The Beacon Journal
Akron, Ohio
Prosecution expert rejects short as cause

No longer charged in son's death in fire, they show no bitterness, talk of having more children. But investigators still allege arson

Fri, Feb. 08, 2002

By Phil Trexler
Beacon Journal staff writer

Karen and Paul Stanley

They talked about a renewed faith in the justice system that until Monday sought to execute them for the death of their only child.

Yesterday, Paul and Karen Stanley also talked about starting over, renewing their wedding vows and creating a family.

If there was bitterness over what this Norton couple went through for the past year -- jail, murder accusations, a possible death sentence -- they didn't show it. The couple held a news conference yesterday in their lawyers' offices in downtown Akron after being deluged with media requests for interviews.

In a way, Paul and Karen Stanley said, they find comfort in the public's belief that they didn't set their South Hametown Road home on fire and kill their 13-month-old son, Bo Michael.

Miles away, though, government investigators are stewing, almost seething in their belief that Paul and Karen Stanley are getting away with murder.

The State Fire Marshal's Office stands firm in its investigation and refuses to alter its findings that the fire was intentionally set.

Fire marshal's investigators still believe turpentine was used to ignite the fire.

Their investigators feel cheated by Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, who dropped charges of aggravated murder and arson against the Stanleys on Monday.

In fact, on the day the charges were dismissed, fire marshal's investigators filed a subpoena asking for the defense experts' reports in an effort to conduct their own evaluation of the evidence.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Mary F. Spicer denied the motion the next day, but that hasn't stopped the fire marshal's office from exploring its options.

``It's an arson fire, oh yes, absolutely,'' said fire marshal's spokesman Bill Teets. ``Nothing the prosecutor cited in dismissing the case leads us to change our position in the investigation.''

Ralph Dolence, an experienced fire investigator and electrical expert hired by the prosecutors, was equally incensed by Walsh's decision.

He said prosecutors didn't understand the technical aspects of the investigation and were fooled by defense experts who contended the fire was caused accidentally by an electrical short.

Dolence, who said he has handled 16,000 fire investigations in the past 21 years, insists the Stanley fire was not electrical.

``A jury should have made the decision. This is about justice for a little kid. He deserved his day in court,'' Dolence said. ``If a jury rules it's not arson, then they exonerate the people.''

Further, Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler refused yesterday to release Bo Michael's autopsy records, saying his death remains a homicide under investigation until prosecutors tell the office otherwise.

Arrogance alleged

James Burdon and William Whitaker, the Stanleys' lawyers, said the state investigators are wrong about the fire's cause and are too arrogant to admit their mistakes.

They say the fire marshal's office ignored basic textbook warnings that certain types of wood naturally create turpentine, the chemical that arson investigators believe was used to start the fire.

``They're wrong. They were wrong from the start, and they're wrong today, and they should really start looking at the quality of their work,'' Whitaker said.

Of the Stanleys, he said: ``There's no question a jury would find them innocent; there's absolutely no evidence to support arson of any kind in this case.''

After having the case dismissed, Walsh refused to call the Stanleys innocent. She would say only that the cause of the fire is ``probably electrical'' and that a respected medical expert said the findings of Bo Michael's autopsy are not consistent with an intentionally set fire.

The prosecutor added that the case and investigation are closed.

A nightmare ends

To Paul and Karen Stanley, the decision awoke them from their nightmare.

``It was a living nightmare, that's what it's been,'' Karen Stanley said. ``It's just something you think you'll wake up from and go back to another day.''

Paul and Karen Stanley dated for 12 years before marrying in October 1998, when they decided to start a family. They said Bo Michael was conceived about the time of their wedding.

``We didn't know. It just happened. We got married, went on our honeymoon, a couple of months later we found out she was pregnant,'' Paul Stanley said. ``We were so excited, it was awesome.''

Bo Michael was an easygoing child, who went camping, played in the Ohio River, and traveled to Texas.

The night of the fire, Paul was asleep in bed and Karen was asleep on the living room couch. Paul said he was awakened by a crackling noise from the baby monitor.

Their son's death was nothing but a tragedy.

Pain compounded

They also said the suspicions that arose almost immediately from investigators only compounded their pain.

Paul Stanley said he realized he was a suspect after talking to investigators a day after his son's funeral.

``You can't describe it,'' he said. ``We figured it was a mistake, they're going to figure it out. But they never did.''

Five months passed before they were indicted, in February 2001. Their bond initially was set at $1 million, and they were jailed to await trial.

They said that while in the Summit County Jail in separate wings for 78 days, they mailed letters to each other and stole glances at each other from windows near their cells.

Eventually freed on reduced bond, the Stanleys continued to work: Paul, 31, as a landscaper, and Karen, 34, as a secretary.

Friends and family members and strangers donated to their defense fund. Some refinanced their homes; others sold properties to raise the money.

They hired Burdon and Whitaker, two of the area's top and costliest defense lawyers. They retained experts to disprove the allegations of the government's investigators. The family estimates they spent $200,000 preparing for the trial.

It was one day shy of a year after the indictment when prosecutors had the charges dismissed on the eve of the trial.

The Stanleys said they now can begin to grieve. They now can visit their son's grave without fear of being watched.

And for now, the couple will continue to live with family members, hoping to forget the past year and create new memories.

``Hopefully, more children,'' Karen Stanley said.

``What do you mean, `hopefully,' '' her husband added.

``Well, OK, definitely more children -- soon,'' she 

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