The immaculate East 87th St. home of Medeia Carter, 33, went up in flames around 2:55 a.m. on May 21, 2005. She and the eight children spending the night for her son's 14th birthday party all died.
The tragedy remains the deadliest house fire in Cleveland history.
More than eight years out from the blaze, though, there's no justice on the table for Medeia and the children. What happened after the fire is, in hindsight, little more than a jigsaw puzzle made of mirrors, half truths and unreliable hearsay. Contradictions abound, and the man convicted of setting the fire years ago is now returning to court to face those same charges once again.***
A lot of things happened after the fire. And as time wore on, the name Antun Lewis remained attached to the story. In every way, Lewis became the story long before an indictment even came down.
In late May 2005, with the fire still coloring every conversation in the neighborhood, Lewis was cooling his jets and sitting in his van with two women. They were getting high and talking about drugs. Typical. The discussion, though, soon meandered toward the fire, as even the most idle chats were wont to do back then. Lewis told the women he was "fucked up about the fire," hence his sour mood and perhaps overt use of drugs like cocaine and "wet" (PCP, more often than not).
Days later, with violent rumors swirling, Lewis took himself off the streets by surrendering to police on unrelated drug trafficking charges. He was safer behind bars, away from heated conjecture that pointed angry fingers in his direction. He was interviewed by investigators on May 31, but nothing stood out. There was no meaningful indication that Lewis, this guy from the neighborhood, warranted any additional scrutiny.
But he had it coming.
Investigators built a case that placed Lewis near the home at the time of the fire and reeled in jailhouse informants that insisted he had confessed the crime during the ensuing years. No confessions have ever been recorded, but the federal government indicted Lewis in October 2008, brought him to trial in early 2011 and a jury, based on those snitches and little else, decided that he did it.
Since turning himself in to law enforcement just days after the fire, Lewis has not left the confines of the prison system. He's maintained his innocence all along, though acquaintances like state inmate Paul McKeever and alleged accomplice Marion Jackson tell a story that has Lewis buying gasoline and pouring it himself in the home of Medeia Carter in the early hours of May 21, 2005.
The jury's verdict six years later turned out to be less a conviction and more a desperate push for answers that have yet to reveal themselves. Living in the shadows of ghosts, the friends and families of the victims have never relented in their search for the truth.
"I miss her so much," Medeia's mother, Evelyn Martin, would tell a jury in 2011. "She was a great young lady. She was a great daughter. She was a good friend. She was a good neighbor. She cared so much about people, and she loved kids." Her home, just blocks from 1220 East 87th Street, is plastered with images of Medeia and the children -- Devonte Carter, Moses Williams, Malee'ya Williams, Fakih Jones Jr., Antwon Jackson Jr., Earnest Tate Jr., Shauntavia Mitchell and Miles Cockfield.
After the fire, when they should have been packing into cars for a trip to Cedar Point for little Moses' birthday, their names passed painfully into memory.
The house, a singularity now, maintains its vigil.***
Hearsay is not admissible as evidence in the court of law. But the first trial of Antun Lewis, which took place amid the snowy doldrums of a Cleveland winter, was riddled with the stuff.
During that first trial, testimony routinely danced around a state inmate named Paul McKeever. In jail at the time for child porn charges and car theft, he's a known police informant - a "snitch," in prison parlance - who has worked with authorities on many high-profile cases in the area. He helped police lock down the two teenagers who murdered Mary Jo Pesho in 1996 in Parma.
Before the fire, he had never heard of Antun Lewis.
But the two crossed paths at the Cuyahoga County Jail shortly after Lewis had checked in. McKeever had been brought north to testify on another case. He was being held in the medical bay when Lewis came in after a scuffle. Of course, this chance meeting would lead to a conversation between McKeever and Lewis that would become the linchpin in the government's case against him. There's no recording of what McKeever relayed from his time in county.
"Antun was kind of hyper because he just got, you know, done getting into a fight," McKeever explained to the jury. "He - there was another gentleman in the cell that actually knew him from the streets and they were talking about drugs and the guy even asked him what happened to the fire that he was being investigated for."
McKeever engaged Lewis directly and asked him what he was talking about. A read-through of the first trial shows that nearly everything else in the investigation flows from that conversation.
"[H]e said that the bitch deserved what she got and that they didn't have nothing on him," McKeever said. "That's exactly what he said."
McKeever soon contacted Detective Jeff Cook of the Maple Heights Police Department, who put the inmate in touch with Detective Ray McCarthy of the Cleveland Fire Department's arson unit in June 2005.
In September of that year, the anger of Cleveland was still roiling; there had been no progress on the criminal investigation. The fire had been ruled an arson in the days following the tragedy. Where was the justice?
McKeever was hauled back to Cuyahoga County Jail - another bout of unrelated snitch testimony - where he met an old pal and lifelong criminal, Marion Jackson. People called him "Pops," because he was the old guy in prison. And Pops knew Antun Lewis.
"The East 87th Street fire came on the news and Pops - he usually don't watch the news too much - and for some reason, he started watching it real, real closely when it came on," McKeever said. "Then he was kind of worried about something. He was kind of - he was acting funny, so he went towards the window. I went over and talked to him a little bit and our conversations led to him saying that he knew who set that fire and he said that he knew the guy who actually did it." Jackson named Lewis, and McKeever carted that information to McCarthy, the arson detective.
McCarthy would soon speak with Jackson, who reportedly explained that same story. Lewis was in the crosshairs of the investigation at that point, and the government's aim never diverted.***
McKeever was sent to Grafton Correctional Institute to continue his sentence. He's spent time in prisons across Ohio, garnering the snitch reputation and a general distaste from other inmates. He's a persistent guy, inmates explained in court, and he knows how to press people for information.
In May 2006, special agent John Gregg of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) told McKeever that Lewis was going to be transferred to Grafton. He instructed the inmate to talk with Lewis - "not to entrap him and just to conversate with him," McKeever explained - and see if he would come forward with anything. Any sort of confession.
The two sat down in the prison dayroom, along with fellow inmate and known informant Daniel Id'Deen, and chatted about girls and shared photographs. They got to talking about the fire soon enough. McKeever said that Lewis was insisting "they really didn't have nothing on him, that he wasn't too much really worried about it." Lewis named Moses Marshall, Medeia Carter's boyfriend, as the person who did it, according to McKeever. But the snitch prodded further.
McKeever said that Lewis was growing irritable, but before ending the conversation, he mentioned Pops' involvement in the fire. Pops - Marion Jackson, the man McKeever spoke with back in county the previous fall - had been the supposed lookout guy during the crime. Lewis grew more irritable with McKeever's line of questions, according to testimony, and the conversation ended abruptly.
Id'Deen, however, would go on to recount the conversation differently and say that he overheard Lewis tell McKeever: "I didn't know the kids was there. It wasn't meant for them. It was meant for the bitch Nicole." Four other prison informants - some outright "snitches" by their own word - would go on to describe Lewis talking about "the bitch Nicole" and various drug debts stemming from 1220 East 87th Street.
And so the narrative filled out rather thematically. In time, a cohesive story knit together the strains of jailhouse murmurs. Marion Jackson - Pops himself - even explained that he was there the night it all went down.***
Lewis was done fronting drugs, acquaintances said. And he was pissed. As the prosecution's roster of witnesses describe it, Lewis, a convicted drug dealer, needed to settle a debt over on the east side. He recruited Jackson, an aging criminal he met through a mutual prostitute, and offered $1,500 for the job.
"There was something that Antwan (sic) wanted done," Jackson said. "He wanted a house set on fire."
As Jackson explained the evening's proceedings, the two of them met up on Superior Avenue the evening of May 20, 2005, and took a walk. Jackson described the duo casing out East 87th Street and heading over to a gas station, though he could never clearly explain where the gas station was. He said Lewis bought $5 worth of gasoline in two canisters, and they trudged through the neighborhood toward Medeia Carter's house.
As they approached the house, Jackson noted, Lewis took one phone call and said into his phone: "Is the bitch Nicole in the house?" Phone records place Lewis in the sector that contains the house, but those records also have Lewis in further sectors earlier in the night. During the time Jackson said they were walking the neighborhood, Lewis was out near Union Avenue, where his girlfriend lived.
But as the story goes, Lewis disappeared behind 1220 East 87th Street just before 3 a.m. and set the blaze. He returned to the street, and Jackson noticed the gas cans were gone. The flames were picking up quickly, and Jackson dashed off into the night. Several months later, he'd reunite with Paul McKeever.
In the moment, though, calls to 9-1-1 cascaded off East 87th. "Get the kids! You got to get the kids!" And firefighters raced to the scene. The fire was immediate and massive.
"The first thing I noticed was a glow, a big orange glow in the sky. Like if you're driving to Las Vegas you see a big orange glow in the sky. Right there immediately we knew it was a big fire going on," Angel Marrero, a member of Rescue Squad 3, said, describing the ride down Superior toward the house. He and his team were the first on the street.***
"Very hot, very rapid fire.Very intense, very rapid..."
That's Ralph Dolence, a retired fire investigator who's worked closely with the ATF and, at times, the Cleveland Fire Department. He arrived at 1220 East 87th Street just after dawn following the fire. The scene was extraordinary, and at least some of the firefighters who had worked through the night would go on to say that it was the most intense, most damning fire they'd ever fought.
Among his many findings, Dolence testified that there were no signs of forced entry at the house that night - a critical fact mixed in with so much other conjecture throughout the trial. And nearly in the same breath, Dolence confirmed that the blaze was indeed set by someone pouring gasoline in the first-floor living and dining rooms.
With a conviction on the table as of February 2011, there were no other suspects in the fire. Investigators won't confirm whether there are other persons of interest at this point, as the second trial of Antun Lewis is set to begin.
But Lewis himself and his attorneys have pointed to Marshall as someone surrounded by questions still. According to McKeever, Lewis did point to Marshall as the guy who set the fire when they spoke at Grafton.
Dolence explained that Marshall showed little grief the day after the fire. Marshall, who wasn't home at the time of the blaze, told Dolence that the house was always locked up at night. Always locked up. But not that night. There had been no forced entry.
Outside of the testimony of jailhouse snitches like McKeever and ATF agents like Gregg and Illig, Lewis has kept fairly quiet over the years except for maintaining his innocence.***
For the week leading up to the fire, Lewis was staying at George Hightower's place on East 86th Street. They went back a long time. They were nearly family, as Hightower explained. Lewis had been living with his then-girlfriend, Sharese Williams, for about a month prior. But he hadn't paid back the bond money she had used to help him out of jail earlier in 2005, and things were getting rocky.
Among the investigation, an alternate story is revealed for the hours leading up to the fire.
Down the street from Hightower's house, in the early hours of May 21, 2005, Lewis was sitting in his van and smoking some pot, as he explained to law enforcement officials. He popped half a tab of ecstasy and tuned in to his music. Sharese Williams and her daughter Sharay began calling him, but he wasn't answering. No cell phone records show calls being made or received from Lewis' phone at that time, agent Don Illig pointed out.
After a vehicle pulled into the lot, Lewis returned to Hightower's place. The two men and several neighbors briefly discussed the fire outside the house, Hightower said. News was spreading fast.
Lewis claimed he called Sharay Williams when he went inside. She told him that Shauntavia had been sleeping at Medeia's house. Medeia's house was on fire. Shauntavia was dead.
With that news, Lewis collapsed on Hightower's floor and wept, the older man said.
Within an hour or so of the fire, passing strangers were telling Hightower that Lewis had set the fire. "You stupid motherfucker!" he accosted Lewis back at the house in those muddy first hours after the flames.
Earlier in the night, Capritta Nicole Bell, one of the two survivors of the fire, had gone to bed around 11 p.m. or midnight. Everything seemed OK. Moses' birthday, though soured a bit by the phone call from his school, had gone well. The kids were all there, eventually making their way to beds scattered in rooms throughout the house. Friday became Saturday.
And then she woke up.***
"Smoke... I could smell it."
Bell was jolted awake. The smell was intense. Her mind immediately raced back to another night when Medeia had absentmindedly left the pan on the stove for too long and burnt a meal. Alright, she was thinking, let's just go fix this up real quick.
The smoke became thicker as Bell made her way downstairs. Firefighters would later explain that the sheer volume of smoke in the house was just monumental. They'd never seen anything like it. And Bell certainly hadn't. By the time she got downstairs, all she could do was get outside and try to breathe. She passed by family friend Teon Smith, who had been sleeping in the basement, and they burst out of the house. The sole survivors.
In the cool night air, Bell felt no pain at all. Shock gripped her mind, and she became detached from the scene racing by. She looked down and saw her skin falling off: "My skin had been rolled down to my fingertips."
Angel Marrero, whose crew arrived first outside the house, leapt into a frenzy of work. Bell, in a daze, called out for help for the kids inside. Erecting a ladder, Marrero scaled the home and approached the second-story windows. The smoke was unbelievable. He shattered windows and began the search for the children.
Seconds ticked by like days, punctuated by horrified gasps or the sirens of incoming firetrucks.
The sun wouldn't be up for hours, but the neighborhood was well lit by fire as a small crowd began to form. The crackle of flames, the screams of neighbors, all against the stillness of the night. "DO SOMETHING!" Neighbors wailed.
"By the time I had the first victim on my shoulders and down that ladder, people were out," Patrick Mangan said, describing a crowd that would soon grow to dozens. "I had to make a decision to stop bringing the kids out because we ran out of ambulances."
The scene became so overwhelming that one commander had to be carted off to stabilize his emotions, while other firefighters halted the search for bodies. There was just too goddamn much happening.
Bell stayed at Metro for a month. Quickly, though, she learned that Medeia and the kids had died in the blaze. Along with the burn treatments, Bell sunk into a catatonic depression buoyed by psychotropic drugs. She'd wake in the middle of the night, screaming and braying about the family. That led to more medication. In all, Bell suffered second-degree burns to her feet, face, neck and left arm. A third-degree burn ripped across her right arm.
Residents of East 87th Street, asking not to be named, told Scene that people still talk about the fire. May 21 is a lively and solemn day on the street. The makeshift memorial on the front steps of Medeia Carter's home has grown up.
One man explained cautiously that his son was supposed to be at the birthday party that night. The kids were all going to go to Cedar Point the next day. He looked away and fumbled through those thoughts that have haunted him for eight years.***
After the trial, the appeals began immediately. And mirroring the government's work throughout the previous three years, the defense encountered a state inmate - a snitch - named Michael Miller.
He told the court during an August 2011 hearing that McKeever had "attempted to recruit" him in framing a high-profile defendant. Miller said he declined, but the strange offer stuck with him during his stay in prison. When news of Lewis' conviction hit the press, Miller said he thought back to that encounter. McKeever's name was plastered across the reportage of the trial. "After reading that, I knew that everything he had told me was true," Miller said.
The defense brought him into the courtroom to counteract the prosecution's use of jailhouse testimony and to complement the litany of motions for retrial already filed.
"I do not want Mr. Lewis to spend the rest of his life in jail for a crime he did not commit... If I could help myself out and get some time knocked off my sentence, I would," Miller said in 2011. He added that McKeever alluded to helping him out with bond money, which totaled $600,000 at the time; Miller, as he told a judge that summer, didn't buy what McKeever was selling.
Much like each instance of an inmate taking the stand, Miller's own motives were questioned. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Collyer dug into Miller's past and revealed a man twice convicted of lying to police. Miller, it should be noted, testified while in the midst of a 15-year prison sentence for sexual crimes against minors. Behind each inmate in the trial stood the inevitable desire for reward.
From the June 2011 phone call Miller made to his friend, which came up during the August 2011 hearing:
MILLER: All right, like I said, the federal attorney and the federal investigator came down here to see me. He said, quote, in theory, unquote, there's nothing they can do for me, but he made sure I understood the quote. He said if they - if the government finds out that they're doing something for me it will look like they're trying to bribe me for my information.
As the year wore on, the motions and the hearings and the appeals took hold.
Criminal retrials don't happen often. Specific situations like Lewis' are even more rare. The crux of everything comes in the review of Judge Oliver's decision, published in February 2012:
"This has not been an easy decision for the court. The court has the utmost respect for our jury system, and does not overturn this jury's verdict lightly. However the court finds that this is one of those few cases where the integrity of the system is at stake and the court is required to overturn the jury's verdict as being against the manifest weight of evidence. Here, the a conviction for a crime of this magnitude rests almost exclusively on the word of suspect witnesses, career criminals, and jailhouse informants who can easily insert themselves into the facts of a case given its high-profile nature."
In April 2013, the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld Oliver's decision to retry Lewis in federal court.
"Now you have four federal judges who have come to the same conclusion, and we hope the federal government will review its case," Lonardo told media outlets following the news. "We hope that there'll be a new direction and a fresh investigation." Lonardo was reached for comment by Scene this fall, but cited a gag order relating to the retrial and declined comment.***
The trial of Antun Lewis begins once again Nov. 1. That's more than eight years after the fire.
Prosecutors called the whole case "relatively straightforward" in responding to the retrial filings. But the details and the stories and the lives involved in the fire at 1220 East 87th Street discriminately say otherwise. So does Judge Solomon Oliver, who presided over the original case that convicted Lewis in February 2011. He pointed out vast discrepancies between tales from the friends and family of Antun Lewis and the prison inmates who cemented the jury's verdict.
The second trial will proceed much like the first, though it's unclear what sort of new avenues the case will wind through.
After the first round of he-said, he-said, the community was given a conviction but left with a whole mess of criminals talking shit about one another. Half of the court transcripts don't even bear out any coherence. And there are no other suspects - at least none scrutinized as thoroughly as Lewis - anywhere on the horizon.
"It doesn't stop for us. Now it just puts us on another path of grief," Evelyn Martin, Medeia Carter's mother, said following the guilty verdict in 2011.
And it certainly hasn't stopped. The same void of information and plausibility and certainty first faced by jurors nearly three years ago still stares back at all of Cleveland today.
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