Lawyers Representing Fire Victims Accuse Prosecutor of Discrimination

The Attorneys representing the estate of the family members killed in last summer’s fire at the Cosmo Extended Stay Motel in Benton Township contend that the Berrien County Prosecutor is guilty of “subtle discrimination,” for electing not to seek criminal charges in the case.

Attorneys Jon Jilek, Jim Koning, and Robert McCoy from the Portage law firm of Koning & Jilek, P.C. have countered Prosecutor Michael Sepic’s contentions in a letter sent this morning following his press release on the decision.

Here is what the Attorneys have shared today:

We represent the estates of those killed in the Cosmos Extended Stay Motel fire.  Our understanding is that the Berrien County Prosecutor submitted a press release indicating that there would be no criminal charges sought in the July fire that resulted in the death of Avery Curtis, age 2, Savod Curtis, age 4, Samuel Curtis, age 5, Gerome Randolph, age 7, Marquise Thompson, age 10, and Kiarre Curtis, the mother of the children, age 26.  Given the nature of and the conclusions made in the release, a response is necessary.

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Discrimination can be subtle or overt. Overt discrimination is easy to see and more easily condemned. Subtle discrimination was the cause of the decision not to charge the owner of the Cosmos Extended Stay Inn for six deaths that occurred over one year ago. Poor black people do not get the same consideration, either as perpetrators or victims.

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. In short, if six middle class white people had been killed under the same circumstances in a Saint Joseph hotel, charges would have been brought quickly.

It has taken over a year for the Prosecutor to make this decision. The Prosecutor’s press release cherry picks the facts to support his decision not to charge. This hotel is not exempt from the legal requirements applicable to hotels. In the civil litigation, the owner has admitted the Cosmos Extended Stay Inn was treated as a hotel under Michigan law. Since 1991, Michigan has put responsibilities on hotel owners, many of which were ignored by this hotel. None of the witnesses heard any smoke or fire alarms. Michigan law requires an automatic internal audible alarm system.  An independent company hired by the County to study the cause of the fire concluded “I believe the Fire Alarm System did not go into an alarm state during the fire and did not activate the horn strobes throughout the building.” Additionally, the fire alarm system was pulled by at least two of the residents, but the system failed to activate. Witnesses have stated under oath that, prior to the fire, the manager of the hotel had shut down the main fire alarm system.  In making the decision not to charge, the Prosecutor ignored or decided not to believe these facts.

We have all heard the statistics that, in a fire, seconds are important. The bodies of the six family members were found in the hallway trying to escape. They were overcome by smoke.

In the civil discovery process, the owner refused to answer some questions as he expected to be charged. Yes, the family has a civil remedy. But, that is no excuse for the Prosecutor not to charge criminally. Drunk drivers are sued and concurrently criminally charged on a regular basis.

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.

Here’s the story the law firm was responding to: