Who set house afire still a mystery

Publication Date: Friday Apr 24, 1998

EAST PALO ALTO: Who set house afire still a mystery

One year later, Fordham Street tragedy is still an open case

by Don Kazak

Sunday will be the one-year anniversary of the fire that killed nine people in a house at 2582 Fordham St. in East Palo Alto, and police are no closer now to solving the case than they were last April 26. Detectives have conducted more than 100 interviews during the investigation, talking to some people repeatedly, in the hopes that someone who may know something that would help them figure out who set the fire.

There is also a $50,000 reward from the governor's office for anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist.

And there is a toll-free telephone that people can call to leave tips in the case, but that phone hasn't rung in months.

The tip-line telephone number is 1-800-547-2700.

"It's really quite frustrating," said Rick Babwin, one of two San Mateo County Sheriff Department's detectives still on the case. In the weeks following the fire, 10 detectives were assigned to the investigation full time.

The fire broke out about 6 a.m. April 26, 1997, in the carport by the house's front door. Thirteen people were sleeping in the house at the time. While four of them were able to escape or were rescued, the other nine were overcome by smoke and died in the blaze, partially trapped by bolted-on anti-burglar bars over most windows.

The fire victims were Alma Campbell, 59; Darcy Dixon, 6; Sonya McKnack, 20; Jameace Mosley, 4; Donta Price, 11; Angelika Rahiman, 7; Kanita Rivers, 19; Anthony Taylor, 11; and Bonnie Thompson, 41.

Two of the victims, Alma Campbell and Bonnie Thompson, were daughters of Verna McKean, who escaped the blaze. It was McKean's house. She has since moved to another East Palo Alto home, but other family members are living at 2582 Fordham St.

"It was a very sick person to take the lives of innocent children," McKean said.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District determined that a flammable liquid was used to start the fire in the carport. Those flames blocked the front door, helping trap the victims inside. All natural and secondary causes for the fire were eliminated by arson investigators.

Verna McKean and other family members plan to gather at the Fordham Street house for a candlelight vigil Sunday night after attending church together earlier in the day. 

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