Prosecutor: Greed Prompted Illinois Fire That Killed 7

March 10, 2010

The owner of a suburban Chicago apartment house had his maintenance man set fire to the building, killing seven people including a newborn, because he wanted to cash in on a $250,000 insurance policy, prosecutors said.

The landlord told police he wanted the house burned when the children living there were at school. Instead, authorities allege, the maintenance man started the fire on a Sunday morning when residents were sleeping inside.

“The sheer greed alone is difficult enough to understand, but the inhumanity of this crime is almost beyond comprehension,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

The landlord, Lawrence Myers, 60, and maintenance man Marion Comier, 47, pleaded not guilty in a Maywood courtroom to seven counts of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated arson. Judge James Zafiratos ordered them held without bond. Alvarez said her office would review the case before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

Alvarez said the charges were based on secret recordings, made over five days, that caught the two accused men discussing how Comier had set the fire at the Cicero house and arguing over how much he would be paid.

The recordings were made after three witnesses told police they had overheard Myers and Comier talking about setting the blaze, prosecutors said. Authorities then got a court order allowing the electronic listening device to be worn by an unidentified informant.

The fire gutted the two-story building, which had been converted into separate living units. Alvarez said residents in an attic apartment had no chance to escape.

“This fire was set at a particularly chilling time of the day, on a Sunday morning at about 6:30 when it would be pretty safe to assume that most residents in that building were there and were sleeping,” Alvarez said.

On the day of his arrest, Myers told a police detective he had wanted the house burned when the children were at school and the women were at work, according to prosecutors. He also told the detective he was having financial difficulties.

The recordings caught Myers saying his plan was to flee to West Virginia where he would live without a mailbox or phone, prosecutors said.

Public defenders assigned to the case asked the judge to set a reasonable bond based on Myers’ lack of criminal convictions and Comier’s clean record since a pair of drug convictions more than 10 years ago.

Comier “is as you can imagine feeling alone and rather distraught and very confused about this turn of events,” said Cook County Assistant Public Defender Parle Roe-Taylor, who represented Comier in court. “He expects it all to be made clear once the evidence is released.”

Fire officials have said as many as 40 people may have been in the house. Some who escaped awoke to the sound of screaming and banging coming from the attic.

The fire killed Byron Reed, 20; Sallie Gist, 19; their sons, 3-year-old Rayshawn Reed and 3-day-old Brian Reed; Sallie Gist’s 16-year-old brother and sister, twins Elijah and Elisha Gist; and 18-year-old family friend Tiera Davidson.

Three Cicero firefighters were injured fighting the blaze.

Elijah Grays, who lost three children and two grandchildren in the blaze, called the crime senseless. Grays said he’s struggling to forgive the accused.

“If I could talk to them, I would say why? Why would you do something like this to anybody?” Grays said, his eyes wet with tears. “I don’t know what’s going through their minds, but I know what’s going through my mind and my heart. I want to say it would be hatred, but I can’t. I can’t hate nobody, you know?”

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