CHICAGO (CBS) — A man who had been questioned by detectives investigating a fire that killed four people in the South Chicago neighborhood has been released without charges.
Three young sisters — 3-month-old Melanie Watson, 4-year-old Madison Watson, and 7-year-old Shaniya Staples — were killed in the blaze at 81st and Essex on Tuesday, along with 56-year-old Kirk Johnson, who lived in a neighboring apartment.
Chicago police had been questioning a man in connection to the fire since early Tuesday, but a police spokesman confirmed Thursday morning that man had been released without charges. Police say they didn’t have enough evidence to keep the man.
The fire started around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday in the three-story apartment building where they lived.
The girl’s father, 36-year-old Michael Watson, jumped from a third-floor window with Melanie in his arms, in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. He was hospitalized in critical condition. Melanie was pronounced dead at Comer Children’s hospital. An autopsy showed she died from injuries from a fall from height, and carbon monoxide toxicity. Her death was ruled a homicide.
The other two girls and their neighbor who died were not found until hours after the fire was put out. Autopsies have ruled they died of thermal injuries and carbon monoxide toxicity. Their deaths were also ruled homicides.
Firefighters could not go up the stairs when they arrived, because they had already been compromised by the fire.
Investigators have said it appears the fire was intentionally set.
Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Arriel Gray said the fire was “suspicious,” but he said he did not know if an accelerant was used, or where the fire started. A source said lighter fluid from a charcoal grill in back of the building might have been used to set the fire.
An ATF dog was brought in Wednesday to sniff for accelerants and signs of arson. The dog was just one tool the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was using as investigators searched for the cause of the fire.
A woman who lived in the garden-level apartment where the fire started said she believes a man who had been harassing her for $10 intentionally set the fire.
“I closed my door in his face. He began to punch and kick at the door. I went in my room and ignored him, because I’m like, ‘Eventually he’ll get the picture and he’ll leave.’ Never did I think that he was intending on setting anything on fire,” Latoya Terry said. “I know where he started the fire. He started it on my back porch.”