Smoke and tragedy

By Neal McNamara

Police see no connection yet between two separate possibly fire related incidents that caused the death of five Lansing residents

The siding on the home on Barnes Avenue where William Beckett and Monica Moreno lived is slightly melted, and on a recent day, clothes were piled up near the front stoop. It was at this house Aug. 8 that the couple was killed. The home is a jarring sight in this neighborhood, just across the street from the expanse of Quentin Park and just one block east of the Lansing Country Club.

Lansing Police have ruled the deaths homicide but will not release any other information surrounding the case, including the cause of death and whether the couple was killed as the result of a fire.

Some neighbors have said that they saw someone throw an object into the home before the fire. However, neighbors now do not want to talk about the incident. One said that local residents would remain “tight lipped” about the incident until more information is released by police.

Three miles south of Beckett and Moreno’s former home, on Everettdale Avenue, is the scene of another tragedy where Nadia Torres and two of her young children were killed. The medical examiner has ruled their cause of death as smoke inhalation.

Here too neighbors have reported some type of fire-related incident. Dennis Jones, who lives across the street from Torres’ home, reported seeing the front windows of the home shatter and remembers the interior curtains blowing out and up over the home’s roof.

Jones wondered aloud whether the incidents at homes might have been connected. But Lansing Police said they have not yet found a connection and don’t think they will.

The investigations “could take different direction, and sometimes they do come together,” Lansing Police Lt. Noel Garcia said. “But at this time it doesn’t appear that they are related.”

Garcia said that the South Precinct and the Lansing Fire Department are investigating both incidents, and any connection would probably be known right away. He also said that police had not yet confirmed whether an object was thrown into the Barnes Avenue home prior to Moreno and Beckett’s deaths.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, which investigates incidents of arson and explosives, has gotten involved. Senior Special Agent Don Dawkins said that his agency is assisting Lansing Police in both investigations. Dawkins did not know of any new developments in either case.

Lansing Fire Marshal Phil Sabon said that neither case is being called arson — a charge that can only be made if the county prosecutor rules it as such. Until then, the Fire Department investigates the incidents as “intentionally set” fires.

Sabon reported that so far in 2009, there have been 21 cases the Fire Department is investigating as “intentionally set.” Sabon qualified that, however, by saying that some fires investigated as intentional could also be accidental — like someone trying to burn brush and losing control of the fire.

In 2008, there were 52 intentionally set fires and in 2007 there were 40. Of those fires, in 2009 seven took place in residences, in 2008 19 and in 2007 12. Sabon did not know how many of these fires that took place in a residences, if any, were ruled arson.

Deaths as a result of fire, Sabon said, were up to five so far this year, while there were none last year and three in 2007.

Sabon would not say whether any of the five deaths so far this year included Torres and her two children or Moreno and Beckett. However, he did say that the five deaths so far this year include some people killed in other fires.

Sabon had no insight regarding the amount of intentionally set fires that have occurred so far this year. He said that the Fire Department is most likely on pace to come close to the amount of intentionally set fires from last year.

At least one fire in the city has been declared arson. A home at 1520 Vermont Ave., owned by Melinda and Leonirdes Ruiz, caught fire twice in one week in May — the first fire was ruled accidental, but the second has been ruled arson and is being investigated.

One neighbor, Del Hall, reported seeing an explosion before the second fire, which has left the house charred and uninhabitable, and said that he smelled gasoline. The Ingham County prosecutor’s offce does not yet have a file on the Ruiz incident, which Sabon said could be attributed to the case not being fully prepared.

As with the fire at the Ruiz home, the Torres family reported several incidents leading up to the last deadly fire, including an incident in which their car was set on fire. Jones, too, remembers that scene, reporting that he saw the tires on the Ruiz’ car explode.

Dawkins, when asked what the motives behind arson or bombings usually are, said sometimes they are motivated by money or drugs, other times it’s a domestic dispute or an act of revenge.

Lansing Police Det. Jorge Gomez, who tracks gangs in Lansing, says that he has not seen any sects of national-level gangs — a definition given to street gangs by the FBI of a certain size membership — pop up in the area. Further, he has not seen a rise in the activity of hate groups in the city. He could only remember two incidents involving epithets or racist logos being scrawled in the area.

According to court records, Moreno was involved in an incident in 2005 where she was convicted of uttering and publishing — or forgery — in Gratiot County. On two separate occasions, Moreno had forged a check from a Corrine Komperda, a relative. Moreno was given probation for two years for the crime. Komperda could not be reached for comment.

Garcia would not comment on that event, but said that investigators are looking at every angle related to the case. Moreno’s parents, who live in Charlotte, declined an interview request regarding their daughter.

“We’re conducting an exhaustive investigation,” Garcia said.