shirley Brandon’s front door had been stained with soot and blood the night of the fire, witnesses repeatedly said they saw no physical signs that Garcia had experienced the fire conditions she described.
More damning were Garcia’s inconsistent accounts of her escape. One witness said she claimed to have run out the front door. Another read a nonsensical statement Garcia had given to an insurance investigator, in which she “kicked out the top right window in the bedroom with her foot, and then dove through the window, most likely not touching the roof at all on the way down.” But the most compelling evidence of Garcia’s dishonesty was contained in her insurance claims. A property specialist named Daniel Curtin was surprised when, two days after the fire, Garcia met with him equipped with her own set of inventory forms. It turned out that her stepfather’s company, Sabur Builders, specialized in rehabilitating structures damaged by fire — what some call a “fire chaser.” Through the family business, Garcia had learned how to detail fire losses — an unsettling coincidence.
Garcia returned the inventory forms unusually fast, Curtin testified, estimating losses worth $64,000. When he reviewed the list, Curtin noticed some “incredibly high” estimates. His suspicions were later confirmed by Detective Ralph Peachman, who visited local appliance and furniture stores in the run-up to the trial, finding significant discrepancies between their records and items Garcia claimed to have purchased and lost. A stove that partially survived the fire, for example, was supposedly purchased in 1998 at Best Buy — yet when Peachman showed employees a photo, they laughed. The stove was decades old, possibly from the 1960s. “She treated the fire that killed her two children like it was the lottery,” prosecutors said in closing statements.
The jury swiftly found Garcia guilty of insurance fraud. But murder was a different matter. Over five days of contentious deliberation, jurors became deadlocked, yelling at one another loudly enough to be heard outside their room. According to the Plain Dealer, the conflict arose after one black juror, a middle-aged resident of Cleveland’s east side, saw a photo of Nyeemah and Nijah and “immediately noted the dozens of red and blue beads carefully woven into the toddlers’ dark, curly hair.” The juror knew such a hairstyle took a lot of time and patience — to her, it was evidence that Garcia loved and cared for her kids.
The juror held firm, refusing to convict. Others eventually joined her. Black jurors later described to the Plain Dealer how differently they saw the case from their white peers. For example, Garcia’s attempt to give Judy custody of her daughters so she could join the Navy was viewed as admirable sacrifice — an investment in her family’s future — rather than a way to get rid of them. One woman said white jurors had not even heard of security doors, a fixture in low-income neighborhoods but foreign to the suburbs. “How do you explain your whole life to someone like that?” Finally, black jurors were more skeptical of government witnesses, including firefighters, who had “a reputation for racism.”
The trial ended in a hung jury. “It was almost like we were coming from different planets,” a white juror said. Prosecutors announced they would try Garcia again.
A steel plant in Lorain, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
There was truth to the notion that Cleveland’s black and white residents lived worlds apart. The city consistently ranks as one of the most segregated in the United States, with the black population still largely concentrated on the east side. Garcia’s house was in a poor neighborhood just 6 miles southeast of downtown, yet largely invisible to many white residents. Shuttered steel plants had given way to abandoned lots; one 2004 development report noted how “negative perceptions about the neighborhood tend to reinforce the physical barriers.”
Cleveland’s fire department itself was deeply divided by race. For decades, black firefighters alleged that racism barred them from advancing in the profession, which was dominated for generations by white Irish Catholics. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court case Firefighters v. City of Cleveland became a flashpoint for the fight over affirmative action; one retired battalion chief recalled the inane excuses for keeping black firefighters off the force, like the claim that “our nostrils were too wide and we would consume too much oxygen,” as he told the Washington Post. The problem may be less overt today, but prejudice persists. “You can’t be black on the fire department,” veteran Cleveland firefighter Anthony Luke told me bluntly in 2015. “We’re not part of that fraternity.”
The impact was not limited to the firehouse. A 2002 lawsuit brought by Luke and 34 other firefighters alleged that Cleveland’s black communities suffered from this legacy of racism. Black fire stations were the first to be defunded or closed – and when there were fires, black homes were more likely to be gutted. “We do more damage in black neighborhoods than we do in affluent white neighborhoods,” Luke told me. As with many police forces, white firefighters sometimes brought adversarial attitudes to the black neighborhoods where they worked. This was hardly unique to Cleveland. Racism has long been a problem within big city fire departments; among the adventure-laden firefighter memoirs published in decades past, the 1977 “Ghetto Fire Fighter” enters the minds of fictionalized New York firefighters navigating the “jungle” of East Harlem, where black and Puerto Rican residents see them as the “enemy.”
As a young, unwed mother of two, Garcia was easily reduced to a racial stereotype. Police incident reports from the fire labeled her black, “non-hispanic,” though she is Puerto Rican. Once Captain Patton deemed the fire arson, the case against Garcia proceeded largely on the basis of her fraudulent insurance claims, which made it easy to exploit racist assumptions. By the third trial, Rick Bell compared Garcia’s spending habits to a drug addiction — she “needed another score.”
Yet the truth was that Garcia had grown up comfortable, if not spoiled, with no criminal record. The family business afforded them designer clothes. Her stepfather, Ibrahim Ahmad — known by his nickname, Al — owned a Rolls Royce, his prized possession. Through his work rehabilitating old structures, Al had purchased the 100-year-old house on Harvard Avenue for cheap, first letting Judy live there, and then Garcia. In this sense, Garcia had little in common with many of her neighbors. Trial transcripts show that she herself had expressed disdain for the “crackheads” next door. At the second trial, prosecutors used the statement to show Garcia’s lack of gratitude toward the people who tried to help her the night of the fire.
I met Garcia’s family on a rainy afternoon in March 2015, in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford. Her older sisters — Judy Cotto-Nichols and Carin Mahoney-Ingram — were there, along with Garcia’s best friend, Chawntee Harris, the godmother to Garcia’s daughters. Mario Watkins was there too; he had married Garcia after her last trial, but the two are no longer together. Garcia’s mother, Lucy, served coffee and carrot cake. Al died in 2013. “My husband was destroyed by this,” Lucy said. “He got really sick.”
Angela Garcia with her two children, Nyeemah and Nijah. Photo: Lucy Ahmad
A pile of family photos sat on the coffee table: Angela as a child, beaming comically with a can of soda; Angela and Chawntee as teenagers, striking poses in ’90s outfits. In a photo taken closer to the time of the fire, Garcia wears a huge smile, kneeling between Nyeemah and Nijah. Both girls wear tiny gold hoop earrings that match the bigger ones worn by their mom. “The kids were spoiled,” Carin said bluntly. Judy laughed. “Spanish people — we got a tendency of buying kids jewelry when they’re babies,” she said, “So yeah, my sister, she made sure my kids had jewelry, her kids had jewelry.”
On the day of the fire, Lucy was in Florida, where she planned to spend Thanksgiving with her side of the family. “We were cooking these things called pasteles,” she said, when she got on the three-way call with Angela and Carin. Her daughters longed for her cooking, Lucy said. Garcia said she couldn’t travel since Nijah was sick; she had to administer treatment through a respiratory machine. Not long after Lucy hung up, Al called to say there was a fire on Harvard and he was going to check it out. “He calls me back and tells me, ‘It’s Angela’s house! It’s Angela’s house!’ I say, ‘How could it be?’”
Lucy became agitated describing the aftermath of the fire. She was deeply indignant that no relatives were allowed to testify on her daughter’s behalf. “Nobody, nobody was on the witness stand on behalf of Angela Garcia, to say something positive about her.” Worse, Judge McCafferty had Lucy banned from the courtroom because she could not contain her emotions. The rest of the family was told to stay out too, spending most of the time outside the courtroom. “It looked like Angela didn’t have a support system,” Carin said. In fact, the opposite was true. Judy often took care of Garcia’s daughters. Her sister had gotten the idea to join the Navy came from her stepbrothers, who enlisted to further their education, Judy said. She would have gladly taken the girls.
Lucy did everything she could to get the word out about her daughter. She spoke to community groups and went on Spanish-language radio stations. She even flew to Chicago, standing outside an event featuring Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton in case she could get their attention. She found an ally closer to home, Cleveland community activist Art McKoy, who helped organize protests on Garcia’s behalf. In a photo of one rally, participants hold signs reading, “Angela Garcia is INNOCENT.” McKoy recalled the protests, telling me he was particularly struck by the participation of members of the local Amish community, who worked with Al through Sabur Builders. “They loved him,” McKoy said.
Al tried desperately to help his stepdaughter before he died. He was certain one of the candles Garcia was burning in the living room had been defective, hunting down identical ones to show investigators. In one report from December 1999, Lugo described a phone call in which Al also tried to explain what might be fueling the rumors about Garcia. Al had married Lucy, Angela’s mother, after divorcing his first wife, and there were “some resentments and jealousies between the two families.” He offered to bring Garcia to the Justice Center to take a lie detector test. Garcia took two polygraph tests, passing them both.
But the lie detector results were not admissible in court, and Al’s efforts were soon recast in a sinister light. “We received an awful lot of information” suggesting his company was engaged in fraudulent practices, Glickman, the original prosecutor, recalled. The whole family was eyed with suspicion; Judy remembers one observer at the courthouse remarking upon Lucy’s mink coat, which enraged her mother. (“We work hard for that mink coat! We work hard for that Rolls Royce!”) The insinuation that Garcia’s family was complicit in the murder plot ran like an undercurrent through the trials. “Everything was twisted around,” Lucy said. In a particularly strange and lurid accusation, prosecutors even argued that Nyeemah had not gotten tangled in the window blinds on her own. Instead, they said, Garcia had used the blinds to tie up her daughter so she couldn’t escape.
Cuyahoga County Jail. Screenshot: Google Street View
Garcia was awaiting her second trial at the Cuyahoga County Jail in late 2000 when she was placed in protective custody. Someone had slipped her a piece of paper featuring the words “burn, baby burn,” which guards interpreted as a threat. In the “pod,” Garcia met a young white woman named Tonya, who had been arrested with her husband, Timothy Lanum. The two had recently been married after a three-day romance. Unbeknownst to Tonya, Lanum was a notorious jailhouse snitch, known downtown as “Timmy.” After embarking on a series of minor criminal misadventures, they both landed in jail for passing bad checks. True to his reputation, Lanum soon claimed to have secured a confession from a man facing murder charges. Tonya was placed in protective custody while her husband cooperated in the case.
In the pod, the two women chatted about their families. Tonya complained that she was having trouble calling home, and Garcia offered to help, arranging a three-way call through Lucy. In December, Tonya was released following a plea deal, later writing Garcia a warm letter, telling her to have “good positive thoughts.” But after Christmas, something changed. Tonya went to the downtown Justice Center to meet with Cleveland Police Detective Robert Matuszny, who was investigating Garcia’s case. According to Matuszny, Tonya said Garcia had confessed to her in jail.
Snitch testimony is pervasive across the country, despite being famously unreliable. In the Cameron Todd Willingham case, a jailhouse informant waited for years after Willingham’s execution to admit he lied on the stand. Informants have played key roles in other Cleveland arson cases as well. After Garcia’s conviction, prosecutors used a web of snitches to convict a man named Antun Lewis for setting one of the deadliest fires in the city’s history. A different man, unrelated to the case, later wrote to Lewis’s defense attorneys from prison, claiming one of the informants had admitted to concocting the story, and that Lewis had been framed. Lewis was recently denied a new trial.
However dubious Tonya Lanum’s story, Glickman put her on the stand at Garcia’s second trial. The defense effectively attacked her credibility. “Do you find it coincidental at all that the husband and wife team hits the jail and within about three weeks a male has confessed to the husband and a female has confessed to the wife?” Tom Shaughnessy asked. Tonya conceded that she had spoken to Matuszny on her husband’s advice but denied that she was lying. Prosecutors said no deals were made to elicit her testimony, but the Plain Dealer noted that she won a 60-day suspended sentence just days after she came forward to police.
Nevertheless, the state’s new witness failed to clinch a conviction. On February 2, 2001, Judge McCafferty declared a second mistrial.
Garcia never heard from Tonya Lanum again. But years later, in prison, she received a strange piece of mail, sent from a men’s penitentiary in Ohio. It was handwritten, on four pages of lined notebook paper, dated June 5, 2014. The author was Timothy Lanum.
“Hello, I don’t know how to begin this,” he wrote. “No need for introductions because you know exactly who I am.” Lanum cautioned Garcia not to “read too much” into the letter, while hinting that he might be able to help her. He didn’t know whether she was guilty or not, he wrote, but “I do have a feeling that you weren’t.” Lanum was scheduled for release soon, and he suggested he might be able to “elicit certain info” from his ex-wife about Garcia’s case, adding, “The whole thing with you has been bothering me for a long time.”
Garcia gave the letter to Joanna Sanchez, who immediately contacted Lanum. This offended him. In a letter to Sanchez on June 27, 2014, Lanum said he understood her client’s trepidation but was disappointed Garcia had not written back herself. “I am in a position where I can possibly help, not hurt, her cause,” he wrote. Having now lived in prison for years, he explained, “I cannot imagine sitting with a sentence like hers if I hadn’t done anything. That is the part of me that wants to help.” But he wanted to be sure he wasn’t helping a “child murderer.”
I reached Lanum in the fall of 2015, shortly after his release from prison. Over the phone, he reiterated what he wrote in the letters. He said his conscience had gotten to him. “I was like, damn, what if this girl is sitting there for something she didn’t do — and I had a role in that?” Lanum wanted assurances that Garcia was truly innocent, which I said I couldn’t offer. But then he talked anyway. As he told it, Matuszny had called him out of his cellblock late one night, around 11 p.m. “And he’s like, ‘Look, this is what we need you to do, this is what we need her to say.’” In exchange, he and Tonya would be shown leniency by the state. Lanum relayed the message to Tonya. “You know where she got her testimony from? From me, telling her on the phone, ‘This is exactly what you say.’ Whether or not Angela did it or not, it was a fucking travesty. Because it was all made-up bullshit that they wanted on the record.”
Lanum agreed to provide more details in person. But he abruptly canceled our appointment and later stopped communicating, saying he no longer wished to be involved. Over the phone, Matuszny said he had “no clue whatsoever” why Lanum was saying he fabricated testimony. “At no time did I ever tell him part of the investigation … I don’t know where that’s coming from.” Glickman was also adamant that Lanum was lying, adding that he personally had never met with a jailhouse snitch. “The police found out what they found out,” Glickman said. During his time in the prosecutor’s office, he added, Matuszny and his partner “were absolutely at times the best homicide investigators in our county. I absolutely don’t believe that.”
In response to multiple Facebook messages, Tonya Lanum declined to be interviewed. “Yeah im not interested in talking to you,” she wrote.
Family photos of Angela Garcia, her sister Judy Nichols, and Garcia’s daughters, Nyeemah and Nijah. Photo: Ross Mantle for The Intercept
The Ohio Reformatory for Women is located just outside the town of Marysville, a 2 1/2-hour drive south from Cleveland. Opened in 1916, the prison recently celebrated its 100th anniversary — a press release recalled its origin as a single stone building housing 30 women and focused on education. Today, a cluster of “cottages” has multiplied to accommodate a population of nearly 3,000 — including the one woman on Ohio’s death row. As we walked the grounds, the officer escorting me compared it to a college campus. Although there are some courses on offer, they are only available to women who are within five years of parole. When I visited Angela Garcia in March 2015, her parole date was 2049. “I watch PBS,” she told me. “That’s how I educate myself.”
I met Garcia in a small room between lunch and the 4 p.m. count. She was nervous but upbeat, curious about my digital recorder, which she thought would contain a mini-cassette tape. (“I’m stuck in the ’90s,” she said.) Garcia had heard I lived in New York and she shared a vivid childhood memory from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park: A bunch of kids were sliding down a large rock on cardboard slabs, but her older sister Judy wouldn’t let her join them. Later, a boy took a bad fall and bloodied his face — “and she was like, ‘See, I told you you didn’t want to do it.’” Judy still calls Angela “babygirl.” Angela calls Judy “my sister who’s my mother.” It made sense that Judy would have been the one to make Garcia buy insurance, or the one willing to take care of her kids so she could enlist in the Navy.
Garcia spent much of her childhood in New York, where her biological father lives. When she moved to Cleveland at 14, her classmates didn’t know what to make of her. She had a New York accent and a much darker complexion than the rest of her Puerto Rican family — Lucy called her and Judy her “salt and pepper shakers.” In New York, Garcia’s neighbors came from all kinds of backgrounds; Ohio felt sharply segregated by comparison. Even in prison, Garcia does not fit into anyone’s clear racial categories. “Here,” she said, “you’re either black, white, or Mexican. That’s it.”
Nyeemah’s father, Darrick Ceasor. Photo: Lucy Ahmad
Garcia’s mother converted to Islam after marrying Al. As Judy recalled, Garcia took to it, too, attending mosque regularly. That’s where she first met Nyeemah’s father, Darrick Ceasor. Garcia had suffered multiple miscarriages when she was younger; doctors said she would be unable to carry a baby to term without surgical intervention. But when she became pregnant with Nyeemah in 1995, she decided to go through with it. She was bed-ridden during both her pregnancies. When Nyeemah was born in July 1996, Ceasor had just been convicted of cocaine charges, which were later overturned. Although they broke up before he went to prison, Garcia regularly took their daughter to see him.
Ceasor remains on good terms with Garcia, who calls him by his nickname, College. On the night of the fire, he told me, he had called to discuss an upcoming visit but could not reach her. Then he saw a news report about a fire on the 9600 block of Harvard Avenue. He called her parents’ house, where her stepdad answered. “I could hear it in his voice,” Ceasor said. “He was crying. … I can remember him saying, ‘Your babies.’” With the family’s help, Ceasor got permission to go to the funeral home to say goodbye to his daughter. He stood in shackles after the other guests had left — “just me and a casket,” he said. Later, he watched coverage of Garcia’s trial in disbelief. “Every day there was a report about that case. Every day. They would emphasize that she escaped and the children didn’t. How could this mother leave?” Some of his own relatives expressed suspicion, he said. “I told them, in my mind, in my heart of hearts, I would never believe that she did anything to harm her children.”
Had the jury known what Garcia went through to have her daughters, or her efforts to foster Nyeemah’s relationship with her dad, they might have seen her in a different light. Instead, Garcia was judged almost entirely by her escape and how she acted afterward. People find it hard to accept when parents survive fires without their children, says Richard Roby, the fire scientist who testified at her last trial. “Everyone thinks they would run through the flames to get the kid,” he says. “Believe it or not, your muscles will seize up and stop you from doing that and your brain will make you get the hell out of there. But people don’t believe that. They all think, ‘If it was my kid, I would walk through concrete walls to save them.’” Suspicion is often compounded by the various ways people behave following a traumatizing ordeal. “I have seen it in a lot of my cases,” DeHaan says. The person “wasn’t acting like you’d expect a mother to act.”
Indeed, as investigators had been trained to do, Patton and Lugo had dwelled on Garcia’s demeanor after the fire, noting how at one point she even “laughed in response” to a question. Speaking to Garcia, it was not hard to imagine such an interaction. She is instinctively chatty, eager to answer questions, even difficult ones, all the while smiling through her nerves. When I first searched for her profile on the website of the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I was surprised to find her grinning in her booking photo. On closer inspection, it seemed clear she had been crying.
Garcia remembers the fire as a blur. She spent the next several days in bed, getting up when she was told someone needed to see her. She had never been arrested before — “My parents would have killed me!” — and for weeks she says she was unaware she was even a suspect. “I didn’t know what a grand jury was,” she says, recalling her indictment in February 2000. She did not yet have formal representation, only the advice of a civil attorney her parents knew. After getting summoned to court, she went downtown by herself and took the stand.
Glickman, the original prosecutor, remembers this as Garcia’s fatal mistake. “Frankly, when I sent her the subpoena to testify in front of the grand jury, I thought that her lawyer would decline,” he said. Garcia’s testimony “locked her story in,” he says, “which was wonderful for me but pretty stupid for her.” Strategically, he could now pursue all kinds of evidence that conflicted with her statements under oath. “In criminal law, if you can prove to a jury that a defendant lied, it puts them in a really difficult position. It doesn’t really matter what they lied about. But you can look at a jury and say, ‘You know everything else they’re saying isn’t true, because they lied about this.’”
It’s impossible to know what Glickman was referring to, since grand jury proceedings are secret. But he emphasized Garcia’s conflicting statements about escaping the house as the most compelling evidence against her — far more important than her lies about money. “Look, forget the insurance fraud,” Glickman said. “We used to joke around when I was a young prosecutor — the first thing that anybody does when their car is stolen is all of a sudden they have a new pair of golf clubs in the trunk.”
Yet by the third trial, the case against Garcia relied overwhelmingly on her financial motives. “I felt like I was on trial for something totally different,” Garcia says. The focus on arson for profit was so intense, there are points in the trial transcript where it is easy to forget that the state was accusing her of plotting to kill her daughters. As one state witness testified, “In an arson, the property is the victim.”
Angela Garcia’s stepfather, Ibrahim Ahmad, holds a photo of his granddaughters, Nyeemah and Nijah. Photo: Lonnie Timmons III/The Plain Dealer
The trial that finally sent Garcia to prison for life took place in May 2001. After two mistrials and 18 months of publicity, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason was not taking chances. To replace Glickman, who had left for private practice, Mason chose a man he trusted not only to win a conviction, but to be the public face of the prosecutor’s office: Assistant Prosecutor Richard “Rick” Bell, the head of the General Felony Unit. Bell embodied the same image Mason had promoted: clean-cut and upright. “I tell the assistants under my charge that their job is not to win,” Bell told the Cleveland Scene in 2002. “As prosecutors, unlike defense attorneys, your job is to seek justice; it’s not to win at all costs.”
Bell has twice been named Prosecutor of the Year for the State of Ohio, a recognition he lists on his official bio, which still boasts his prosecution of Garcia for aggravated murder as one of his major professional accomplishments. In recent years, he has won praise for working to address Cleveland’s backlog of untested rape kits. Bell joined the prosecutor’s office in 1990, spending his early career on child sex abuse cases. In his opening statement at Garcia’s trial, Bell cast the state as a defender of children: “We represent even the smallest and the littlest of our citizens that can’t speak for themselves.”
Bell was joined by a charismatic black prosecutor named Aaron Phillips, a part-time Baptist minister whose business card, according to Cleveland Magazine, read, “Sensitive to the needs of the downtrodden with the intelligence of the elite.” Art McKoy, the local activist who organized protests with Garcia’s family, recalls Phillips as a gifted litigator, someone who could make you believe you were guilty even if you had done nothing wrong. In an office filled mostly with white prosecutors, Phillips was strategically deployed. “If they wanted to convict a black person and everything else was failing, they called in Aaron Phillips,” McKoy said.
Phillips transformed the racial dynamics of Garcia’s case. While Bell stacked his witness list with welfare agents, bank employees, and anyone else who might cast Garcia’s poor finances in a criminal light, Phillips unleashed racially charged rhetoric that a white prosecutor could not. “He called me, like, a ‘predator,’” Garcia recalled.
But the most significant difference between the third trial and the previous two was the state’s theory of the crime. After long insisting that Garcia set the fire in the dining room, using the large candle to ignite some unknown combustible materials, Bell introduced a new scenario. The fire now had two points of origin: one in the dining room and one on the stairs leading up to the second floor. The evidence: a never before noticed “burn pattern” visible in a picture taken at the scene. This, prosecutors said, was proof that Garcia had poured a flammable liquid on the staircase, trapping her daughters upstairs before running out of the house.
The circumstances behind the state’s revelatory new evidence are murky. Glickman remembers the discovery occurring toward the end of Garcia’s second trial, too late to work it into the case. As he recalls, his co-council Michael Sullivan, who had once been a volunteer firefighter, “was going over the photographs for probably the several hundredth time and saw what none of us had noticed. There appeared to be a second burn pattern that showed use of an accelerant. We showed it to an expert, who confirmed it.” Fire investigator Ralph Peachman describes it somewhat differently. “It was a cumulative discovery from the arson unit, if memory serves me,” he said over the phone. “We went over things and over things and tried to be as thorough as we could be.”
But the case records reveal a more dubious source for the state’s new arson scenario. In a March 2001 report — a month and a half before the third trial — Patton described how he and Ralph Dolence had reassessed the fire scene photos “in light of the information provided by Tonya Lanum about the possibility of a second point of origin in this incident.” They discovered a photograph that “revealed unusual burn patterns” on the staircase of the house. One side of the carpet had been totally consumed, showing “heavy charring,” while the other side remained undamaged. There was a marked division between the two areas, Patton wrote — “a clear indication of an ignitable liquid pour pattern.”
These were textbook examples of unreliable arson indicators. With no laboratory testing to back up the images, Shaughnessy argued that the state’s conclusions were “the equivalent of walking into a drug case and having the officer looking at a picture of a white substance and saying, geez, that looks like crack cocaine, it must be.” But Judge McCafferty admitted the new evidence. The second point of origin became the linchpin in the third trial, proof that the fire was incendiary.
State witnesses adapted to the new theory, although it was not always easy. Testifying for the first time — and taking the place of his old boss, Patton — Lugo struggled to explain why he had initially concluded the fire was an accident, only now to call it arson. He had actually suspected at the time that the fire was incendiary, he claimed — “We knew there was some type of accelerant poured, but we did not get a sample to pinpoint.” But Lugo could not answer for why his original report made no mention of such suspicions or why he hadn’t collected any materials to confirm them. Instead, he pointed to pour patterns and other burn marks, including alligatoring on the wooden staircase in the photo newly presented by the state.
To bolster such weak testimony, Bell brought in reinforcements. A new expert insisted that he could tell through visual analysis alone that the fire had been caused by a liquid accelerant. “You are asking me if I can look at this pattern and say to myself that’s a liquid pour pattern,” he said on cross-examination. “Yes, I can say that. I don’t care what the NFPA says.” Other witnesses were brought in for their impressive credentials. An ATF agent named Lance Kimmel endorsed the significance of alligatoring while downplaying the authority of NFPA 921. To emphasize the role of arson for profit, Bell also called Gregg McCrary, a former FBI agent, as well as Ronald Saunders, a forensic auditor with the ATF. On direct appeal, the 8th District Court of Appeals would later rule that the testimony from Saunders and McCrary had been improperly admitted.
Perhaps most brazen among the state’s new witnesses was Frank Atkins, a rookie firefighter at the time of the fire, and one of the first to arrive on the scene. Atkins shared a rather stunning late-breaking revelation: On the night of the fire, Atkins testified, he had found a blue Bic lighter sitting on the staircase of the house. The lighter had somehow survived the conflagration. More confounding still, Atkins testified that he did not mention his discovery to fire investigators, instead leaving the lighter back where he found it. “I just felt it was insignificant, I suppose,” he said.
Through a union secretary, Atkins declined to be interviewed. Lugo, who has since retired, told me over the phone that he remained confident in the investigation, while conceding that such evidence as alligatoring (like “a lot of things that were taught at that time”) was not sufficient on its own to call a fire arson. In hindsight, he said, it would have been better had the house not been torn down so quickly. “We would have taken the whole place apart board by board,” he said. Still, he maintains the cumulative detective work made the case strong. “I believe right now that it was a rightful call.” In an email, Patton declined to speak. “The transcripts are clear,” he wrote.
A hole in the dining room floor at Angela Garcia’s house on 9618 Harvard Ave. Photo: Cleveland Fire Investigation Unit
SCIENCE VERSUS LAW
If anyone could have made the difference for Garcia at her third trial, it was Richard Roby, a chemical engineer and expert in combustion and fire behavior. After two mistrials in which Garcia’s attorneys had called no witnesses, Roby’s credentials were unmatched. Before arriving in Cleveland, he testified, he had been working on a peer review panel assembled by NASA to consider proposals for fire safety research at an international space station, “because fire burns much differently in the absence of gravity than it does here on earth.” In sharp contrast to the state’s witnesses, Roby was not only well-versed in NFPA 921, he was one of its contributing authors.
Roby laid out the deep flaws in the state’s case. There was the total lack of physical evidence collected at the fire scene and the fact that Pyra, the accelerant-sniffing dog, had not alerted. False negatives are far less common than false positives, he explained. “In fact, we made it a fundamental element of NFPA 921 that even if you have a dog hit, you cannot trust that dog hit, unless it’s confirmed by laboratory samples.” Similarly, because such visual evidence can be very misleading, he emphasized that burn patterns must be backed up by lab tests. As for alligatoring, Roby explained that there is no reliable correlation between such burns and the presence of an ignitable liquid.
Roby introduced a radically different theory about where the fire started. Despite the candle in the dining room and the large hole in the floor, he believed the point of origin was in the living room. The dining room “had the least amount of readily burnable furniture in the house,” he pointed out. But the living room was fully furnished, providing numerous fuel loads that would have helped spread the fire. Roby’s analysis was counterintuitive. At the time of Garcia’s trial, a hole in the floor where a fire had burned through was almost always assumed by investigators to be caused by some ignitable liquid, and a likely point of origin. But drawing such conclusions was “a very dangerous thing do,” Roby testified.
In hindsight, Roby’s own analysis was not perfect. In a testament to how much more scientists have learned since 2001, he wrongly surmised that the hole in the floor had likely been the result of a “liquid pool fire” created when radiant heat from the living room caused the candle in the dining room to melt. But as with so many previously debunked notions about fire, subsequent studies have shown that such phenomena are actually the result of ventilation effects following flashover — essentially the transition point at which a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.
Still, the central elements of Roby’s testimony hold up, as do a number of lab tests he showed the jury. In one video, he showed how a Bic lighter would melt, catch fire, and even explode when exposed to conditions like the ones in the house that night. Another video, produced by NFPA, showed how a fire can reach flashover in a matter of minutes. A third video was even more revelatory. It addressed a nagging mystery since the start of the case: the tamper alert received by ADT at 7:30 p.m. on the night of the fire. For months, prosecutors had presented this as proof Garcia had been downstairs, sabotaging the alarm system before running out the door. While an ADT witness had testified that a tamper alert could be caused by burning phone wires, there seemed to be no good way to explain why a phone call from the company at 7:33 had been followed by 12 seconds of silence, and why a second call produced a busy signal.
But Roby had brought a phone technician to his lab to set up an experiment. They wanted to see what happened when a call was placed to a phone whose wires were being exposed to fire. Old landlines like the ones at Garcia’s home were designed like an electrical circuit: When someone picked up the handset to answer the phone, the circuit was completed. Phone wires often short out during a fire, Roby explained. “If somebody is calling in while the wires are burning, guess what? The fire answers the phone.” His videotaped experiment also showed how, as with a phone left off the hook, if a person calls back, they get a busy signal, just as ADT did on the night of the fire.
The phone records helped establish the time frame for when the fire reached flashover, Roby said. Given the timing of the 911 call, the window was consistent with what Garcia described upon leaving the bathroom. “There is light smoke and all of a sudden it becomes very dark, think and heavy,” Roby said. “The lights go out. We would expect that.” It would take no time at all for her to become dizzy and disoriented.
Bell could not rebut the videos or the science behind Roby’s experiments. So instead, he attacked Roby’s credibility. He stressed how much money he had been paid by the defense, a common courtroom tactic. But Bell went further, claiming he had obtained phone records from Roby’s lab suggesting that no such experiment had been carried out. “He essentially accused me of fraud,” Roby recalled. Finally, Bell went after his resume. Roby served as a firefighter in Michigan and and a fire instructor in New York during the 1970s and ’80s, and had listed this experience on his CV. During cross-examination, Bell claimed he had been unable to verify these credentials. In a rather amazing display of courtroom theater, Bell brought two fire chiefs in uniform — one from Michigan and one from New York — who stood behind the prosecutor’s table to say they did not recognize Roby. This was on a Friday afternoon; over the weekend, a colleague of Roby’s traveled to Cleveland with the documentation that disproved Bell’s allegations. On Monday the colleague confirmed Roby’s experience on the stand. But the damage was done. “The jury had all weekend to stew on the ‘fact’ that I had lied about the phone, that I had lied about my credentials,” Roby said.
Unfortunately for Garcia, Roby’s testimony was further undermined by the only other witness for the defense: an insurance investigator who had previously testified for the state. He disagreed with the state’s new theory of the fire, but unlike Roby, maintained that the area of origin was the dining room. Bell seized upon the contradiction as further proof that Roby was not to be trusted.
Ironically, Roby was also undermined by his own honesty and expertise. Unlike science, which is a process of endless inquiry, law demands certainty and favors finality. Jurors, like lawyers and judges, are easily swayed by witnesses whose conclusions are asserted with total confidence, no matter how flawed. In contrast to state experts, Roby testified that he could not ultimately say how the fire began. “There was not sufficient investigation,” he said, “not sufficient evidence collection in the living room that allowed me afterwards to be able to go back and say here is what caused the fire.”
Bell heaped scorn on Roby in his closing statement, calling his testimony “pure fantasy” and accusing him of peddling junk science. Out of nowhere, he also accused Garcia’s stepfather, Al, of being in on the murder plot, pointing to the testimony of a very nervous insurance salesman who had arranged to sell Garcia her renter’s policy — calling him “a patsy.” But Bell’s co-counsel Aaron Phillips had the last word for the state, mercilessly condemning Garcia for killing her daughters. “She is a predator,” Philips cried. “She’s not a mother. She is not a human being. She is a predator.”
On May 24, 2001, the jury found Garcia guilty. At her sentencing, Judge McCafferty berated Garcia for treating her daughters “like coins in a slot machine.” Prosecutor Mason praised his own “unwavering commitment” to the case. “The suffering and death of these two children demanded justice,” he proclaimed.
Former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Bridget McCafferty walks out of the federal courthouse in Akron, Ohio, on March 25, 2011, after she was found guilty of 10 counts of lying to FBI agents. Photo: Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer
THE STATE’S CRIMES
The years have not been kind to those who helped send Garcia to prison. After 10 years developing a reputation for her sharp tongue and harsh sentences, in 2011 Judge McCafferty was convicted on 10 counts of lying to the FBI in a federal corruption probe. Running for re-election while under indictment, in 2010 she lost to Judge Michael Astrab — the man who would later preside over Garcia’s plea deal. McCafferty spent 14 months in prison. In the end, her crimes may have indirectly helped Garcia. Had McCafferty retained her seat on the bench, Garcia’s motion for an evidentiary hearing would have been for her to decide.
Less than two years after winning the case against Garcia, Aaron Phillips was arrested for taking bribes to throw out cases. He did a stint in prison; today he preaches at a small Baptist church on the city’s east side, while dabbling in racial justice activism. When I visited Cleveland, Phillips was scheduled to appear at a rally calling for justice for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot dead by Cleveland police in 2014. He didn’t show up.
Fire investigator Ralph Peachman, a staple witness for the prosecution from beginning to end, was later sued by two men wrongfully jailed for arson after a firecracker was thrown off a balcony at a Cleveland Indians game. Peachman was accused of keeping the men in custody for months in an attempt to coerce testimony against their friend, even though he knew they had nothing to do with the explosion, conduct the Ohio Supreme Court called “reprehensible.” Peachman eventually went to work in a different part of the state.
Even one of the firefighters whose conduct was heroic on the night of the fire — and who testified for the state — was later brought down by scandal, pleading guilty to participating in a payroll scam within the fire department.
If there was reason to worry Garcia’s conviction might have been compromised by ethical lapses, no one in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office seemed concerned. In 2010, the Plain Dealer ran a five-part exposé titled Presumed Guilty, showing how Mason’s office aggressively pursued hundreds of criminal cases despite weak evidence. Mason’s successor, Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, later had the chance to revisit Garcia’s case through a new Conviction Integrity Unit, a division charged with seeking out wrongful convictions. “We always want to have open ears on the subject of innocence,” he said upon launching the unit in 2014. Yet Garcia’s application was swiftly denied. The three-sentence rejection letter misspelled the word “conviction.”
Instead, Garcia’s case was quietly resolved through the plea deal in the spring of 2016. It was a painful compromise for Garcia and her family. After leaving the courtroom following Garcia’s guilty plea, I received an emotional phone call from her biological father in New York, who worried that spending more years in prison would be harmful to Garcia’s health. But as time passed, her family had no option but to accept the outcome and look to the future.
Joanna Sanchez, too, was moving on to other cases last fall when a collection of documents arrived at the Office of the Ohio Public Defender in Columbus. A colleague had filed an open records request related to a different arson case. To her colleague’s surprise, the contents contained materials that had serious implications for Angela Garcia. The attorney shared the documents with Sanchez. She was stunned at what she found.
The files were related to an arson seminar sponsored by the Ohio State Fire Marshal in the fall of 2015. The free one-day course was available to judges and prosecutors, who, in exchange, earned Continuing Legal Education credit — a professional obligation of lawyers across the country. (In Ohio, according to the state bar association, practicing attorneys must earn and report at least 24 CLE credits every two years; the seminar counted for six.) The brochure and coursework showed a heavy focus on the proper investigation of fires; a 56-slide PowerPoint presentation included the minimum qualifications for fire investigators, the significance of NFPA 921, the importance of following the scientific method, and, critically, instruction on how to properly determine origin and cause. One PowerPoint slide jokingly referred to the “good ole days” when fire investigators could simply insist, “It started there because I said it started there!!!!!!” Another slide listed some of the debunked arson indicators of decades past, among them, the “big shiny char” known as alligatoring.
But most importantly, the materials included a registration list. Among the names were Richard Bell, along with that of his co-counsel Mary McGrath, who had worked on Garcia’s case from the start. The fire marshal later sent me an attendance list for the seminar. Both Bell and McGrath had signed the sheet. Yet neither submitted for CLE credit.
The revelation dramatically recast Garcia’s plea deal. “Based on Bell’s participation in the seminar and what was taught at that seminar, it is clear that prosecutor’s office knew by the time of Angela’s hearing that the original investigation was seriously flawed,” Sanchez said.
Indeed, what happened after the seminar strongly suggests that Bell made a last-ditch attempt to save his case. The class was held on November 5, 2015, a month and a half before Garcia’s evidentiary hearing was originally supposed to take place. But on November 20, exactly 16 years since the fire, the state asked for a continuance. That same day, Bell hired an independent consultant named Joe Sesniak to write a report for the state. Sesniak, a former cop and veteran fire investigator who sits on the board of the International Association of Arson Investigators, submitted his findings in April 2016, one month before the rescheduled evidentiary hearing.
The report spoke volumes. It conceded that there were “significant deficiencies in the scene investigation by the Cleveland Fire Investigation Unit,” including the failure to collect and test any physical evidence. It acknowledged that such evidence would be inadmissible today. It even upheld Roby’s phone experiment, which Bell had suggested never took place. Yet Sesniak disputed that the defense motion for a new trial was based on new evidence, since NFPA 921 and other such resources were available long before the 2001 trial. Because the law required Garcia to present new evidence, it did not matter that the fire investigation was hopelessly inadequate. In other words, while the state’s fire theory might be utterly bankrupt, Garcia’s conviction should stand.
Roby described Sesniak’s report as an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. DeHaan said he tried to “split the baby.” Both pointed to recent studies on ventilation effects during post-flashover fires that absolutely qualified as new evidence in the case. And both said Sesniak’s report showed that the state’s own expert clearly saw the fire scenario as fatally flawed. Bell, too, must have certainly realized this. Yet rather than drop the arson charge, he offered Garcia a plea deal that kept the state’s discredited theory of the fire intact.
“Surely the prosecutor’s office knew that for Angela, who had been tried three times, already spent more than 15 years in prison, and was looking at a minimum of 27 more years before she could possibly be released, the deal was too good to pass up,” Sanchez said. “By offering the plea, they prevented it from becoming public that the Fire Investigation Unit had employed unscientific methodology in arson cases for years and that the prosecutor’s office had wrongfully convicted a woman of murdering her two children.”
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the plea deal or the arson seminar. Asked why the Conviction Integrity Unit had declined to take on Garcia’s case, a spokesperson for the office wrote that the committee “concluded that her claim of actual innocence was undermined by the many conflicting stories she had told over the years.”
“And don’t forget,” he added. “At the end of the process, for all the talk about new scientific evidence, she pled guilty to setting the fire that killed her children.”
The Cleveland skyline viewed from across the Cuyahoga River on April 7, 2016. Photo: William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images
“I THOUGHT I WAS A GOOD MOTHER”
Until the day she pleaded guilty to killing her kids, the last time Garcia had seen Cleveland up close was in 2013, after her stepfather, Al, died. As she rode through the city on the way to the funeral home, she was struck by how different it looked. The buses looked like accordions, and all the phone booths had disappeared. Like Nyeemah’s father when he stood before his daughter’s casket, Garcia was alone as she said goodbye to the man who had raised her as his own. For years, Al had blamed himself for the fire; he had planned to send an electrician to the house in the days before the fire because of some faulty wiring. In their last conversation, the night before he died, Al brought it up again out of the blue. Garcia told him to let it go. “I think he needed me to tell him it was OK,” she said.
Garcia never really had a chance to grieve for her daughters. These days, she said, she wonders what they would have been like now, as young women; whether they would like sports like she did. “I thought I was a good mother,” she said. She admits she was wrong to lie on her insurance forms. “If anything, judge me for that,” she said. But to those who put her in prison, she says she hopes they will admit their own mistakes. “I don’t want to lose nobody else in here,” Garcia said.
Before I left the prison, I asked Garcia what she would do if she were to win her freedom. She joked that she wanted to use a cellphone. But mostly, she said, she wants to take care of her family as they have taken care of her, especially her mother, who is getting older. She’d like to cook for her, make her breakfast in bed. “You know what I really want? I want to lay in bed with my mom and just snuggle with her,” Garcia said. “That’s all I want.”
Finally, she wants to meet the family of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man wrongly executed for killing his own daughters in a fire. “That’s one of the first things I want to do,” Garcia said. His death was a horrible tragedy, she said. But she was certain it had convinced many people to revisit other arson cases, to help people like her.
“I want to tell his mother: Your son didn’t die in vain.”