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Witness: Boy in fatal fire in Goodfield admitted involvement in another blaze

Courts graphic

A Goodfield youth denied setting a fire that killed five people in April 2018, but admitted to police that he had previously played with fire, according to a videotaped police interview played Monday in Woodford County juvenile court.

The boy, who was 9 at the time of the fire that killed four of relatives and his mother’s boyfriend, is charged with murder for allegedly setting the blaze. In July 2020, a court-appointed expert found him unfit to stand trial, though he's undergoing counseling and could be restored to fitness and ultimately be forced to answer for the charges.

At Monday's pre-trial hearing in Eureka, Judge Charles Feeney viewed a 45-minute interview of the boy by Woodford County detective Robert Gilson conducted two days after the blaze. An attorney who serves as a court-appointed guardian for minors sat beside the boy during the questioning.

The judge made three rulings Monday. The state can use the child’s statements made to police, and information related to three previous fires in which the boy was a suspect, but has not been charged. The judge also granted a defense motion to bar evidence related to a potential accelerant collected by a police canine because the state lacked forensic corroboration.

At the close of the daylong hearing, Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger said the state recently filed a new motion related to another fire and will ask that the evidence also be considered by the judge at a future disposition hearing to resolve the case.

The video played in court showed the child moving around in his seat, but willing to respond to the detective’s questions. When asked if he would agree to tell the truth, he answered, “honesty’s the best policy,” and shook the officer’s hand.

The child described a normal day leading up to the fire. He recalled watching TV when he saw flames in the hallway of the mobile home. He described “fire like a trail on the carpet” leading to the living room.

He said he heard “the furnace start and then I heard it go boom,” from the hallway.

The boy demonstrated how he used his arm and elbow to knock out a window to escape the flames.

The child denied being afraid of fire. He went on to admit that he “played with fire” once when he set fire to a Frisbee in his father’s garage.

“I put it out myself,” he said.

Other fires

The child denied setting the fatal fire and at least three others that family members have attributed to him.

When asked by the detective if jail would be an appropriate punishment for someone who sets a fire but “not on purpose,” the child suggested, “for one day.”

The boy and his mother, Katie Alwood, survived the fire. Victims in the blaze were Jason Wall, 34; three children, Dameon Wall, 2, Ariel Wall, 1, and Rose Alwood, 2; and Kathryn Murray, Katie Alwood's 69-year-old grandmother.

Witnesses described the acts of a young, serial arsonist in their details of three previous fires in which they suspected the boy’s involvement.

Lori Alwood testified her grandson admitted he set fire to a chair in the summer of 2018 at her mobile home located a short distance from the victims’ residence. Alwood said she was teaching the boy how to use an oven when he made the statement.

He was 5 at the time.

“He said he wanted to be honest with me, because he set a chair on fire,” said Alwood.

The child had been asked by relatives about two previous fires, said Alwood, including a 2017 fire in her former home in Carlock. The fire was set at the foot of the bed where the child’s mother was sleeping. When the Carlock fire was discovered by the boy’s aunt, Samantha Alwood, the boy was seen standing nearby.

The child’s grandmother became upset after a question by defense lawyer Peter Dluski about a nickname allegedly given to Samantha Alwood. Never, she said, had she heard her daughter called “Firebug.”

In her earlier testimony, Samantha Alwood said she asked the minor why he set the fires in 2017 and 2018 and a third fire of a car seat in his mother’s van when he was around 8.

“I didn’t do it. Somebody else did it,” the child told his aunt, according to her testimony.

After the Carlock fire where a lighter was found near the bed, a decision was made by family members to lock up lighters, Samantha Alwood testified.

Police were never notified of the fires, the women testified.

In his arguments asking that evidence of the fires be considered, Minger said the child understood the effects of fire and pointed out the similarities between the incidents.

If the judge finds the child culpable for setting the fire, he may order him to serve probation and receive counseling. An April 11 hearing is set to review the status of the case.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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