Firestarter: A portrait of arsonist and murderer Tonya Lucas
A version of this article appeared in Baltimore City Paper, September 24, 1993
SHE SITS at the trial table in a succession of fashionable outfits, but in this instance, the clothes do not make the woman. Tonya Lucas has a hard look, and neither bows in her hair nor silk on her long, thin body can hide that.
Lucas is not a person who elicits much sympathy. Not from her neighbors and acquaintances. Not from the random man or woman on the street. Certainly not from police or the state’s attorney’s office. Even her own lawyer says, “She is not a sympathetic person.” And Lucas soon finds that she will get no sympathy from a Baltimore Circuit Court jury.
On July 30, after deliberating nine hours over two-and-a-half days, that Circuit Court jury of seven men and five women (seven blacks and five whites) convicts Tonya Lucas of murdering six of her own children by pouring gasoline around her living room and setting fire to her East Eager Street rowhouse.
One of the sensational aspects of this case—a case that has had a high profile in the media since the arson was committed on July 7, 1992—is that one of the children, two-year-old Gregory Cook, weighed just 10 pounds at the time of his death. Doctors found that he had untreated injuries, including fractured and broken bones. According to the state’s argument, advanced by prosecutors Jack Lesser and Marcella Holland, Lucas set the fire, in part, to hide evidence that she was abusing Gregory.
The children who died the day of the fire were Damien Cook, one-and-one-half months; Gregory Cook, two; Takia Cook, three; and Russell “Bookie” Williams, five. Later, Deon Cook, three, and Antoine Lucas, 12, were pronounced dead. Of Lucas’ seven children, only William “Little Billy” Cook survived the blaze.
While police and prosecutors depict Lucas as a drug-addicted and uncaring woman who committed the arson in a desperate act, her lawyer and family members say that because she has been perceived, in the words of her attorney, as a “bad person,” she has been the object of an emotional, rather than logical, investigation.
In fact, initially, the prime suspect in the case was not Lucas but rather a boarder in the East Eager Street house, Andre Moore, who was found to have petroleum products on his clothing and hands. He was arrested at the scene of the fire. Lucas, her supporters say, was a victim, not a perpetrator, of the arson, and has suffered greatly from the loss of her six children.
THE TRIAL that ended in July was the second time around for Lucas. Her first Circuit Court trial ended in a mistrial April 1 because the jury was deadlocked 10 to two in favor of conviction. At that time the jury deliberated for four days before the forewoman sent a note to the judge. It read, “Short of violence, we are hopelessly deadlocked.”
During the first trial, evidence of child abuse was not presented, because Judge Clifton J. Gordy, who ruled on most of the pretrial motions in this case, would not allow it. The only motive the state was allowed to present was the argument that Lucas set the fire because she was about to be evicted from her house in the Milton-Mintford neighborhood of East Baltimore and hoped to gain aid from the American Red Cross, which helps relocate fire victims and provides them with vouchers for clothes and furnishings.
For Lucas’ second trial for arson and murder, prosecutors Lesser and Holland filed a pretrial memorandum requesting the admission of evidence of child abuse and neglect. In the memorandum, they wrote that Lucas knew of her imminent eviction and feared that Gregory’s condition would be reported by anyone who saw him, so she “chose the option she thought would get her the best results. She started a fire from which she believed her boyfriend, her healthy children and she could escape; and in which her problem, Gregory, could be killed and burnt beyond recognition of any abuse.”
Chief Judge Robert Hammerman, who also presided over Lucas’ first trial, decided to allow the evidence of child abuse, over the strenuous objections of Lucas’ attorney, Mark Van Bavel. Van Bavel argued in a memorandum that such evidence was “exceedingly prejudicial.” (Evidence of other crimes is usually inadmissible, except in cases in which, for example, the evidence is necessary for prosecutors to prove a motive.) The evidence Van Bavel was hoping to exclude includes photographs of the bodies of the children and testimony regarding physical evidence of abuse.
Because of Hammerman’s decision, detectives and firefighters are allowed to go up to the witness stand and speak of the horror of seeing the stiff and lifeless form of Gregory.
One firefighter says, “The child was like this”—he holds his arms up rigidly. “It looked like rigor mortis had set in. I saw the child’s teeth. He looked like nothing more than a skeleton; he looked like a doll.” When shown photos of Gregory for identification purposes, the firefighter first pauses to gain control of his emotions, and then says, “That’s the child.” Later he says, “There’s a few things you never forget. One’s your first fire, and one is something like this.”
THE POLICE and prosecutors contend that on the night before the fire, Lucas and Cook were drinking beer and smoking crack with boarders Wilson and Harris. Lucas remarked to the couple how Moore often would throw the paper he had used to light the stove on the floor, and that he was likely to start a fire. Police believe she was trying to plant the seeds of suspicion that would support her later accusation of Moore.
Furthermore, if a fire were to occur, Lucas told the couple, they could get out easily through a front basement window. Lucas, Cook, and Lucas’ children retired upstairs later that evening. Lucas and Cook were in one upstairs bedroom with two of her children. The five other children were in the adjacent room, the bedroom at the front of the house.
Andre Moore came home early that morning, at about 6 a.m. He had no key, so he banged on both the front and back doors, disturbing the neighbors. Eventually, he gave up and went to sleep on the back step, as was sometimes his habit.
Later that morning, Lucas was restless. Police contend that she needed to get high to steel herself for what she intended to do. She got dressed in a tank top and sweat pants and went out. On the corner of Eager Street and Broadway, she solicited Eugene Weddington for oral sex. With his $10 she bought some crack and then brought Weddington back to her home, where she smoked the crack. Then she told him that she was about to be evicted that morning because she was later with her rent. She asked him if he knew if the Red Cross would help relocate her if she were the victim of a fire. He told her that he didn’t know.
Weddington thought she was kidding when she told him of her plans to torch her own house, but then watched as she poured a flammable liquid around the living room and ignited the fire. It was about 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes before Lucas was scheduled to be evicted.
Weddington left, and Lucas ran upstairs. The fire spread more quickly than she expected.
When Cook awoke, the smoke alarm was going off. As soon as he realized what was happening, he ran to the front room to get the kids out, but found only Little Billy. Cook told Lucas to jump, which she did. Then he threw Little Billy out, and neighbors on the ground caught him (Lucas would testify that Little Billy landed on top of her). Then, naked, Cook himself jumped out. Boarders Mary Wilson, Sylvester Harris, and Wilson’s two children escaped from a basement window.
Lucas, Cook, and Little Billy ran through a neighboring rowhouse to get to the back of their own house. The fire already was too fierce in the front of the house to get in that way, and Cook was determined to get back into the house to get the rest of the children out. Cook got a pair of his own shoes back from Moore, who was wearing them, and tried unsuccessfully to get back into the house.
At one point Lucas asked Moore, “Why did you set fire to my house?,” thereby starting the rumors that led to Moore’s arrest later that morning. Inside the house, six of Lucas’ children were dead or dying from smoke and soot inhalation.
HOMICIDE DETECTIVE Bertina “Bert” Silver, with 19 years in the Baltimore Police Department, was the primary investigator in the case.
“We thought we had an easy case [against Moore],” Silver says in an interview after the trial. “Andre was already in custody when we arrived. We thought we had witnesses. When we interviewed them, it turned out we had no witnesses.” (Those who accused Moore, police say, got their information from Lucas.) “After we saw the children, we realized there was more to the investigation than we originally thought,” Silver says.
Police went door to door in the neighborhood in search of leads. There was reputed to be a “fat boy” who had seen Moore set the fire, but he was never found. Instead, what police heard was that Lucas was unfriendly, that she used drugs, that she didn’t allow people into her house. Some neighbors thought she had only five children because, Silver believes, Lucas was trying to hide Gregory and her daughter, Takia, both of whom were underweight, according to Silver. Even Harris and Wilson were not allowed upstairs to use the bathroom—again, Silver believes, because Lucas did not want anyone to see the condition of Takia and Gregory.
During the investigation, Eugene Weddington came forward, apparently moved to do so when he heard of the children’s deaths. Weddington’s story to the grand jury that would indict Lucas was that he met a man who offered him money to serve as a lookout while an arson fire was set. He saw, he said, looking through the open front door, a woman setting a fire, a woman he later identified among several police photos, as Lucas.
Later, he recanted his testimony, explaining that he did not want his father or his girlfriend to know that he had agreed to pay for a sexual act. He thought, he said, if he identified the woman, it wouldn’t matter how he had met her. The state agreed not to press perjury charges against Weddington if he agreed to testify truthfully against Lucas, with the stipulation that he could not have been involved in the arson and murders. Weddington’s accusation of Lucas, however, merely supported other evidence police already had gathered, Silver says.
Silver maintains that people who are guilty try to blame others. “There’s a certain way suspects talk,” she explains. “If they’re guilty, you’re gonna get that certain answer.” Whereas Cook “pointed the finger at no one, he just had no idea,” Lucas “started blaming everybody.” Lucas, Silver says, pointed the finger at nearly everyone in the house: Wilson and Harris, Cook, Moore, even Little Billy.
A couple things stuck in her mind, Silver says. In Cook’s initial interview with police, he said, according to Silver, “When he woke up [Lucas] was half out the window, and he wondered how she got dressed so fast.” Another thing that bothered her, Silver says, is that “Tonya went next door, went through the house to the back and asked Andre, ‘Why’d you set my house on fire?’ How’d she know it was deliberately set?”
Missing from the account advanced by police, however, is a satisfactory explanation of why Moore was found to have had petroleum products on his clothing (as Lucas had on hers). Silver, however, suggests of Lucas, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she poured it on him.”
AT LUCAS’ trial, Silver, 41, wears a fuchsia suit and gold earrings and necklace. On the witness stand, under questioning by Lesser, she describes getting the call for arson-homicide, arriving on the scene, and examining the house. By the time she got there, the Baltimore City Fire Department’s Fire Investigation Bureau already had determined that the fire was arson, and that it had been set from inside the rowhouse.
When describing the East Eager Street house, Silver remarks that because of the small size of the rooms, she found it “unbelievable” that Lucas could not have grabbed any of her children when she passed through the front room on the way out the window.
By the time the homicide squad arrived on the scene, she says, the children’s bodies already had been taken to the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency room. Silver went there to look at the victims, following police procedure.
At this point in Silver’s narrative, Lesser brings out photos of the victims and asks Silver to identify them. Up to this moment Silver has been dispassionate in her testimony, but she starts to cry while looking at the photos of the children’s burned bodies. Lucas also pulls out a tissue.
Silver identifies the children, remarking afterward, “Gregory looked so thin and frail you could see his bones. He looked like a child from Somalia.”
Initially, investigators suspected that Gregory was dead before the fire, because his body already was in a state of rigor mortis when he was found. But later this speculation proved untrue. As Dr. John Smialek, the state’s chief medical examiner, testifies, the intense heat of the fire and the child’s low body weight helped to accelerate the rigor mortis process. And while the belief that Gregory died before the fire initially threw suspicion on Lucas, homicide squad supervisor Detective Sergeant Gary Childs testifies that all adults in the house were suspects at that point.
However, Lucas and her family have maintained that the misinformation about Gregory’s death made police hostile to Lucas from the beginning of the investigation.
Silver, however, explains that she “had to keep an open mind” early in the investigation.
“I’m a mother myself,” she says, indicating the sympathy she was inclined to feel toward a mother who had lost her children. Although procedure called for Silver to ask Lucas to come downtown to police headquarters, she says she extended to Lucas courtesies that she might not have extended to a prime suspect—which, she says, Lucas was not at that time.
Nevertheless, under cross-examination by Van Bavel, Silver testifies that there were things about Lucas that made her uneasy. “I appeared to be more upset than she was,” Silver says. “That bothered me. Usually a mother who loses a child, the mother is hysterical.”
Van Bavel proposes that Silver didn’t like Lucas. Silver denies this. She says, however, that although it was a normal part of police procedure to ask Lucas to come to police headquarters, she was “surprised” that Lucas complied. Bereaved parents, she contends, often refuse to make statements immediately, whereas guilty persons are anxious to offer an explanation for their actions.
TONYA RENÉE Lucas, 29, says she is the daughter of a Cherokee father and a black mother. Her father, Andrew Lucas, she says, has a construction business, and her mother, Shirley Lucas, worked as a cleaning woman and later as a maintenance office worker for the federal government until her death of a heart attack 10 years ago. Lucas’ parents divorced when she was a toddler. She has four sisters, four brothers, and six half-sisters—her father had 14 children altogether. (Lucas is the third youngest among her full brothers and sisters.)
After Tonya’s parents divorced, her father got custody of the younger children, including Tonya, and the mother got custody of the older ones. Tonya describes the breakup of her family as “devastating…. We wanted to live with our mother. The situation I lived in for years over there, it wasn’t no lily field—it was traumatizing…. It wasn’t a happy childhood until I lived with my mother.”
When Tonya was an adolescent, she moved from her father’s home on Beaumont Avenue, in Northeast Baltimore, to her mother’s home on Franklintown Road, in West Baltimore. “When I first lived with my mother, that was happy,” she says. “That was the best years of my life until I had my kids and had a life of my own.”
As a result of a short-term relationship, Lucas had her first child, Antoine, when she was 16. (Later, his father, with whom she did not keep in touch after the baby was born, died of a gunshot wound.) Around that time she dropped out of Northern Senior High 402, where she had completed the 11th grade.
In 1982, she met William Cook III, “Big Billy,” with whom she would have five children: William, Deon, Takia, Gregory, and Damien. She had Russell “Bookie” Williams with a man named Russell Williams while Cook was in jail for a rape conviction.
She did not want to have so many children, she says, but birth control pills did not agree with her. And although she says she is “pro-choice all the way,” she didn’t want to have abortions herself. She has supported herself mostly by receiving welfare payments—about $1,400 per month. She has had only one job in her life, working as a telemarketer for a short time about 10 years ago. She says that before she had her children, she had hoped to become a paramedic.
After living in a number of different apartments in Baltimore, and at one point even being homeless, Lucas settled with her children and Cook on East Eager Street. She had four boarders in the basement: Mary Wilson, Wilson’s boyfriend, Sylvester Harris, and Wilson’s two children. Lucas, Cook, and Lucas’ seven children slept upstairs, while Andre Moore sometimes slept on the couch in the living room.
SPEAKING in her own defense at the trial as the last defense witness to be called, Lucas is obviously well versed in the minute details of her case. She is often angry and combative on the stand, scowling even under questioning by her own attorney.
She tells the jury about a fight that Andre Moore had with a cousin of hers, who was visiting her at the time. During the fight, Lucas says, she threw Moore out of the house. She told him that she didn’t want him in the house when he was drunk, and claimed he was abusive to her children at such times. It has been her contention that Moore’s desire for revenge led him to set the fire that killed her children.
When the fire started, Lucas says, she was asleep beside Cook.
“I woke up because Big Billy was screaming the house was on fire,” she says. Her voice breaks as she continues. “Smoke was coming in when Billy opened the bedroom door. You couldn’t hardly breathe. I was trying to find my kids—I was feeling for them because you could not see. I just found Little Billy because he was standing right next to me.”
She says she jumped through a closed window in the front bedroom because Cook said he would throw the kids out to her. Cook tossed Little Billy out the window, and he landed on top of her.
“Flames was eatin’ up the window that we had just jumped out of,” Lucas says. Because the front of the house was consumed in flames, she ran around to the back and tried kick the door in to get her children, but to no avail. When she turned around, she saw Moore standing in the yard. She began “hitting him [and asked him], ‘Why did you set my house on fire?’ People were saying, ‘He did it, he did it,’ when I dropped to the ground [from the second-story window].”
Earlier in the trial Eugene Weddington had testified that Lucas propositioned him for oral sex and brought him to her home, where he watched her set the fire. Under cross-examination by Lesser, Lucas denied she had a crack habit, as the prosecution claimed. She also says that before she saw him in court, she had never laid eyes on Weddington, the prosecution’s lone eyewitness to identify Lucas as the arsonist.
Lucas points out that the state had no witnesses who saw her with Weddington, and no witnesses who saw her purchase gasoline or any other petroleum product. Nor does she have an arrest record that would indicate a history of prostitution or drug abuse. In short, the state’s case against her is based largely on circumstantial evidence. Of those witnesses who gave testimony that contradicted her own—about her drug use, for example—Lucas says repeatedly that they are “mistaken.”
About Gregory’s condition, she says that he was always an underweight, sickly child who often simply held food in his mouth and then spit it out. She claims that he lost most of his weight during the week before the fire; he might have received the two untreated fractured ribs and broken leg that showed up on post-mortem x-rays when he “fell down steps in his walker.”
Toward the end of Lesser’s cross-examination, during which he questions Lucas closely about her care for Gregory, she says, “He was not starved by me. I have never beaten on him.” She admits, however, “I wasn’t really good at taking them back and forth to the doctor,” citing the difficulty of having so many children and no means of transportation.
After more accusatory questioning by Lesser, Lucas exclaims, “Would you stop sitting up there trying to twist things? You’re trying to make out that I was so desperate…. God up above knows I did not set no fire.”
“We’ll see about that,” Lesser answers.
“EVEN A mother dog takes care of her puppies. That’s the same instinct a mother has with her kids,” says a woman who lives across the street from Lucas’ burned rowhouse. Speaking of Lucas, the neighbor, who declined to give her name, says, “That was a lot of love she let burn up. I would tell her ass to die her mother-fuckin’ self because you can’t live without love.”
Sitting on her stoop on a hot August afternoon, the neighbor looks toward Lucas’ former house. The neighbor says of Lucas, “I believe she was druggin’ it, because of the way she carried herself. She was all nasty and dirty.” Furthermore, she says, “every week the police was up there in that house. She was always fighting with her boyfriend.”
The neighbor remembers the July morning of the fire; she remembers firefighters bringing the bodies out.
And she remembers the smell.
“You could smell that tissue burning,” she says. “As far as the fire and all, that could have been an accidental fire, but leaving the kids …”
The memory of the tragedy still lingers in the neighborhood a year later, she says. “People wonder about did she really do that or the guy she accused of it.” The neighbor says that she sees Andre Moore in the neighborhood sometimes. “He still comes around and sits on them steps,” she says. “He be looking real sad. He looks like he thinking. I guess that’s his mourning place.”
Roberta Harris is the sister of Sylvester Harris, one of the boarders in Lucas’ basement. It was Roberta Harris’ house that Lucas ran through on the morning of the fire to get to the back of her own house. Harris says Lucas came to her house once for a cookout.
“She didn’t seem like the type who wanted to conversate too much,” Harris says. Of her former next-door neighbors and their habits, she says, “I knew it was a wild house. I knew she drank. What went on and what she was doing was none of my business.”
Sitting in the living room of her East Eager Street home, Harris recalled the day of the fire. She spoke to Lucas, she says, from her upstairs window, and told her to jump. “Half her body was out the window. That window was open,” she says, which is contrary to Lucas’ testimony. After Lucas ran through her house, “she has some words to say to Andre. She said something about, ‘Did you set my house on fire?’ She accused him first.” And of Lucas’ contention that she hit Moore as she accused him, Harris says, “Tonya never got off the [back] step [of Harris’ house].”
When asked her opinion of the crimes, Harris says, “I think it was sick.”
MARK VAN Bavel understands such sentiments. “It’s easy,” he says, “not to feel compassion for a mother who escaped without her kids.”
At 47, Van Bavel is one of the city’s most prominent criminal lawyers. Tall and large-boned, with a close-cropped beard, he dresses trimly in double-breasted suits. His dark hair is slicked back, and his large eyes peer out alertly from behind large-framed glasses. In court he can be, by turns, petulant and charming. His walks up to the judge’s bench for frequent, sometimes furiously argued meetings in the course of the trial are hindered by a pronounced limp.
The argument that Lucas was being tried for being a “bad person” is central to Van Bavel’s closing argument.
During his closing statement, Van Bavel contends that it made no sense for Lucas to have set her house on fire. Lucas had neither insurance on her home nor life insurance on the children. “She would lose her goods, put her and her kids’ lives in jeopardy,” Van Bavel argues. And neither was she in dire financial straits—he says that Lucas had emergency money available to her from the Department of Social Services, and she could have asked her large family for help. “Would she have profited by [setting the fire]? No. Why would she do it? … What the state has done is pile character testimony upon character testimony.”
Furthermore, Van Bavel maintains that Lucas had no motive to hide Gregory. “The state fabricated the motive about Gregory so they could present evidence of child abuse,” he says, although he grants that “Gregory was in bad shape. There’s no question. Tonya bears a great responsibility for his condition, if not total responsibility.” But, citing Gregory’s many ailments that made it difficult to care for him, he says, “she wasn’t out to abuse or destroy her child. She just wasn’t taking care of her child.”
Lucas had dealt with Protective Services before, Van Bavel argues. “She never had a fear of that before. There was no investigation of her. Police had been [to her home] and found nothing. Nothing was going to happen, so why bring all this attention to herself?” Apologizing for his gruesome line of thought, he asks, “Why have [Gregory] upstairs, not downstairs? Why not do a better job [of killing him]? It doesn’t make sense.”
The state’s logic, he says, is “we have a bad person and we have a burned-down house—she must be the one.”
Van Bavel asks the jury to look at the situation from Lucas’ point of view. “Imagine the conditions for her,” he says. “She’s living in a rowhouse with nine children and five adults. It’s early July and the temperature’s soaring. Put yourself in a fire that’s hundreds of degrees, the room is smoke-filled. Would we be the great person we imagine ourselves to be?”
He mentions Moore’s previous burglary convictions, his drinking problem, and the testimony that he and Lucas had fought and that Lucas had thrown him out of the house.
“Andre Moore’s participation has never been explained, and it never will be.” The fact that two types of petroleum products were used to set the fire—gasoline and a heavy petroleum distillate—suggests, Van Bavel says, two perpetrators. Perhaps it was Eugene Weddington and Andre Moore. “How can we convict her of arson and murder if there’s no explanation of these things?”
IN HIS closing statement, lead prosecutor Jack Lesser, 37, makes a fervent, emotional argument for Lucas’ conviction, offering a marked contrast to Van Bavel’s appeal to logical analysis. Physically, too, Lesser, a small man with a mustache and dark thinning hair, presented a distinct counterpart to Van Bavel’s bulk. His oratorical style—his voice rising dramatically on such phrases as “a mother who murdered her six children” and “she solicited him for oral sex”—seems designed to elicit outrage from the jurors.
After Van Bavel presents his closing argument, Lesser puts up on an easel by the jury box a long list of the facts in the case, then goes through them one by one.
“I told you before I sat down Mister Van Bavel would come up here and try to distract you,” Lesser says. “He tried to use the shotgun approach. He tried to blow smoke in your face.”
Of Van Bavel’s claim that Andre Moore was somehow responsible for the arson-murder, Lesser says, “Why would he bang on the door? Why would he draw attention to himself? Why would he sleep on the back step? [Van Bavel] has to divert attention from the defendant…. He didn’t talk about the defendant’s testimony. Is that because she was lying to you?”
Lesser explains why the other adults in the house had no motive for setting the fire. Then he says, “If you don’t believe the defendant’s testimony, you must find her guilty.” He continues, “We don’t want you to convict her because she’s a bad person—she is a bad person. We want you to convict her because of the evidence. This is a mother who murdered her six children.
“Generally people think a mother would never murder her children. What do you think a mother who nearly starved her child to death could do? The defendant lied, but the pictures didn’t lie…. What kind of a person is she? Is she capable of murder, a mother who starves her child? Does she seem compassionate, concerned that she lost six children? If you don’t believe the defendant,” he repeats, “she’s guilty.”
Citing the many inconsistencies in Lucas’ testimony—about Gregory’s health and about her drug use—Lesser exclaims, “More lies? Yes. All she knows is lies.”
Echoing his pretrial memorandum, Lesser characterizes Lucas as “desperate on July 7, 1992. The rent was unpaid. She had a little child who can’t take care of himself. His calls for help won’t be answered by his mother. She is addicted to crack cocaine…. We know she had to do something, she had to do something quickly.”
Referring to Lucas’ statements that many who testified against her were “mistaken,” Lesser says sarcastically, “Everybody was mistaken, everyone except her. You have to tell her, ‘No more lies.’ I have to ask you, on behalf of Miss Holland and myself, to find her guilty.”
LUCAS’ SISTERS and many of her relatives say they believe in her innocence, and all four of her sisters testified on her behalf. They deny she is a drug addict and say they will continue to support her. Lucas’ oldest sister, Toyanna Khidir, describes Lucas as a loving, albeit troubled mother.
“I won’t say Tonya was the best mother she could be,” Khidir says, “but I know she didn’t set no fire that killed her kids because those kids loved Tonya, and Tonya loved them.”
Lucas’ cousin Lona Griffin denies Lucas’ cold-hearted reputation. “People show different emotions. Because Tonya wasn’t hollering and carrying on in the news, they said she didn’t show any emotions.” Khidir offers a different portrayal of Lucas, after she had been taken to Hopkins in the wake of the fire: “When the doctors said four of them kids were dead, I picked Tonya off the floor. She was very emotional.”
Lucas has said that her relationship with Cook is still good, although after her first trial he was arrested and incarcerated at the Baltimore Detention Center for his alleged child abuse of Gregory and Takia. His trial is scheduled for October 28. During Lucas’ second trial, Cook was brought into the courtroom in shackles while the jury was in the jury room; he refused to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Though they are held within the same compound, Lucas and Cook now can communicate only by letter.
Lucas’ relatives view her and Cook’s relationship critically. Griffin says, “Billy, from what I gather, was Tonya’s downfall.” She says that the couple often fought, and that Cook took Lucas’ money. Referring to a period when Lucas and her children were homeless and slept in Druid Hill Park, Griffin says blamed it on Cook, “because he would take her money.”
Khidir says that Cook was at one time charged with throwing Lucas out of a window, for which Lucas was hospitalized and received more than 100 stitches. “They locked him up,” Khidir says. “When they went to trial, Tonya went downtown and told them she wasn’t going to testify.”
Lucas’ relatives believe that both Weddington and Moore were involved in the arson. “Andre Moore was mad because Tonya would not let him in that house,” Griffin speculates. “That morning he met Eugene Weddington on the street and said, ‘This bitch won’t let me in her house, I’m gonna fix her. I’ll give you a couple of dollars [to act as a lookout].”
Although Lucas’ family supports her, Griffin says, “Proving her innocence is really costing.”
Khidir and Griffin say they paid an expert witness, Dr. John E. Adams, $3,000. (Adams called into question testimony given by the state medical examiner, Dr. John Smialek.) And Van Bavel’s bills so far amount to $15,000, with possibly more to come for a retrial or appeal.
“It’s just been rough all the way around,” Khidir says. “Six kids are gone, their mother’s gone, their father’s gone.”
And although it is clear that family members have discussed the case in detail and are very conversant in all its facts, Griffin says, “Your mind just wonders, ‘What happened, what happened, what happened?’”
AS FOREWOMAN Nicola Roy delivers the verdicts—guilty on all counts, for arson and for the six first-degree murder charges—Tonya Lucas shakes her head and mumbles to herself, oblivious to the comforting hand of Van Bavel on her shoulder. Sentencing is set for October 4, and she faces a maximum of six consecutive life terms for the murder charges, plus 30 years for the arson charge. (A trial for a child-abuse charge is still pending.)
An informal poll of jurors outside the courthouse after the decision reveals that the jurors believed Eugene Weddington’s testimony. While the jury did not believe Lucas intended to harm her children, they think she started the fire to stave off her eviction.
Because Lucas was charged with what is called felony murder, it was not necessary for the jury to believe Lucas intended to kill her children in order for the jury to find her guilty of murder. If a person, even inadvertently, kills someone in the process of committing a felony (in this case, arson), that person may be convicted of first-degree murder. Since the jury found Lucas guilty of the arson, they were allowed to consider the murder charges.
Detective Silver, for one, says she is satisfied with the verdict. “You get nervous waiting,” Silver says of the period of jury deliberations. Sitting in the gray-green offices of the homicide unit, she reflects on the case.
Silver says she tries not to take the cases personally. “I’ve had cases I’ve lost,” she says. “All you can do is investigate and give it over to the state’s attorney, and they try the case…. If you get frustrated, you won’t’ be able to take homicide.”
Despite her protestation about not taking her work personally, she admits that the Lucas case was emotionally the roughest she has worked on.
“I remember I cried when I saw Gregory,” she says. Of the three other children who were dead on arrival at the hospital, Silver says, “I remember the baby,” she says. “I thought he didn’t have a chance.”
FACE-TO-FACE, Tonya Lucas appears much as she did in court. She sits in a cramped beige office of the Baltimore City Women’s Detention Center, on East Eager Street, downtown, wearing a tan pantsuit and a black blouse. Repeating a scenario she has played out for the media before, she displays pictures of her children as they were before the fire. Absent are photos of Takia and Gregory.
During the 14 months she has been incarcerated, she has had a lot of time to think about her case. “Each and every day I wake up in this place I think of how corrupt the justice system is,” she says.
During this visit and a series of telephone interviews, Lucas has an angry, insistent tone when talking about her case. She faults people—from the judge to a crime-lab technician to her landlord—with being dishonest or unfair. As for the jury, she says, “What they done to me is totally unjust.”
Of Lesser, she says, “Lesser made me out to be the worsest person in the world.” She continues, “My trial was not about my kids or no fire being set. This was about Jack Lesser winning this in any kind of means that he could” She sees Lesser, Hammerman, police, and the jury as involved in “suppressing evidence” and trying to “frame” her, despite their knowledge of her innocence.
She says she was “very disappointed” in the verdict. “From the beginning, Detective Silver and [Detective Sergeant] Childs did nothing but frame me for crimes I did not do,” she says. “On July 14, 1992, Childs and Silver said they knew I didn’t do this but they were going to send me away for the rest of my life because of Gregory.” They accomplished this, she says, by having Eugene Weddington keep coming back and listening to him tell different stories until they had the one they wanted.
“This man was never in my house,” she says, and cites what she says is his incorrect description of the inside and outside of her home. “I have never solicited in my life,” she asserts. “The state never brought any witnesses that said they saw me with this man. They’re constantly telling lies after lies after lies. I know where I was the morning the fire started. I was in my bed asleep.”
She describes how Weddington’s statements have differed during his various court appearances and during television interviews, and that he was cited for contempt of court by Judge Gordy when he was testifying at a pretrial motion because he refused to answer questions from Van Bavel (Weddington admitted to being on heroin at the time). The contempt charge, however, was purged when he finished his testimony the next day.
Lucas is incensed that lie-detector tests are not admissible in court. She says of Moore, “This man took a lie-detector test, which he failed.” She wonders why Weddington never was asked to take one. (Silver confirms that Moore took and failed a lie-detector test, but adds that Lucas refused to take one.)
She denies that she was attempting to hide Gregory and denies that she was “desperate,” as the state has claimed, citing her ability to ask her family for money, if she needed it.
Though she admits that the Child Protective Services division of the City’s Department of Social Services has investigated her nine times, she says that the investigations were for neglect rather than abuse, for failing to make sure her children had proper medical care. (A spokesperson for the agency says Protective Services cannot, by law, release information about the nature of its cases.)
Recently, however, Lucas says she has new hope because a new witness emerged after the jury already had begun its deliberations. This witness, she says, saw Moore on the day of the fire “covered with flammable liquid…. Evidently he had set a fire and put it out. He went to the woman’s house and asked for a change of clothing. He told the women he set my house on fire. He said, ‘I’m gonna run up on her house [and set it on fire again].’” (Police, however, dismiss the woman’s testimony. “It has no bearing on the case at all,” says Silver’s partner, Detective Martin Sydnor. “We found out the woman had been in a mental institution.”)
Lucas claims that Moore already has threatened the new witness. “He said he would run up and blow up her house if she didn’t shut up,” Lucas says. When asked how she knows this, she says, “I know things.” (Police say they have no knowledge of any threats made by Moore.)
When asked about suffering abuse at the hands of Cook, she says, “I’m not gonna comment on that.” Her fall from the window for which she was hospitalized occurred, she says, when “I tripped on the floorboard and went out the window.”
Although she speaks in obvious frustration about her case, Lucas’ tone softens noticeably when she describes her children. She gives characteristics of each, dwelling especially on the survivor, Little Billy, nine, who regularly visits her in jail. He now lives with his father’s sister. Speaking of Little Billy’s reaction to the fire, she says, “[At first] he didn’t want to talk about this, and I didn’t want to talk about it because it was too painful. But now he even talks about his brothers and sisters. He’ll ask me ‘Don’t you remember how Antoine or Deon or Bookie or Gregory used to do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I remember that.’”
She says that after the fire, Little Billy exhibited behavioral problems, but now, she says, he is in counseling: “Little Billy had his whole world taken away from him in a matter of a very few days.”
Lucas says she believes her other children are in heaven with their grandmother: “I believe my mother is watching out and taking care of them until I join them.”
If she could speak to them, she says, “I would say how much I love each and every last one of them, and I would say how much I missed them.”
SEVERAL DAYS after delivering his closing argument, sitting in his Calvert Street law office across from Courthouse East, Van Bavel says he never will be convinced of Lucas’ guilt.
“I have always felt she was being tried for child abuse, for her lifestyle, and for her inappropriate behavior—her drug abuse and leaving six kids behind in a fire.
“I don’t think Tonya Lucas set the fire,” he says. “She’s a welfare mother, she never worked a day in her life, but she’s not stupid.” Instead, he believes, “I am confident Andre Moore had something to do with it.”
Yet as Van Bavel himself points out, 22 out of 24 jurors in her two trials were convinced of Lucas’ guilt.
Despite his stated belief in his client’s innocence, he also says he believes in the integrity of the police’s investigation. And contrary to assertions made by Lucas and her family, he says, “Judge Hammerman provided a fair forum.”
Nevertheless, Van Bavel has filed a motion for a new trial with the Circuit Court, citing new evidence and the admission of the child-abuse testimony. Another option he may exercise, if the motion for a new trial is denied, is to file an appeal after Lucas’ sentencing. The appeal would be based, he says, on the admission of the evidence of other crimes during the trial.
But whether Lucas is in fact guilty or innocent, whether she spends the rest of her life in jail or is acquitted, one central tragedy remains. Even among those who think Lucas guilty of arson—the State’s Attorney’s Office, the police, the jurors—none believes she intended to kill all six of the children who died. And the lives of Lucas’ six children—Damien, Takia, Gregory, Russell, Deon, and Antoine—can never be restored.
“I think about my kids all the time,” Lucas says, sitting in the Baltimore Detention Center behind a desk strewn with pictures of her children. “I just think it’s so unjust that they let the man who murdered six innocent kids, they let him get away with this.”
Lucas vows, “I will continue to fight until I am set free.”