Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic reports this morning that no criminal charges will be sought in the early morning fire more than a year ago at a Benton Township extended stay motel that resulted in the deaths of a woman and five of her children.
Early on Saturday morning, July 28th, 2018, a fire at the Cosmo Extended Stay Inn resulted in the death of the woman and 5 of her children. Found dead attempting to exit the motel were 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. All six were located in either the second floor hallway or stairway descending to the first floor. Autopsies determined all their deaths were caused by smoke inhalation. Surviving members of the family were Samuel Curtis, age 36, and their daughter, Autumn, age 1. The family occupied room number 212, which was on the south side of the second floor in building section number 1 (See diagram below).
Sepic briefly chronicled the efforts of officers to save lives: Upon discovering the fire, officers spoke briefly with the resident at the room of the fire’s origin, Room 135, then proceeded to alert other residents of the fire, telling them to leave. Progress in the interior hallway on the first floor near the room of origin was prevented by the volume of smoke. Two Berrien County Sheriff deputies and one Michigan State Police trooper then entered in the main entrance hallway and began knocking on doors to encourage occupants to exit. The smoke in the second floor hallway became too much and the officers had to exit. These officers, then on the outside of the building, assisted Curtis and his 1 year old child off the second story balcony of room 212. Curtis told these officers of the remainder of his family entering the smoke filled interior hallway. As initial fire personnel arrived, they were advised of the possibility of Curtis’ family being stuck in the hallways. Fire personnel in protective gear entered the second floor hallway and discovered the 6 family members who did not survive. Attempts were made to revive them at the scene and at the hospital but the efforts were unsuccessful.
Most criminal statutes require an intent to do an act. In this incident, it is not alleged nor does the evidence suggest that someone intentionally caused the fire or the deaths. Very few criminal cases deal with negligence. The only negligence in the criminal law is criminal negligence. Criminal negligence is a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others or, stated another way, knowingly creating a very high risk of death or great bodily harm knowing that death or such harm would be the likely result of his or her actions. This is sometimes called gross negligence. There are lesser degrees of negligence known as simple negligence and ordinary negligence that may be relevant in civil cases. This review concerns potential criminal liability and does not address potential civil liability. Several avenues of criminal negligence were explored.
Fire investigators determined the likely cause of the fire was the careless use of a hot plate by the occupant of room 135, which is on the north side of the first floor in building section number 2. Using a hot plate in a careless manner does not reach the level of gross negligence needed to charge that individual with a crime.
With regard to the building owner or operator, Sodus Hospitality, Inc., the status of the fire or smoke detection system is relevant. The individual rooms were equipped with smoke alarms. Some of them were functioning and some were not. Some residents heard smoke alarms and some did not.
Due to the extended stay nature of the premises, some residents may choose to disable the smoke detection unit in some way. It would not amount to criminal negligence for the owner/operator to fail to make sure long term residents have not disabled their smoke detection unit. In any event, if there was a lack of working alarms in individual rooms, that did not contribute to the deaths because smoke was not a factor in room 212, nor did the lack of an alarm in room 212 delay the Curtis family’s attempts to exit the motel. While the law now requires such individual room alarms to be connected in series, that law did not apply to this building because of the year it was built. Had the individual room alarms been connected in series, then the alarm set off in the room of origin, (presuming the occupant did not disable it) would have set off the entire building’s alarms and may have resulted in the deceased individuals attempting to leave the building sooner than they had.
The building was equipped with a pull alarm fire system. These pull stations were located at various access points in hallways. If such pull alarm fire system was deactivated by the owner/manager of the hotel, or was in disrepair and known by the owner/manager, that may be criminal negligence. However, that criminal negligence must have a causal link to the harm, in this case, the deaths. For instance, if a person attempted to activate the pull alarm fire system after the individuals died, and the system failed, there would be no link between the criminal negligence and the deaths. If someone tried to activate the pull alarm fire system and it failed, and if that person tried to activate the pull fire alarm system at a time that could have given the deceased family time to escape the fire and smoke, then there would be a causal connection between the criminal negligence and the deaths.
A report by a fire inspection company revealed the pull alarm fire system was electrically connected. However, the fire inspection company could not vouch for the operation of that system at the time of the fire. But, whether that system was operating or not is not relevant given the series of events in this case. Unfortunately, the room of origin of the fire on the first floor, and the rooms nearby, released smoke to the hallways when those doors were opened. The smoke traveled through the hallways and stairways when those doors were opened.
The room where the deceased individuals were living was not a source of the fire and thus a smoke detector would not have given them advance warning. Two individuals have reported they pulled the pull alarm system, however, there is no physical evidence that is true. The inspection revealed no evidence that a pull alarm station was activated or attempted to be activated. Therefore, if no one pulled an alarm in a hallway to activate the pull alarm fire system, then there would have been no advance warning to the deceased individuals. It should be noted too that if someone had pulled the pull alarm system, we would have to show it was at a time when that would have given the deceased individuals sufficient advance notice to exit the motel.
An inspection in 2016 required the building owner/operator to correct some fire and life safety components. An inspection by the Michigan State Police Fire Investigation Unit in May of 2016, reported those corrections were satisfied.
For criminal law purposes, there is no evidence of criminal negligence and there is no evidence the pull fire alarm system was not operational; thus, no criminal charges will be lodged relating to these unfortunate deaths.
Fire departments responding included Sodus, Benton, Royalton, and Lincoln Township Fire Departments, as well as the St. Joseph Department of Public Safety. Law enforcement agencies responding included the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department, the Michigan State Police and Benton Township Police Department.
Lawyers representing the estate of those killed in the blaze responded to the Prosecutor by accusing him of discrimination, as can be found in this follow up report: