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Judge: State has sufficient evidence in Goodfield fire case

WGLT Courts graphic

A 13-year-old Goodfield boy accused of starting a fire in 2019 that killed five people will be evaluated to determine his mental fitness to stand trial, a Woodford County judge ruled on Thursday.

The decision by Judge Charles Feeney concludes the first phase of juvenile court proceedings to determine if the state has enough evidence to prove arson and murder charges beyond a reasonable doubt. In affirming the state’s case, Feeney determined the boy was “not acquitted of the charges,” and ordered a mental health evaluation by a Peoria psychiatrist to see if a July 2020 finding of unfitness still stands.

The boy, who was 9 at the time of the fire, was not present for the hearing. He resides in foster care with his paternal grandparents.

The fire took the lives of Jason Wall, 34, Kathryn Murray, 69, and three children—Dameon Wall, 2, Ariel Wall 1, and Rose Alwood, 2. The boy’s mother, Katie Alwood, and the boy escaped the fire.

The boy denied to authorities that he set the fire, but his mother contends that he later confessed to her, saying he “prayed to God no one would die,” State’s Attorney Greg Minger said Thursday in closing remarks.

Differing accounts of the boy’s previous experience with setting fires and a possible explanation of the fatal fire that involved a furnace malfunction are explainable, said the prosecutor.

“No one wanted to believe someone set this fire on purpose, but the evidence shows otherwise,” said Minger.

Minger pointed to an opinion from the state fire marshal’s office that the heaviest damage to the mobile home appeared to be in the center of the residence, near a couch where the boy often slept.

The state has linked the child to several previous fires, both before and after the April 2019 fatal blaze.

Testimony from family members indicate the boy was in the vicinity of three other fires discovered before the mobile home fire that killed four of his relatives and his mother’s boyfriend. According to testimony from the boy’s aunt, he admitted to setting fire to a chair but denied involvement in the two other fires.

The state presented evidence that the child was responsible for a fire set in September 2021 while he was visiting a home in Peoria with five people inside. After the fire was discovered, he tried to blame an autistic child living in the home, said the prosecutor.

Evidence of similarities between the fire is striking, said Minger, and supports a case of “murder by arson — that’s what this is.”

Defense lawyer Peter Dluski argued that the boy should be found innocent, based on an incomplete investigation of the fire and the failure of authorities to consider other suspects, including family members who smoked.

“We don’t know where the fire started or who started it,” said the defense lawyer.

The then-9 year-old “had a history of admitting things he didn’t do,” said Dluski, adding that “our position is he should be found innocent because he did not commit the crime.”

In his ruling, Feeney acknowledged the similarities between the circumstances of the multiple fires. The boy’s initial denials and attempts to cover up the fires “shows his understanding of the wrongfulness of his conduct,” said the judge.

Feeney said testimony from the boy’s mother that she hid anything that could be used by her son to start a fire shows “she clearly was scared of his propensity to do something.”

State law allows up to five years for the boy to be restored to mental fitness on the murder charges, meaning the deadline for the process is July 9, 2026. The standard for mental fitness is a defendant’s ability to understand the charges and legal process and the ability to assist one’s lawyer with a defense.

Feeney said he considers the child “a teachable kid,” with “an educational problem,” rather than a mental health issue. As part of the evaluation process, the judge said he will be asking the psychiatrist for recommendations as to what is needed to restore the child to mental fitness.

After the hearing, Minger said, “at the end of the day, he can still have a trial if he’s found fit and it may have a different result – he may be found not guilty.”

The court process will mirror adult court in that negotiations may be conducted where charges are reduced, modified or dismissed as part of the resolution of the case. If he is found guilty at a trial, the punishment facing the teen will be no more severe than the consequences he faced as a 9-year-old: counseling and probation.

An April14 hearing is set to review the status of the evaluation.

Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.