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by Troy Graham
Most Weston residents, still angry and frustrated over a November fire that took the lives of five children, welcomed the federal indictments handed down Thursday that could lead to the death penalty for the children's parents.
Janette Ables, 22, Barbara Brown, 33, and Ricky Brown, 24, who were charged with setting the fire, could all face the death penalty if convicted in federal court. Although capital punishment was abolished in West Virginia in 1965, Weston residents were eager to see it used in this case.
"I think they need the same thing that they did to those kids," said Rita Brown, who is not related to the defendants, on Friday. "I'm a mom and it just devastates me."
Prosecutors allege the three parents burned their house on Main Avenue while their children were still inside in order to collect insurance policies on the house and the children. The parents were charged in a 15-count indictment in federal court Thursday.
"It's unbelievable that people would do something like that," said Hugh Lane, who lives just outside of Weston. "They have no business being in this world if they're that heartless to do that."
Killed in the early morning fire last November were Seronica Castner, 10, Kimberly Castner, 9, Brandon Castner, 8, Rayshell Ables, 5, and Jimmy Ables, 3. Barbara and Ricky Brown, the Castner children's mother and stepfather, and Janette Ables, Rayshell and Jimmy's mother, were later charged in their deaths and have been held in the Central Regional Jail ever since.
Penny Mayo of Weston said the community's shock and furor have not died down in the 10 months since the blaze.
"The most frequent response is, 'If my kids were in a house on fire, I would die trying to get them out,'" said Pat Vankirk, a member of a team that helped residents cope with the children's deaths.
Gordon Lough, Janette Ables' father, and his wife, Katherine Buhl, warned that the three are innocent until proven guilty. Lough said he just wants to see the truth come out in a fair trial.
"I miss my grandbabies and I want someone to pay for it, but someone who really did it," Lough said.
This is the first time Ables has been in trouble with the law and she may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.
Buhl said Ables did not gain financially from the fire and had no reason to set the blaze.
"If they're guilty that's one thing, but no one knows," she said.
Other residents said there have been many rumors about the fire and few answers from authorities.
"I've heard so many stories, I don't know what's true," said Karen Butcher, who lives one block from where the Browns and Ables once lived. "I know those children died and the parents got out."
The federal indictments were the first action taken in the case against the three parents since they were arrested. As the public grew anxious, Lewis County prosecutors refused to talk about their plans. Authorities and residents said Friday that they were happy to see the case move foreword.
"The prosecutor's office caught a little flak, but we knew we had time. We knew what we were going to do," said Weston Police Chief Robbie Clem. "We're glad to see (the federal prosecutors) catch the ball and start going with it."
Clem said prosecutors probably waited for the federal grand jury so the death penalty could be used. It is still likely, though, that the three defendants will be charged with murder and arson in the next county grand jury session in November, he said.
With the death penalty now a possibility, some are thinking about their beliefs on capital punishment. U.S. Attorney William Wilmoth said he will decide whether to ask Attorney General Janet Reno for the authority to seek the death penalty in three weeks.
Buhl said the death penalty is not a fair punishment.
"How can they let one man decide if you live or die," she said.
"I used to be against the death penalty," said Butcher. "But there are just some instances where it needs brought back."
Even after the trials, though, some say it is doubtful that anyone will be able to forget the fire.
"This fire was different," said Assistant Fire Chief Dave Reed. "I don't think anyone will forget it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.