Over? – County won’t release fire investigation

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt June 3, 2014
An Avondale Estates home was completely destroyed during an April 12 fire. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

An Avondale Estates home was completely destroyed during an April 12 fire. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

DeKalb County has declined to release the file pertaining to its investigation of an April 12 fire in Avondale Estates because it says the case is still open.

That contradicts an earlier announcement by DeKalb Fire spokesman Capt. Eric Jackson. On May 28 he said the case is closed and the cause of the fire was “undetermined.”  After the county declined to release the file, Jackson said there are “a couple of more pieces of paperwork” before the case can be officially closed.

“The reason why you can’t get all of it, is because it technically isn’t closed like that,” Jackson said. He said there is no new information about the case that will change the investigator’s conclusions. He said the cause of the fire will remain undetermined, unless new information comes to light.

The fatal fire on Lakeshore Drive claimed the lives of Tami Willadsen 43, and her daughter, Jess, 10, and seriously burned her son Jack, 5.  Her husband, Dave, was also injured.

Decaturish.com requested the investigator’s report on May 28 when Jackson announced the investigator’s findings.

The county provided few documents in its response to that request. The response included a letter saying the remainder of the file is not a matter of public record at this time.

“After reviewing your request, it has been determined that some or portions of the documents that you requested will be made available to you pursuant to the Georgia Open Records act,” the letter from the county says. “However, other documents or portions of documents that you requested will not be made available, because they include records of a pending investigation or prosecution of criminal or unlawful activity by a law enforcement, prosecutory or regulatory agency, other than initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports.”

When asked about the part of the letter that says “pending investigation or prosecution of criminal or unlawful activity,” Jackson said there is no criminal investigation related to the case. The possibility of the fire being a deliberate act was ruled out shortly after the fire occurred. Detective Anthony Berry, who responded to the request, said “the Fire Investigations Unit is a law enforcement unit.”

On June 3, Berry said the detective working the case told him it was still open.

When asked if there’s a time frame on officially closing it, Berry said, “No sir.  However, (the detective) did indicate that the items he is waiting for could take a month or more.” Berry did not say what the items were.

While Jackson said that the fire will still be considered “undetermined” when the case finally wraps up, the files the county did release show that the fire investigator knew where the fire started.

“The fire originated on the left side of the front porch,” the investigator wrote. However, another part of the partially-released report says the fire’s area of origin as “undetermined.”

There was a gathering at the home on the night of the fire and some guests were still at the home when the fire started. The Willadsens had recently moved in.

An Avondale Estates police report that was obtained via records request shows that one of the witnesses told an officer that candles had possibly been left lit on the front porch. Jackson said investigators looked into it, but weren’t able to conclude whether the candles started the fire.

There’s a section of the report that deals with smoke detectors. According to the report, the presence of smoke detectors was “undetermined.”

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

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