Local Obituaries

Remembering a social worker who couldn't forget a badly burned child

Linda Fair died Tuesday at the age of 77. Authorities credit her for bringing justice in a crime that had originally been ruled an accident.
Linda Fair died Tuesday at the age of 77. Authorities credit her for bringing justice in a crime that had originally been ruled an accident.

The story didn't add up.

She was a social worker and not an investigator, but Linda Fair recognized something wasn't right about the explanation offered by the stepfather about how a 9-year-old girl suffered extensive burns to her arms and face in 2009.

The fire was initially ruled an accident, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said in an electronic account of events, and Fair was assigned by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to offer the family clothes, toiletries and other basic necessities.

But her experience helping families and children in Planeview for many years told her Christopher Newberry's version of events didn't ring true. She asked the parents to bring the children in for additional interviews.

Instead, they moved to Arkansas. Fair reached out to social workers in Arkansas and pleaded with them to keep an eye on the family. When she was asked, the little girl couldn't remember much more than escaping from the fire.

The family took the girl to Shriners Children's Hospital in Ohio for treatment of her burn injuries and eventually returned to Wichita, Bennett said.

Fair convinced the family to come in for a "final interview," and an investigator at the Exploited and Missing Child Unit spoke to the burn victim's younger sister.

The younger girl, who was 4 at the time of the fire, slept in the same room as the victim. She told the investigator she remembered Newberry waking her up in the night and moving her to the living room couch.

Instead of staying on the couch, she followed him back to the room and watched as he “sprayed” something on her sleeping sister. When the investigator asked what it was, the little girl said it smelled like “chemicals.”

Following the young girl's conversation with the investigator, a police detective questioned Newberry again — and he confessed to setting the older sister on fire after spraying her with charcoal fluid. He admitted to removing the bedroom door from its hinges and blocking the exit in a failed attempt to make sure she died in the fire. She suffered burns on 40 percent of her body but survived.

Newberry pleaded guilty to one count of rape and five counts of arson. Investigators said he sexually assaulted the girl several times during the year before the fire, but the girl could remember only once. The victim’s grandmother says the girl was too afraid to say anything about what her stepdad was doing to her.

Newberry was sentenced to life in prison plus another 13 and 3/4 years in prison for the crimes. He was also sentenced to 61 months in prison for each of four counts of aggravated arson, to run concurrently with the sentences imposed for Newberry raping and attempting to kill his stepdaughter.

Newberry won't be eligible for parole until 2047.

“Not only are there emotional scars, there are actual debilitating physical scars that she has to deal with every day,” Bennett said of the burned girl at the time of Newberry's sentencing in 2012. “It’s hard to wrap your brain around how atrocious this crime was.”

Justice wouldn't have happened, Bennett said Friday, if it hadn't been for Linda Fair.

"She saved that child," Bennett said.

In the years since the fire, that young girl has graduated from high school and is attending college.

Linda Fair died on Tuesday at the age of 77. She loved to dance and spend time at casinos.

She was preceded in death by her husband, her parents, a brother and a son. She leaves behind two sons, three daughters-in-law, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

She also leaves behind a legacy of determination.

Her life, Bennett said, "deserves to be remembered."