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Source: Kokomo Perspective

Christmas Eve fire spurs family to pursue wrongful death suit

Family claims they asked landlord to rewire house prior to electrical fire; landlord denies claim

Devin Zimmerman

After a fire resulted in the deaths of two young sisters on Christmas Eve, the family of the deceased girls claimed that they are pursuing a wrongful death suit against the owner of the property in which they were residing.

The fire that broke out at the home on 908 N. Morrison St. on Christmas Eve, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of Lexis Ann Jones, 12, and Mercedes Faith Jones, 10, was ruled as accidental last week following an investigation by the Kokomo Fire Department. Ahead of that determination, the family said they are pursuing a wrongful death complaint against the owner of the property, claiming they had asked the owner to rewire the home prior to the fire. The property owner, Joey Kimbrough, denied that he ever was asked to rewire the home.

“As soon as I hear back from the lawyer, I am going to file a civil suit for wrongful death,” said Kelly Jones, the mother of the deceased girls. “We asked him to do repairs on the electrical for the past several months and he told me that he wasn’t going to put any more money into the house. He knew it was bad.”

According to the findings from the investigation by KFD, the fire originated in the kitchen of the home, and evidence was identified “indicating a possible internal failure or area of resistive heating in an unknown electrical appliance energized by a duplex outlet in the kitchen, which could not be ruled out as the ignition source.”

When asked about the family’s claim that the electrical system was to blame for the fire, KFD Chief Nick Glover said the findings didn’t appear to support the claim that the home’s electrical system was at fault.

“(The report) doesn’t make any mention of it one way or another,” said Glover. “I would have to say as far as our investigation is concerned, they didn’t find any evidence to lead them to believe that one way or another. I did ask the investigator because he had made mention of the family saying something about some knob and tube wiring. (The investigator) said he didn’t see any of that there.

“With that said, I’m not saying it wasn’t maybe somewhere; we just didn’t see that … Now, the area of origin is where he was going to focus his investigation, which would be the area with the greatest amount of fire damage. That may not have led him to a void space upstairs where there wasn’t any fire damage; it was just smoke. He would have no reason to look somewhere like that. The focus of his investigation, he didn’t see anything that would lead him to believe there was faulty wiring.”

Regardless, Jones and her fiancé, Warren Rybalt, who also resided at the residence, insist that if the home had been rewired the fire could have been avoided.

Rybalt himself awoke shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to smoke coming through his and Jones’ bedroom door.

He said his first action was to throw his fiancé, who already was disoriented by smoke, through the couple’s bedroom window. He then exited through the window himself after breaking the window further to try and get to the children living in the home. In total, five juveniles resided at the residence.

“I came around to the front of the house from the side of the house and kicked in the front door. Luckily both of my boys were on the couch because, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here,” said Rybalt.

When he kicked in the door of the home, Rybalt said the flames within the home intensified, crawling across the ceiling. Shortly after finding the two boys in the living room and removing them from the residence, Rybalt went upstairs and located his fiancé’s youngest daughter and took her to safety.

“Then my … fiancé went to run up the stairs, and I had to grab her and drag her down by her ankles, actually, and throw her outside the house and keep her from going in because by then – this is all within seven minutes – you couldn’t go back up the stairs. There weren’t any stairs to go back up.”

Both Lexis and Mercedes remained in the home and later were located and pronounced deceased at 4:59 a.m. Howard County Coroner Steve Seele ruled last week that both children died from asphyxia due to smoke inhalation, and the manner of death was ruled as accidental.

“Actually, in a month we would have been gone,” said Rybalt. “About three-and-a-half more weeks we would have been gone.”

Rybalt claimed that he had asked Kimbrough for several months to rewire the house, which he said the homeowner denied.

“I asked him to do that, and he said it was updated,” said Rybalt. “He came to the hospital and said it was updated two years ago. And I said, ‘By who?’ He wouldn’t answer me. What he did was he just falsely wired the house.”

Kimbrough claimed otherwise.

The home on 908 N. Morrison St. is registered to JMC Investments LLC, operated by Kimbrough. It was leased to Jones and Rybalt on a lease with option to purchase agreement.

According to Kimbrough, he never was approached about rewiring the home.

“They have never asked me to rewire the house,” said Kimbrough. “From what I understand there’s been an investigation completed, and the fire was started from the stove. So I think there’s a lot of fallacies out there.

“I think, personally, they see an opportunity where they could maybe make a buck off of this, unfortunately, as bad as that is since there were a couple kids there … If somebody had asked me to rewire anything or take care of anything I would have done so. That is 100-percent inaccurate.”

He also said that Rybalt’s claim about having the home rewired two years ago was not true.

“At one time I had 14 houses, so I can’t tell you when I did things,” said Kimbrough. “I can tell you I don’t think I rewired that house at all … I’ve had several tenants in there. Anytime I’ve leased it it’s been with an option. If somebody’s changed something around there, I don’t know if anybody’s done that in the past.”

Kimbrough provided a copy of the lease held between him, Rybalt, and Jones. He said the lease also absolved him of responsibility for repairs to the home.

“That lease spells out 100 percent of the responsibility of any maintenance items are Kelly and Warren’s obligation,” said Kimbrough. “So this is a lease option they were in. It wasn’t a rental by any means.”

According to the lease, the “Lessee is responsible for keeping the lawn in good condition with grass mowed on a weekly basis. Also, all improvements to the property should be kept in good repair and are the responsibility of the lessee.”

The contract, which was signed on Feb. 24, 2017, also indicated the property was being sold in “as is” condition.

Should the suit by Jones and Rybolt hit the local courts, further reports will follow.

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