Kiarre Curtis, 26, and five of her children died from smoke inhalation in a motel fire last summer. But the Berrien County Prosecutor Michael J. Sepic said no criminal charges will be filed in the unfortunate accident that killed those six people.
Around 1:45 a.m. on July 28, 2018, crews responded to Cosmo Extended Stay Inn near Benton Harbor as a fire spread through the motel. When officers arrived, a portion of the motel was in flames and smoke filled the rest of the building.
Sepic said officers went into the building and started knocking on doors, telling residents to leave. As the smoke continued to billow into the motel, the officers were forced to go outside.
They then helped Samuel Curtis and his 1-year-old daughter off the second story balcony of Room 212. A witness said she later saw Curtis outside screaming that his family was still inside.
Police found Kiarre Curtis and five of the Curtis children in the second floor hallway or in the stairway heading downstairs, trying to escape the smoke-filled building. An autopsy later determined they all died from smoke inhalation.
The children were ages 10, 7, 5, 4 and 2.
While records showed that the motel had past issues with smoke alarms, Sepic reached the decision that there was no criminal intent or gross negligence to justify charges in the deaths.
The prosecuting attorney said the fire was not intentionally caused, which makes the only possible criminal charges related to negligence. He said his office explored several areas of criminal negligence during the investigation.
First, fire investigators determined the fire was caused by "careless use of a hot plate" by an occupant of the motel in Room 135. But that "does not reach the level of gross negligence needed to charge that individual with a crime," Sepic said.
The second route the prosecutor's office looked into was the smoke alarms in the building. "Some were functioning and some were not. Some residents heard smoke alarms and some did not," said Sepic.
The prosecuting attorney said that the lack of working smoke alarms in various rooms did not contribute to the deaths of much of the Curtis family. Rather, smoke was not a factor in Room 212, so the lack of an alarm did not delay the family's attempts to escape the building.
The third aspect Sepic examined for the possibility of gross negligence was the pull alarm system in the building. Sepic said that regardless of whether the pull system was working or not, it is not relevant to the details of this case.
The fire started on the first floor, and as occupants of rooms nearby opened their doors, more smoke entered the hallways. Because the Curtis family was not living in the room where the fire started, "a smoke detector would not have given them advanced warning," Sepic said.
Inspectors found no evidence that the pull alarm system was activated, so Sepic said if no one pulled an alarm, there would have been no building-wide warning.
Sepic also pointed out that a 2016 inspection required the building owners to make some changes to their fire and safety equipment. And an inspection later that year found the corrections had been made.
"For criminal law purposes, there is no evidence of criminal negligence and there is no evidence the pull fire alarm system was not operational; thus, no criminal charges will be lodged relating to these unfortunate deaths," Sepic concluded.
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