After the Fire: Snitches Got Antun Lewis Convicted of Setting Cleveland's Deadliest House fire. Snitches Might Now Set Him Free 

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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.

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