October 12, 2004
FATAL SUGAR NOTCH FIRE
Relatives: Police tricked boy, 7SUGAR NOTCH, PA - The grandmother and mother of a 7-year-old boy charged with setting a fatal fire say police used candy, pizza and trickery to elicit an untrue confession from the youth.
By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Linda Simpson, the child's 43-year-old grandmother from Mountain Top, said there is also evidence the fire could have been accidentally set by the victim, but police have refused to consider that information.
State police at Wyoming charged the boy on Sept. 23 with setting the June 12 fire that killed 76-year-old Benjamin Morris inside his home at 214 Freed St. A fire marshal determined the blaze was started on a back porch by an open flame.
The boy was scheduled to appear before county Judge Mark Ciavarella this morning for a hearing to determine a possible residential placement for him. Simpson said she was told the hearing has been continued, however.
She's hopeful the extra time will allow the child's attorney to investigate what she says are serious problems in the case.
First, Simpson questioned how her grandson could have set the fire, because the porch was 10 to 12 feet off the ground and had no steps. The boy lived in a home adjacent to Morris' property, separated by a wire fence.
"You tell me, how is a 7-year-old going to get past a barbed-wire fence and up on that porch? He would have killed himself," Simpson said.
Simpson said she's also troubled that police never questioned her daughter, the boy's mother, and a babysitter, who were watching the child the day of the fire.
In interviews Monday, the mother, who asked not to be identified to protect the child's identity, and the babysitter, Heather Carey, each said the child alerted them that grass in Morris' yard was on fire.
The women said they went to investigate and saw a man they thought was Morris burning something in a barrel in his back yard. They said they thought nothing of it because Morris frequently burned, despite a burning ban in the borough.
The women said they and the boy then went to a local Burger King. When they returned, firefighters were fighting the blaze, which had engulfed the home.
Trooper Thomas Kelly, spokesman for state police at Wyoming, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Monday afternoon.
Simpson said the charges were based solely on a confession the boy allegedly made to a Sugar Notch police officer and to two Luzerne County detectives. She believes the statements, if he made them, were coerced.
In the first instance, Simpson said, a Sugar Notch officer confronted her grandson as he watched crews clear away debris from the home about two weeks after the fire. The officer told the boy they had him on video setting the fire.
"He said 'You see that old school building up there? There is a video camera up in the window. I know you lit the fire. If you try to lie to me, I'll put you in juvy lock,' " Simpson said.
Simpson said the officer alleged the boy told him he started the fire with an orange lighter. Based on that, the boy was taken into custody by Luzerne County Children and Youth and placed in Kidspeace, a residential facility in Allentown.
Simpson said two detectives visited the boy at Kidspeace on Sept. 21. She was with the child at the time, but was not allowed to be present at the interview. She said she saw detectives bring him a candy bar and ordered him pizza.
"They ordered him pizza. He did not have pizza in four months. They get him behind closed doors, and guess what?" Simpson said.
Simpson said the boy suffers from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder but takes medication to control it. She described him as a "sweet, lovable boy" and said he got along well with Morris.
The case has created a legal quagmire for officials. The boy cannot be found delinquent - juvenile court's equivalent to guilty - because the state juvenile act does not apply to children under age 10.
The case instead is being handled as a dependency action, the same kind of action that occurs when a parent cannot adequately care for a child. That gives Ciavarella the authority to send the child to a treatment facility.
Simpson said she wants to take custody of the boy, but juvenile officials want to send him to a treatment facility in Pittsburgh. She said she's prepared to fight as long as she has to do prevent that from happening.
"If I thought he was guilty I'd want him punished to know right from wrong. I know in my heart he didn't do it," she said. "They're not taking my grandson away from me no matter what it takes."