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No evidence directly links arson suspect to fire

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Witnesses say Sheree Dionne Murphy was at a Riverdale motel on June 7 when a fatal fire began, and she lied about it, the city's fire marshal testified in court.

However, under cross examination by Murphy's attorney, the fire marshal conceded that, at this point, there is no direct evidence linking the 41-year-old woman to the arson.

"Basically," Riverdale Fire Department Division Chief E.D. Ernest said, "we have her in the area."

"She was in the area and that's all you can prove?" Defense lawyer, Steve Frey, asked Ernest, during the probable cause hearing Tuesday morning.

"Yes sir," Ernest said, "and she lied about it."

The June 7 fire, called the worst in the city's history, started at a pile of mattresses under the back stairs of the 709 King Road structure, and quickly destroyed the 44-room, extended-stay motel.

The stairs were engulfed by the mattresses' flames, blocking the second story occupants' escape, and the firefighters' rescue path. Before the fire was extinguished, five people were dead, and three residents and seven firefighters were injured.

Frey, defending Murphy against a slew of charges stemming from the fire, including arson and murder, said the crux of the case against Murphy was nothing more than "liar, liar, pants on fire."

The warrant sworn out against Murphy, by Ernest, seems to say that seven witnesses saw the woman pouring flammable liquids on a pile of mattresses behind the motel immediately before it burned down, and seems to say that one witness heard her say she would burn the building down.

During the division chief's testimony, however, the evidence presented was all circumstantial and significantly more shaky.

As Murphy, a small woman, sat in the courtroom shaking her head at the testimony, her attorney led the fire marshal through each witness' statement.

Two witnesses said they saw Murphy behind the building a few minutes before the fire, according to Ernest's testimony. One said she saw Murphy walking in that direction. A man and a woman, in a car in front of the motel that morning, said they had an argument with Murphy.

The sixth and seventh witnesses were dropping children off at a nearby daycare facility, according to Ernest, and said they saw Murphy near the motel. They remembered seeing her because they say they saw her again, half a mile from the fire, pointing at the smoke and yelling.

The fire department's eighth witness, the one who alleges that Murphy talked about burning the building down, Ernest said, only came forward when a $10,000 reward was offered for information.

In the warrant application filed at the courthouse, Murphy is alleged to have said, "I'm going to burn this [expletive] down." During the probable cause hearing, however, Ernest said the full statement wasn't so clearly directed at the building. According to the witness, he said, Murphy was heard saying, "Who do those drug boys think they're dealing with? I'm going to burn this [expletive] down."

Frey questioned the witnesses' creditability, and said the witnesses' statements didn't actually connect Murphy to the fire.

"What evidence do you have that she deliberately set the fire?" Frey asked.

"I have no evidence she deliberately set the fire," Ernest said. "It's all circumstantial."

"Do you have any evidence that she accidentally set the fire?" Frey asked.

"No," the fire marshal said.

"Do you have any evidence that she doused the mattresses with lighter fluid, or some flammable liquid?" the attorney continued.

"No," Ernest said.

When Murphy was arrested last month, John Oxendine, the state's insurance commissioner, said investigators had suspected Murphy from the very beginning, but didn't make the arrest until they were 100 percent certain. On Tuesday, however, Clayton County Prosecutor John Turner wasn't arguing for 100 percent certainty.

He described the case as "a strong circumstantial case," and reminded the magistrate judge that the hearing was "not about the merits of the evidence, [but] about probable cause."

The judge ruled that Murphy is "a reasonable suspect," and bound the case over to superior court. She will face a grand jury and possible indictment.

Murphy looked disappointed that the case was not dismissed, but, as Sheriff's deputies shuffled her back to jail, Frey encouraged her.

"Don't worry, sweetheart," he said, "they've conceded they can't whip us at trial."