No criminal charges in fatal fire

A firefighter walks past burned out rooms at an extended stay hotel in July 2018 after a fire killed a 26-year-old mother and her five children.

ST. JOSEPH — No criminal charges will be filed in the motel fire a year ago that left a woman and five of her children dead.

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic announced Monday that his office explored several avenues of possible negligence and found none that would rise to a criminal level. Further, he stated, it was never alleged or suggested that anyone intentionally caused the fire or the deaths.

The fire July 28, 2018, at the Cosmo Extended Stay Inn in Sodus Township resulted in the death of Kiarre Curtis, 26, and five of her children, Avery Curtis, 2; Savod Curtis, 4; Samuel Curtis, 5; Gerome Randolph, 7; and Marquise Thompson, 10. Surviving the fire were Kiarre’s husband, Samuel Curtis, 36; and their 1-year-old daughter, Autumn.

The fire originated on the first floor in Room 135, where fire investigators determined the likely cause of the fire was the careless use of a hot plate. Sepic stated in a new release that using a hot plate in a careless manner does not reach the level of gross negligence needed to charge a person with a crime.

Jon Jilek of the Portage-based law firm Koning & Jilek is representing the estates of the deceased family members in a civil wrongful death lawsuit.

“We were surprised and disappointed” with the prosecutor’s decision and his news release, Jilek said in a phone interview. “We’re aware of facts he didn’t include. The prosecutor says some people heard smoke alarms and some didn’t. We’ve taken some testimony and no one says they heard smoke alarms.”

Jilek said the family is disappointed that it took over a year for the prosecutor to decide whether to file charges against the owners of the motel.

“The family has been waiting to see some justice. I’ll leave it to the people ... but if six middle class white people had been killed in St. Joseph, how quickly would charges have been brought?” Jilek said. 

The Curtis family had been staying on the second floor, in Room 212. Two Berrien County Sheriff’s deputies and a state police trooper, arriving first at the scene, helped Samuel Curtis and baby Autumn off the second-story balcony of Room 212. Curtis told them that the rest of his family had entered the smoke-filled interior hallway. That is where fire personnel wearing protective gear found the six family members who died. Attempts to revive them at the scene and at the hospital were unsuccessful.

With regard to the building owner or operator, Sodus Hospitality, Inc., the investigation determined that individual rooms were equipped with smoke alarms, some functioning and some not. Some residents reported they had heard smoke alarms, while others had not.

Sepic said some residents may have chosen to disable their individual unit in some way, and it would not amount to criminal negligence for the owner/operator to fail to make sure long-term residents have not disabled their smoke detection unit. 

The building was equipped with a pull alarm fire system, with pull stations located at various points in hallways. A report by a fire inspection company revealed the pull alarm fire system was electrically connected, but the inspection company could not vouch for its operation at the time of the fire. Sepic said in this case, whether it was operating or whether anyone pulled an alarm is irrelevant. 

“Unfortunately, the room of origin of the fire on the first floor, and the rooms nearby, released smoke to the hallways when those doors were opened. The smoke traveled through the hallway and stairways when those doors were opened,” Sepic wrote in his release. “The room where the deceased individuals were living was not a source of the fire and thus a smoke detector would not have given them advance warning.”

Jilek disagrees. He said there is evidence that some witnesses pulled the fire alarm and it failed to go off. 

Sepic stated that for criminal law purposes, there was no evidence of criminal negligence and no evidence that the pull fire alarm system was not operational. He added that the investigation concerned potential criminal liability and does not address potential civil liability.

The building owner/operator was ordered in 2016 to correct some safety components, and a subsequent inspection in May 2016 by the Michigan State Police Fire Marshall Division reported the corrections were satisfactory, Sepic said.

In an email to The Herald-Palladium, Jilek expanded on his criticism of the prosecutor and the decision, calling the decision “subtle discrimination.”

Wrote Jelik: “While there is little dispute that race and poverty play roles in our society’s decision making, parties should restrain themselves from quickly ‘playing the race card’ or ‘playing the poverty card.’ On the other hand, when there is no logical explanation for an abdication of civic responsibility other than race or poverty, the improper acts must be called out. ... Calling out discrimination can be an ugly business. But, more ugly is the act itself. The family deserves more. The people of Berrien County deserve more.”

Sepic declined to respond to Jilek’s claims.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included the wrong municipality for Cosmo Extended Stay Inn.