The night Ja’Kara Dickson accidentally ignited her clothes – burning her so severely she would die three days later – wasn’t the first time the 6-year-old had been left home without an adult to protect her, a neighbor says.
Melissa Juiliano said she believes, and told police after the fire, that Ja’Kara was often home with only her two sisters, ages 4 and 7, while their mother, Ruthie Bell, was away.
And according to a sheriff’s report, someone had reported once before, in 2010, that Bell’s children had allegedly been neglected or endangered.
Bell’s attorney, Pat Mitchell, said Thursday: “It’s our position that she did not leave the children home alone … at the time of the tragedy.” Mitchell said he couldn’t elaborate on what he meant by that.
Authorities have said that no adults were at home at the time of the fire.
Mitchell said other family members would periodically watch the children. Bell was at work, as a home health care provider, at the time of the fire, he said.
“I just don’t want her to be misjudged,” Mitchell said. “That’s what I’m asking everyone to do at this time, is to keep an open mind.”
He has said that she is “devastated” by the death of her child and that she is not guilty of the charges filed last week – three counts of aggravated child endangerment, one for each of the three girls home the night of the fire.
Bell had remained in jail with a $100,000 bond, but by Saturday she was no longer listed as an inmate.
Around 7 p.m. the day of the fire, Ja’Kara had been playing with a lighter and burning plastic in a bathroom, authorities have said. She accidentally ignited her clothes and suffered burns on about 40 percent of her body.
The fire spread inside the house, at 3915 E. Countryside, near Harry and Hillside. Another neighbor, Kelley Riegle, heard the fire alarm and rescued Ja’Kara and her two sisters, ages 4 and 7, from the burning house.
Ja’Kara jumped into the arms of her rescuer. But on the morning of July 14, not quite three full days later, the girl died from her injuries.
Juiliano said Ja’Kara and her sisters had lived next door for about six months. She would notice the mother get into a car with a man who lived at their house along with a 1-year-old boy and see them drive away – without the girls.
When the car returned, Juiliano would see the girls outside.
“So you kind of put two and two together,” she said. It seemed clear to her that the girls stayed inside the house while the adults were gone.
Juiliano is listed as a witness in a court document containing the charges against Bell. Juiliano said she told police investigating the fire that she had seen the girls being left home alone.
There was a point around February, Juiliano said, when she was about to report the situation to the state child protection agency. But she said someone close to her told her not to, that “I should stay out of it.”
“But being a mom, knowing that the girls were alone, it was a concern,” she said.
The oldest of Ja’Kara’s siblings is 7, now almost 8, Juiliano said, and she wonders whether Bell thought the girl was old enough to be in charge while adults were away.
“She always tended to her (younger) sisters,” Juiliano said of the 7-year-old. But to Juiliano, 7 is too young.
There was another incident, in 2010, involving at least an initial investigation into whether one of Bell’s children was endangered. According to a sheriff’s offense report dated Jan. 5, 2010, authorities checked into a report that a 4-year-old girl was suspected of being a victim of neglect or endangerment. The report doesn’t give details of the incident.
The girl involved was the same age and had the same initials as Ja’Kara’s older sister and had the same Oaklawn address where Bell had been living. A U.S. Postal Service employee reported the incident.
The report said that copies of the report were going to the state’s child protection agency, then known as SRS, and to the Wichita/Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit. But apparently no charges were filed.
Parts of the public portion of the report were whited out. The Eagle received the report this past week after requesting public portions of incident reports involving Bell.
Acting Fire Marshal Stuart Bevis said “it’s unusual in my experience” for young children to be home alone during a fire.
Typically, adults are home, maybe in another room or asleep or out working in the yard, when a fire breaks out that affects young children, Bevis said.
“A lighter or a match is a weapon that can destroy a house in no time,” Bevis said. So fire-starting materials should be kept “just as inaccessible as guns” around children, he said.
When he talks to children about fire safety, he tells them that if they find a lighter, “I don’t want them touching it.” He tells them that they should alert an adult.
When fires are started for legitimate reasons, to a light a campfire or for even something as innocent as lighting candles atop a birthday cake, it’s an opportunity for adults to explain the risks and the safety rules for children, he said. Parents also have to set the right example, he said.
In the fire at Ja’Kara’s home, as emergency crews were responding, Juiliano tried to comfort Bell’s daughters. They knew Juiliano because they had played with her young children.
During the frantic moments that night, someone handed Juiliano a phone with Bell’s number. When Bell answered, Juiliano said, she told Bell she needed to get home in a hurry, that her house was on fire.
Because there was so much going on at the time, Juiliano said, she’s not sure how long it took for Bell to arrive. It seemed like it took several minutes, Juiliano said.
After the fire, Juiliano said, “I cried.”
Bell has been charged with breaking the law on child safety before.
Court records show she has been cited four times in recent years, most recently in 2012, accused of violating the law on vehicle child safety restraints. In three of the four cases, the alleged violation involved children under 4. She was found guilty in those three cases; in the fourth case, the final disposition isn’t clear.
In November 2010, SRS filed a petition in court alleging that Bell “intentionally and fraudulently falsified a child care provider contract to obtain child care subsidies,” resulting in a subsidy overpayment of $7,755.15. In March 2011, the court entered a judgment against her for that amount.
Bell also was charged in juvenile court, when she was 16, with criminal discharge of a firearm at an occupied vehicle and two counts of aggravated assault, court records show. She had been accused of firing into a Honda with five people inside in December 2001.
She pleaded no contest to the charges, and a judge ruled that she was “dangerous to self or others” and should remain in the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility. It’s unclear how long she was held there.
‘Cute as buttons’
According to Ja’Kara’s obituary, she spent her kindergarten year at Cooper Elementary School, in the Oaklawn neighborhood, in the Derby school district.
Riegle, the neighbor who heard the fire alarm and forced open a door to get the children out of the house the night of the fire, said that when she would see the children outside playing, they seemed happy.
At Easter, the children were dressed up in their Easter finery.
“They were just cute as buttons,” said Louise Thomason, Riegle’s housemate.
Ja’Kara’s obituary said she was “a very smart, loving, and happy child” who “loved to draw and color and help with extra chores around the house” and that she took good care of her pet guinea pig.
On Sunday morning, July 14, her obituary said, she “fell asleep in the arms of the Lord.”