GARY — With Christmas Eve 2016 less than an hour away, city firefighters arrived at the Oak Knoll Renaissance Apartments confronted with catastrophic conditions — extreme heat, flames jutting out of second-story windows, and, inside, the discovery of three small children who didn’t make it out alive.
Though mum on the possibility of any suspects, motives or progress made since last year, authorities say they still are seeking tips about how three children died in a blaze the night of Dec. 23, 2016, that firefighters battled into the early morning hours of Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve morning, hours after the fire was struck and crews were able to go home to their families after a long night, a makeshift children's memorial of stuffed animals circled a tree not far from the charred, boarded-up apartment unit.
Shortly after the fire, investigators ruled it arson.
Yoasha Carter, one of two adults who escaped the fire, told The Times on Saturday she doesn't personally know who may have set fire to her sister's apartment.
"There are different theories, but nothing, like, that we know for sure," Carter said.
'A glowing red line'
A Gary Fire Department report, authored by investigator Dwayne Hull and recently released to The Times, describes the harrowing details provided by firefighters as they arrived at 11:23 p.m. that night: In blacked-out conditions inside the home, firefighters saw “a glowing red line” leading up the stairway that turned out to be a metal hand-railing.
Inside the two-story apartment at 4492 W. 23rd Court, the stairs were “completely charred from the first step to the upper landing,” and high heat damaged the north bedroom, causing "blistering of the ceilings and walls.”
“On reaching the second floor, they found fire coming from the first bedroom and the mattress burning in the second bedroom … The victims were found during the search phase,” the report reads.
One child was found at the top of the stairs. Two others were later found, together, on a burnt-out mattress.
Cousins Jayden Mitchell, 5, A’laya Pickens, 4, and Yaleah Cohen, 2, died in the fire.
Two adults escaped the fire. The Gary investigator on scene noted in the report he was able to ask one question before a man, later identified as Willie E. Carter, was taken to the emergency room with severe burns.
Yoasha Carter, Willie Carter's wife at the time and mother to Mitchell and Pickens, told investigators she had been upstairs in a bedroom when her child told her “the house is on fire,” and she jumped out of a second-story window, the report states.
Mother received 'death threats'
Yoasha Carter told The Times on Saturday that Willie Carter told her to jump out the window and she thought he would be able to save her kids.
“I thought the other children were downstairs, where I last left them,” she said.
When she went to bed that night, about half a dozen other adults were in the house, but left, apparently, before the fire tore through the apartment, she said.
When the 23-year-old was arrested this past February in Wisconsin for allegedly pointing a firearm at another person during an argument at a McDonald’s, she told police she purchased the gun because she had been “receiving death threats” after someone burned down her sister’s house, referring to the Dec. 23 incident.
“Yes, that’s true,” Yoasha Carter said Saturday. “I was receiving death threats. People were asking ‘Why didn’t you try harder to get your kids out of the house? Why did you listen to your husband?’”
Yoasha Carter said her son, Jayden, was “always protective of his sisters,” and was mature for his age. Jayden was getting ready to start kindergarten at Aspire Charter Academy, and A’laya had been attending preschool full time, she said.
“A’laya, she was kind-hearted," Yoasha Carter said. "She would always walk up to you and ask ‘Do you need a hug? Do you need a kiss?’"
According to the report, Yoasha Carter "continued to cry and weep" that night and complained of neck and body pain when investigators questioned her about what happened. Family on scene pressed her to go to the emergency room. Hull made note that he did not see any soot, smoke or burns on her body or clothing.
Asked Saturday about the investigator’s observations, Yoasha Carter said, “The injuries were there. Witnesses seen me jump from the window.”
She said she suffered several facial injuries and broken eye sockets, and her position in the apartment made her far enough from the flames that she didn’t suffer any burns.
Hull did not return phone call requests for further comment Thursday and Friday. Willie Carter could not be reached for comment.
Yoasha Carter, now residing in Chicago, said she hasn’t spoken with investigators for some time.
“No, I don’t talk to them. I keep my distance. I feel like they’re not doing the best job they can," she said.
Authorities have said they continue to investigate the fire and that the case is still "open and active."
Fire started on first floor
Days after the fire, investigators sifted through the debris, finding a 5-gallon gasoline container under the table in a corner, according to the report.
Burn and pour patterns were visually noted in several areas of the home, and an arson-sniffing dog indicated multiple areas where a petroleum-based accelerant may have been used in the north living room and on two separate stairs in the stairway, according to the report.
"The area of origin is the first floor ... with the cause being incendiary by an unknown person or persons," the report concludes.
Asked about the gasoline container, Yoasha Carter said Saturday because it was her sister's house, "anything that was in it, I wouldn't be aware of (how it got there)."
Police offer $5,000 reward
A spokesman with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives declined to comment on the investigation, though noted the reward they are offering along with the Gary Police Department is “still active.”
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security, speaking on behalf of the state fire marshal's office, declined to comment on the contents of the Gary Fire Department's investigative report. DHS deferred all questions to the Lake County Metro Homicide Unit, "as they are the lead on the case," the spokesperson said.
Emiliano Perez, a spokesman with the Lake County Sheriff's Department who spoke on behalf of the Lake County/Gary Metro Homicide Unit, declined to answer questions about the investigation, citing the open investigation.
Police are asking anyone with knowledge of events leading up to, during and after the fire to call Detective Sgt. Shauna Poirier-Peter, of the Lake County/Gary Metro Homicide Unit, at 219-755-3855. To remain anonymous, call 866-CRIME-GP.