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Reno to decide if feds will seek death penalty in fatal Weston fire

U.S. Attorney Wilmoth believes defendants can get fair trial in Clarksburg

by James Fisher


(September 18, 1998) WHEELING -- The federal trial of three Weston parents accused of setting a house fire that killed their five children probably will be held in Clarksburg, U.S. Attorney William D. Wilmoth said Thursday.

Janette A. Ables, 22, Barbara M. Brown, 33, and Ricky Lee Brown, 24, were charged in a 15-count federal indictment Thursday. The indictment accuses them of setting the fire to cash in on insurance policies.

Wilmoth said he would decide in three weeks whether to seek the death penalty from Attorney General Janet Reno.

U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley probably will preside over the trial, Wilmoth said.

"I have in the past asked that a trial be moved to another area, but I feel comfortable that a fair jury can be found in Clarksburg," Wilmoth said.

Killed in the fire last November were Barbara Brown's three children, Seronica Castner, 10, Kimberly Castner, 9, and Brandon Castner, 8, along with Ables' two children, Rayshell, 5, and Jimmy, 3. Ricky Brown was stepfather of the Castner children.

Ables and the Browns have been held on $250,000 bond apiece at Central Regional Jail in Flatwoods since their arrests last Dec. 10 on state charges of first-degree arson. They have been isolated from other inmates for their own safety.

No federal trial or arraignment date has been set.

Wilmoth said investigators were forced to stay silent and absorb pressure from residents to bring charges.

"I'm glad that everybody picked up the reigns and we ran with it," said Lewis county Sheriff Robert Rinehart.

"I was there at the fire and it was terrible. I'm glad to see that something is being done about this. ... a lot of people have asked me point blank questions about why something hasn't been done about this. I hope this satisfied everything and all the people's questions."

The indictment charges Janette Ables and Barbara and Ricky Brown with arson resulting in death, mail fraud, conspiracy and use of fire to commit a felony.

Thirteen of the federal charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while a 14th carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A 15th count can bring life in prison or the death penalty.

Lewis County Prosecutor Joseph Wagoner said the suspects also face likely indictments by a county grand jury in November on felony murder, arson and conspiracy charges. The state charges do not carry a potential death penalty.

Wilmoth said economics "were at least part of the basis" for the scheme.

The fire was set with gasoline to cash in on a $91,000 homeowners' insurance policy, the indictment said. Also, in the weeks prior to the fire, Barbara Brown took out $5,000 life insurance policies on each of her three children and a $10,000 policy for herself, it said.

In August 1997, the Browns met with the Department of Health and Human Resources and were told that as long as Ricky Brown continued receiving $484 per month in Supplement Security Income benefits, his wife would lose $312 per month in other welfare benefits she had received for her children.

The indictment said Barbara Brown's sister loaned her $23.88 in October 1997 to make the first payment on the life insurance policy. The sister's name was not given.

In November, three weeks before the fire, Ricky Brown mailed a check for $69.50 to reinstate his homeowner's insurance policy, which had lapsed a month earlier, the indictment said.

All three adults escaped the burning house, along with Ricky Brown's brother, David, and another man who did not live in the home. That man has never been publicly identified.

Suspicion mounted in the days after the Nov. 21 fire, partly because the house was engulfed in flames before firefighters arrived from just two blocks away. The fire was so intense that windows were blown out.

Ricky Brown had blamed the fire on children playing with matches. He had said his fire extinguisher didn't work.

David Brown told the federal grand jury in February that he did not believe his brother was responsible.

Wagoner said David Brown and the other man present remain under investigation.

In Weston, Sharon Pinkney lived next door to the Browns and took in the families after the fire.

"I do not know how I feel about the death penalty for anyone, but I'm glad to hear they were indicted," said Pinkney, who runs a day-care center in town.

Another neighbor, Joy Fealy, was more insistent.

"We stood here and watched the fire and the parents didn't try to go in after the kids or anything," Fealy said. "If they get the death penalty, they probably deserve it after what they did."

Two houses down, April Garton, was more forgiving.

"I'm sorry about the whole thing. I hope they're not guilty," she said.

Her husband, Charles Garton, who owns a local real estate agency, bought the property from Ricky Brown after the fire, razed the house and planted grass.

Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith contributed to this report.