The investigation leads to her, but she knows it's a mistake
|By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
In its Oct. 21, 1996, edition, The News Reporter in Whiteville quoted Tabor City authorities as saying the house fire that killed a 17-month-old boy was an accident. Privately, authorities believed the fire was set, the child murdered and the suspect obvious.
Terri Hinson lost track of day and night. She smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, cried, talked to the stream of relatives and friends who came by her mother's house. She told them about the old house and how the roof leaked and the lights flickered. She said her fiance, Rodney Strickland, had spoken to the landlords about those problems, and nothing happened. That house wasn't safe, she said, and now my Josh is dead. Somebody is going to pay for this.
On the morning of the fire, Matt White, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation and a former Raleigh police officer, was working an arson-murder elsewhere in Columbus County when he got a call to go to 101 Wall St. in Tabor City.
| The fire was out by 5 a.m.,
but it was getting close to noon when White arrived at the house. White
parked his government sedan in front and saw that the only thing guarding
the house was yellow crime-scene tape. He hollered at the locals for not
posting an officer at the scene. Then he got a search warrant and called
the Charlotte office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for
White and a BATF agent went though the house and quickly focused on the closet in the dead boy's bedroom.
The closet was put in long after the house was built in 1935; the double doors and the front wall were half-inch plywood, while the back wall and ceiling were one-inch tongue-and-groove made of pine.
Staff Photo By Robert WillettOn a holiday from school, Brittany, who recovered from lung damage after the fire, prepares to eat lunch with her grandmother Bernice. A judge gave Bernice custody of Brittany after Terri was arrested.
/ SBI investigative report: "An incendiary fire, intentionally started
by person or persons unknown" (10/24/1996)
• NEMAX investigative report: "This fire is being classified as a human hands fire" (11/13/1996)
• ARAI investigative report: "No possible sources of ignition found with the structure's electrical system or the closet" (1/8/1997)
The fire had burned a hole in the closet ceiling. Through that hole, the agents looked up into the attic and saw a tangle of old, cloth-wrapped wires.
The closet shelf, about a foot down from the ceiling, was more badly burned on the underside than the upper side. The right closet door suffered heavier damage than the left. On the floor lay burned clothes and linens, and on the wall above the pile, the fire had left behind a V.
| To White, a state-certified fire investigator,
that V was the giveaway. Fire burns up and out, and White knew from his
years of training with fire experts at the SBI and other agencies that
a V-shaped pattern was created by the hottest point of the fire, its origin.
White theorized that the fire began under the closet shelf. After eating
the hole in the closet ceiling, the fire burned in the attic. The fire
then burst into the bedroom.
The BATF agent concurred.
White interviewed the neighbors, the firefighters, the rescue workers and the cops who responded to the fire. Some said they thought Terri didn't seem panicky or upset during the chaos. The firefighters said they went to Josh's funeral, and Terri didn't even thank them for coming.
White talked with one of the landlords, Mike Jones, president of the Jones five-and-dime store chain in the Carolinas. Jones owned 101 Wall St. with Tabor City lawyer O. Richard Wright, a former member of the General Assembly. Jones told White and a USF& G investigator that the tenants never complained about the house.
The day before Josh's funeral, White asked Terri to come to the house to talk. They sat in the government sedan, and for nearly two hours, Terri told him about her life, her children, the fire.
She said she also remembered something strange from that night: She had not turned off the portable heaters before she fell asleep on the couch. But when she moved the downstairs heater away from the door to get out of the house, it was stone cold.
White took it all down and thanked Terri. She went home.
That night, a visitor at her mother's house flipped on the television in the living room. The local news came on with the day's top story: The Tabor City police chief announced that the Oct. 20 fire at 101 Wall St. was under investigation as a possible a rson and murder.
Terri stared at the TV.
It had to be a mistake, she said.
But it was not a mistake.
Two days later, White and the BATF agent signed a report calling the fire "incendiary." Other reports echoed their conclusions.
USF&G's investigator said the fire was caused by "human hands." The insurer also called in a private engineer from Accident Reconstruction Associates of Raleigh. He visited the house and couldn't figure out what started the fire, but he ruled out the old , cloth-wrapped wires in the attic.
After interviewing Terri, White got a court order to look at files that the Department of Social Services kept on the adoptions of her three older children. The DSS then took an interest in the one child Terri had left.
Brittany, 4, made a miraculous recovery from the smoke damage to her lungs. Terri was delayed in getting to the Charleston, S.C., burn center because she was burying Josh, so she sent her older sister Linda Smith to stay with Brittany. Even though Linda explained the situation, the nurses kept asking why the little girl's mother wasn't at her bedside.
Terri didn't go to Charleston until Friday, five days after the fire. Linda had said nothing to Brittany about Josh, so Terri took her daughter in her arms and told her that Josh was with Jesus and the angels. Terri rocked Brittany for a long time.
Brittany was well enough to be released the next Monday. When Terri, her mother, Bernice, and Rodney arrived at the burn center to take Brittany home, they found two DSS workers waiting for them. They had crossed the state line with a court order to take Brittany out of Terri's custody.
The reason: Terri had endangered Brittany by abandoning her in a burning house.
Terri told the DSS workers that she had tried to save Brittany, but the fire chased her downstairs, then the police forced her to leave. There was nothing she could have done.
Bernice pleaded with the DSS workers. Rodney raged at them. The doctors described the psychological damage Brittany could suffer.
The DSS workers said they were only carrying out the court order.
With the DSS workers present, Terri sat on Brittany's hospital bed and said: We'll be coming for you. It won't be long. We'll bring you home soon. Brittany sobbed as Terri packed her toys and books and got her dressed.
Then the DSS workers told Terri, Bernice and Rodney to leave the hospital grounds.
Terri managed to get around a hallway corner before she broke down.
What was going on? Sure, any criminal justice student knows parents sometimes kill their children -- only two years had passed since Susan Smith drowned her sons in a lake in Union, S.C.
But not me, Terri said. I didn't kill Josh.
At a hearing in early November, a judge put Brittany into Bernice's custody temporarily. Terri had to move out of Bernice's house, where she had lived since the fire. But Terri took hope in the judge's warning to the DSS that without more substantial pro of of neglect or abuse, the judge would return Brittany to Terri. Another hearing was set for Nov. 21.
White, meanwhile, was finishing his investigation. He just needed to interview one more person.
On Nov. 19, White parked in Bernice's driveway and asked Bernice for permission to speak with Brittany.
White sat down to talk with Brittany, who was playing in the yard, but she kept her distance. He stretched out his hand and opened it.
A cigarette lighter.
Brittany backed away from White. He approached and offered it again. She backed away again.
Let me try, Bernice said, and she took the lighter from White.
Brittany, what does Meemaw have in her hand?
Can you make a fire with it?
No, it will burn me. I don't want to touch it.
White collected his lighter and left.
The next day was Nov. 20, one month since the fire. Terri and her sister Linda took Brittany to Fayetteville for a doctor's appointment. When they came over the hill near Bernice's house, they saw the government sedan in the driveway.
When Terri got out, she said hello to White.
"I have a warrant for your arrest," White said. The charges were first-degree murder and first-degree arson. The penalty for conviction was life imprisonment or death.
As White read Terri her rights, she leaned against Linda's car. For an instant, she thought it was a joke.
But when White told Terri that he would give her a few minutes alone with her little girl before they had to leave, she became frightened.
But she also figured that when everyone could see that arresting her was a mistake, she'd be released in no time. Maybe even before supper.
Terri sat on Bernice's front porch and told her daughter that she had to go with that man right now, but she'd be home soon.
White put Terri in the back seat of the government sedan and drove to the Columbus County sheriff's department in Whiteville to book her. Wearing the inmate's orange jumpsuit, Terri walked into a cell with six other women and heard the lock engage.
The next day, a judge gave custody of Brittany to Bernice.