FLORA, Ind.—One year after a fire claimed the lives of four young sisters in Flora, the community still has few answers about what happened and who did it.
Investigators said the fire at 103 E. Columbia Street was arson. Police said they looked at people of interest, but they never took anyone into custody. Twelve months later, no suspect has been named and family of the girls question whether any progress has been made.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled for Tuesday night to pay tribute to Keyana Davis, 11, Keyara Phillips, 9, Kerriele McDonald, 7, and Kionnie Welch, 5. People are invited to gather outside the family’s former home on Columbia Street to pray for answers and resolution to this investigation.
November 21, 2016
It was an unsuspecting Monday morning in Flora, Indiana.
At around 4 a.m. crews suddenly dispatched to the 100 block of East Columbia Street for a house fire. Indiana State Police would later release information that four children trapped in the home, never escaped and died inside.
Neighbors described hearing screaming from the street as the two-story home went up in flames. One man said he offered his coat to the girls’ mother as she was stranded, hysterical, outside her burning house.
Gaylin Rose, the girls’ mother, had to be airlifted to Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis for treatment. Two police officers, who were the first on scene, were hospitalized with injuries sustained trying to get inside the home to reach the girls.
Several fire departments battled the fire, as the area is made up of largely volunteers.
Assistant Chief Derek Jackson with the Burlington Fire Dept. described the difficulty of dealing with a fatal scene:
“[We] try to keep our own emotions under control," he said. "As you guys know there was one police officer that was flown to Fort Wayne he was one of the first officers here and he tried to go in under his own power so he’s up there getting taken care of now. There was a tag team that went in there to attack the fire and there was a second team that went in there to search and rescue part of it."
Called to Action
Carroll County Deputy Drew Yoder and Flora Police Officer Josh Disinger both sustained injuries responding to the fire that morning. They were two of the first people on scene. Yoder suffered burn damage in his lungs, as well as burns to his hands and forehead. While Disinger was injured trying to pull Deputy Yoder from the burning building.
"Josh is my hero," Yoder said in an interview in January, "He made sure I got home to my family."
The pair made several attempts to go inside the burning house but said it was too hot and too smoky to go in very far.
Yoder spent a week in the hospital and returned to duty exactly one month after the fire.
A Mother’s Fight
The girls’ mother, Gaylin Rose, broke her silence in May to talk to FOX59’s Aishah Hasnie.
"The whole entire house was full of smoke. Couldn’t really see," Rose told Hasnie. "I pretty much tried to save my babies by running up the steps. I got halfway and I couldn’t breathe. And I just ran out the house to try to get help."
The day of the fire, Rose said the family of five went grocery shopping, came home, ate dinner and sent the girls to bed by 10 p.m. The girls slept upstairs while Rose slept in her bedroom on the first floor until the smell of smoke woke her up.
Rose remembers screaming out for help. After neighbors called 911, she saw two officers, Flora officer Josh Disinger and Carroll County Deputy Drew Yoder, run into the house over and over again in failed attempts to try and save the girls. They couldn’t reach them.
"The ambulance man told me that my babies was no longer here. And after that moment I don’t remember nothing."
Authorities dropped a bombshell in January, announcing that the fire that killed the four sisters was intentionally set.
Investigators with the State Fire Marshal said the November 21st fire was ruled “incendiary” after they said accelerants were found all over the home.
The girls’ deaths were ruled homicides, and the house fire was deemed an arson. However, officials did not release how or where the fire started.
But some of those details initially released by the State Fire Marshal would be challenged and corrected over the next several months.
FOX59 exposed that the fire investigator’s claim that accelerants were found in several parts of the home, was untrue. The Indiana State Police confirmed they found accelerants in only one part of the home, meaning the fire only started in one spot.
State Police looked into the details of the fire after FOX59 obtained an email critical of the initial information. That email was written by a private fire investigator who also investigated the Flora fire. He claimed that Randle was wrong about the accelerants.
In that email, the private investigator wrote:
“The press release statement about ‘accelerants’ being discovered in ‘several’ locations is absolutely NOT based on any evidence discovered at the scene during the investigation; and the investigator Dennis Randle, was not performing a proper Origin & Cause Investigation based on the current procedures of NFPA 921 2016 edition to opine that opinion.”
State Police investigated and confirmed the original information about accelerants was incorrect.
The Indiana Fire Marshal’s fire investigator assigned to the Flora house fire case resigned amid the news. Investigator Dennis Randle did not give a reason why he quit, he worked hundreds of investigations since joining the Fire Marshal’s office in 2012.
The investigation was quiet for several months until the Carroll County Prosecutor announced his plans to retire at the end of 2017, despite the lack of closure in the Flora fire investigation and a double homicide investigation in Delphi.
Within two weeks of Prosecutor Rob Ives’ announcement, the chief of Flora’s fire department announced his immediate resignation at a regularly scheduled fire department meeting.
Reward posters still hang in the community, requesting anyone with information about who set the fire and why to please contact investigators to bring resolution to this case.
Remembering the Sisters
Carroll Consolidated School Corporation Superintendent Keith Thackery released the following statement on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy:
"Our hearts go out to the family on the one year anniversary of this terrible tragedy. Over the past year, our students, staff, and community have grieved the loss of these four young girls and have expressed their love and sympathy in very personal ways.
In memory of their classmates and friends, one of our girl scout troops initiated a memorial project this spring and dedicated four benches in our elementary school courtyard. Also, the high school art classes helped carve a stone bench that has been placed in downtown Flora in memory of these girls.
This tragedy has deeply affected our students, staff, and community. Our continued thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time."