Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about Karla Vonachen's place of employment.
A 14-year-old boy who neighbors said liked to ride bikes with his family was charged Friday with two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated arson in connection to the house fire that killed his mother and younger sister.
In announcing the charges, Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder also said he intends to seek authorization from a juvenile court judge to try Sam Vonachen as an adult.
Schroeder said he couldn’t discuss what Vonachen’s motive might have been.
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“Obviously, he was angry,” Schroeder said.
Vonachen also was charged with attempted murder in the first degree of his father, Steve Vonachen, 48, who was in the house at the time of the fire early Thursday morning but escaped without injury.
The murder charges qualified as first degree because the crimes were either “premeditated or occurred during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony,” Schroeder said.
Vonachen, a Buhler High School freshman, is expected to make his first appearance Monday in Division IV of Reno County District Court.
Schroeder said the hearing will probably be closed to the public under state law because Vonachen is younger than 16. He is being held in the Reno County Youth Services Detention facility.
The fire at the family’s two-story home at 4 E. 19th Ave. occurred shortly after midnight Thursday. The first floor was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. Investigators found that accelerant had been poured around several rooms on the first floor.
Audrey Vonachen, 11, and her mother, Karla Vonachen, 47, were found in a second-floor bedroom.
Audrey, who played trombone and was in the sixth grade, died at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center shortly after the fire. Karla Vonachen died late Thursday afternoon at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in Wichita. She was employed at Lowen Corp.
Schroeder said Sam Vonachen was not at the scene when firefighters arrived.
“He returned to the house several hours later,” Schroeder said, “and was arrested in the evening at the police station.”
The events caught the quiet neighborhood and the community off-guard.
“I’m dumbfounded by all this,” said April Evans, who has lived with her three children and husband immediately north of the Vonhachen’s corner house on Main Street for about three years. “They are a really quiet family, but you would see them outside together.
“Mom and Dad rode bikes together. Mom and the little girl would ride bikes together. The boy would ride bikes with his family. They’d plant flowers together.”
She said her two daughters, 9 and 7, played with Audrey.
“They’re still talking about what happened – as much as they can understand,” Evans said.
As for Sam Vonachen, Evans said: “I really didn’t know him. He answered the door once when I went over. That was it.”
A couple of students at Buhler High School described him as quiet. Others said he planned to participate in wrestling.
“I didn’t know him really well, but he was different in school,” said Chase Myrtle, a sophomore at Buhler.
Sirens are a normal sound for this neighborhood, with its heavy canopy of trees and red-brick side streets, because there’s a fire station only a block away.
Evans said she was up about midnight and heard someone outside say to call 911. She stepped outside and saw thick smoke pouring out of the house and heard a big pop.
“I saw the dad standing out front,” she said. “I heard people yelling, ‘Just break the window and jump out.’ I’m not sure who was yelling it. No one jumped.”
Because the intense fire was so close to her house, Evans was asked to take her family and wait a few blocks away. It was almost 3 a.m. before they could return to their home.
Around the corner from the Vonachen house lives the woman who said she first started baby-sitting the two Vonachen children when they were 6 weeks old – even before the family moved to their house 10 years ago.
But the woman didn’t want to talk about what happened or give her name.
“They were like family,” she said.
When Steve Vonachen came to the house Friday morning, she went over to see him.
A couple of balloons and a wreath were tied to a stop sign in front of the house, which was charred black in front and along parts of the sides. A pot of flowers had been placed at the base of the sign.
“It was so sad to hear about this,” said Millie Brooks.
Brooks and her husband live about a block away but didn’t know the Vonachens other than to wave when passing.
“Something like this just shouldn’t happen,” she said. “You have to wonder why.”
Students at Prosperity Elementary, which Audrey attended, also had questions. Counselors were on hand Thursday and Friday to help, said principal Randy Doerksen.
“Audrey was a sweet young lady,” Doerksen said. “She loved to write, loved to doodle.
“The important thing is we are keeping the family in our thoughts and prayers.”