It was approximately 4 a.m. when authorities were alerted that a house at 1711 W. Olive in Springfield, Missouri was in flames on Monday, March 15, 2010.
In the home at the time of the fire were Violet Watson, her three children Alexis, Devin, and Kelsey Watson, her father Terrie Watson, and her fiancé David Williams.
David Williams told authorities that Violet, Terrie and he were on the first floor of the home, and the three children were on the second floor. Williams told police he had been woken up by Terrie Watson alerting him to the fire. According to the statement, he got Violet out of the house and went back in to help Terrie. He left the house a second time, and then went back in again to try to get to the children, but again he had to leave the house due to the heat from the fire and the tremendous smoke associated with it drove him out of the burning house for air.
When firefighters arrived on the scene of the burning house, and discovered that there were people still in the home; the firefighters used thermal imaging equipment, which an anonymous citizen donated to the department, to locate the three kids and their grandfather on the second floor of the house that the family had just moved into a few weeks ago.
Once the children and grandfather were rescued from the house they were immediately rushed to St. John’s Hospital Burn Unit. Unfortunately Alexis M. Watson, age 7, and Devin L. Watson, age 4, died that Monday morning at St. John’s Hospital. Kelsey Watson, age 5, died Monday evening from injuries sustained in the blaze. Terry Watson Sr., remains in a burn unit there in critical condition.
Alexis Watson Age 7
Devin Watson Age 4
Kelsey Watson Age 5
Springfield Police Lt. David Millsap said firefighters found something suspicious while rescuing the victims at about 4:30 a.m. Monday morning. The firefighters “observed suspicious burn patterns which led them to believe the fire was intentionally set through the use of an accelerant and not accidental.”
Police Lt. David Millsap stated that a search warrant was to be served to collect suspicious evidence from inside and outside the home Monday afternoon and an accelerant dog would be brought in to assist investigators. On Tuesday, investigators with the ATF joined the investigation at the request of the Springfield PD. That agency has the resources available to help investigators reconstruct the blaze.
Nose to the floor, Ashes, the accelerant dog, worked his way through the charred house at 1711 W. Olive, sniffing for the subtle, faint hint of an arsonist’s handiwork. Ashes alerted Fire Marshal Chris Thompson to three different locations; the porch, the entryway and living room where there was a presence of accelerants. The dog later indicated accelerant on the right leg of the pants Williams said he was wearing while attempting to rescue the family. A gas can with liquid still inside was also found near the east wall of the home.
According to authorities the black Labrador retriever named Ashes found what he was looking for; traces of a liquid accelerant in the home and on the pants of David A. Williams.
Greg Carrell, assistant state fire marshal in Jefferson City, stated that trained dogs like Ashes have extremely sensitive noses, “many thousand times better” at detecting scents than humans and even some scent-detection machines.
Dogs have about 220 million scent-detecting cells in their olfactory system, compared with about 5 million in humans.
Although the dog found traces of accelerant in the house and on the arson suspect’s clothing, Carrell said dogs like Ashes can’t distinguish between different kinds of flammable material.
“They are trained to detect flammable petroleum-based liquids, or the presence of it even after it has been burned,” Carrell said. “They’re also trained for scent discrimination, so they aren’t confused by the smell of burned carpet or plastics.”
Brian Peterman, president of the Canine Accelerant Detection Association in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said that “trained dogs are another tool in the toolbox that investigators can use to determine the cause of a fire. The dogs locate where an arsonist may have poured or splashed accelerants.”
Investigators would then take samples from those locations and send them to a crime lab for detailed analysis. Crime Lab officials declined to talk about evidence they were processing. However, its likely samples from the West Olive house and from Williams’ pants leg were sent to the Springfield Crime Lab for analysis to see if the accelerants were the same. It’s the crime lab’s job to determine what kind of accelerant was used.
Carrell, the assistant state fire marshal, said “I have used accelerant detection dogs in the past. I have used a dog to find accelerant on a suspect’s clothing, on shoes, on their hands,” However, he declined to talk specifically about the Springfield case.
Although other breeds can be used, Carrell stated that Labradors have proved to be ideal accelerant detection dogs. “Labradors have a great temperament, which is helpful at a fire scene where there are lots of people, fire hoses and noise around,” Carrell said.
Springfield Police detectives Todd King and Kevin Shipley went to St. John’s hospital to interview the family after the fire. While interviewing them the detectives were looking for indicators such as the smell of smoke, singed clothing or hair and soot. According to their statement it was at this time David Williams stated to the police that he had been crawling on his hands and knees in the burning home while attempting to save the children.
“Detectives King and Shipley did not observe any evidence on Williams’ person to indicate he had been exposed to fire, extreme heat or smoke, and there was a lack of evidence that David Williams had even been in the house while it was burning” according to their report.
Springfield Fire Marshall William Spence reports, “That based upon his training and experience Mr. Williams should have soot upon his clothing and person if he had made these entries into the house that he described.”
David Williams Age 26
On Wednesday March 15, 2010, David Williams was charged with setting the fire that killed the three children of his future wife. He is charged with a Class A Felony of First-Degree Arson with cause of injury or death. A Class A felony carries the same punishment that a murder charge would which is 10 to 30 years in prison, or a life sentence, with a mandatory 85 percent of the time served before parole could be granted. David Williams is being held on $250,000 bond, and his next hearing in the first-degree arson case will be at 10 a.m. May 5, 2010.
The documents charging Williams describe burns marks that indicate an accelerant was poured throughout the front of the home, starting at the bedroom door, moving through the living room and ending on the front porch.
The probable cause statement refers to the preliminary autopsy of the three children by the Greene County Medical Examiner, but no autopsy records have been released. A final autopsy will be completed by the Boone/Callaway County Medical Examiner. The statement stated the children died as a result of the fire.
Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore
Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore pointed out that showing intent would be necessary for a murder charge “There is insufficient evidence at this time to show that anyone intended to kill anyone as a result of this fire. Prosecutors will have to prove that David Williams intentionally set the fire that recklessly endangered the inhabitants of the house.” Moore stated.
He added that investigators are still looking for a possible motive.
Attorney Andy Hosmer
On Friday morning March 19, 2010 with his attorney Andy Hosmer, David Williams pleaded not guilty to the charges, and then he asked Judge Mark Powell to either lower his $250,000.00 bond, or let him out of lockup just long enough to attend the funerals of his fiancés children.
Judge Mark Powell
After much deliberation Judge Mark Powell granted the motion filed by attorney Andy Hosmer that would allow Williams to temporarily leave the Greene County Jail on Sunday to attend a private service for the children, but only if Greene County deputies had the manpower to transport him.
However, part of the condition of David Williams release from jail is that he has no physical contact with anyone and that he be immediately returned to the county jail following the one hour furlough, and that his bond will remain in place.
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott
On Friday March 19, 2010 Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott issued the following statement:
“The Greene County Sheriff’s Office will not have adequate staffing on Sunday, March 21st, to facilitate the transport of inmate David Williams to a private funeral service. Associate Circuit Judge Mark Powell ruled Williams could attend the private service if the Sheriff’s Office had enough staff to transport Williams to and from the service while not allowing contact with anyone other than law enforcement. There will be no further comments regarding this by the Sheriff’s Office.”
“We’re exploring every option available to us, but again, we’re disappointed,” Andy Hosmer stated. “What is really important to understand is that as he sits in the Greene County Jail, he is presumed innocent.”
Andy Hosmer said he’s working on finding a way to get Williams one last goodbye to the kids he treated like his own.
The children’s mother, Violet Watson, stated in a raw interview that she does not believe that the man she loves had any involvement in the fire that claimed her children’s lives. She states Williams was the best father they ever knew.
Public funeral services for the Watson children are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at Klinger-Cope funeral home in Springfield.