The daughter-in-law of a 62-year-old bedridden fire victim is ordered held without bond after being charged with capital murder in his death.
In a press conference this morning, West Point Police Det. Eric Johnson and Chief Avery Cook announced 37-year-old Latoria Jennae Brownlee was arrested Wednesday night.
Wednesday was her birthday, friends said.
Arson is the underlying felony that prompted the capital murder charge, District Attorney Scott Colom said. Under state law, capital murder requires the murder to be committed during the commission of another serious crime.
Capital murder is not entitled to a bond under state law. But because of some confusion, Brownlee was brought before West Point City Judge Bennie Jones for an initial arraignment Thursday morning. He set her bond at $250,000 before realizing she wasn’t entitled.
She said little during the brief hearing but clutched a sheet of paper with notes on it. Among them were questions she apparently intended to ask the judge, such as “Why would I do this?” and “Why would I burn my own house down?” But she did not ask them.
She is charged with setting the Thanksgiving Day fire that killed her husband’s father, William Brownlee Sr., as he lay in his bed in the home the the family, which includes two daughters, shared at 86 Washington St. The fire was reported at about 4:10 p.m. after neighborhood children outside playing reported smoke and flames pouring from the elder Brownlee’s bedroom window.
After the fire was extinguished, he was found in his bed. Latoria Brownlee arrived on the fire scene a few minutes after firefighters and told emergency responders the elderly man still was inside the 14-month-old house, Johnson said during Thursday’s press conference.
Minutes after the fire was reported, Latoria Brownlee posted on her Facebook page that she was at Walmart in West Point. During Thursday’s press conference, Colom and Johnson would not say whether they thought that post was part of an intentional effort to steer suspicion away from her and provide an alibi.
They also would not say what was used to start the fire, whether it was a chemical, or any other details.
“The best thing I can say so as to not taint the evidence is that we don’t think the fire was accidental,” Colom said.
At the time of the initial investigation, West Point Fire Chief Ken Wilbourne said investigators had determined an incendiary was used.
Colom did say investigators “do have a motive developed,” but he would not elaborate.
The fire burned most intensely in the area around his bed. No heater was found in the room and he was not a smoker. From the beginning, those facts prompted suspicions the blaze might not have been accidental.
Four days later, investigators from the state Fire Marshall’s Office and West Point Police Department, labeled it arson and the West Point Police Department opened a homicide investigation. Latoria Brownlee was the prime initial suspect based on her timeline and statements from neighbors, but police detectives were diligent in pursuing all possibilities.
“We wanted to rule out everything, whether it was accidental, all the possibilities,” Johnson said.
While Latoria Brownlee was at the scene shortly after it was reported, the son and the couple’s two daughters were visiting relatives in another area, Johnson said.
Since shortly after the fire, Johnson said Latoria Brownlee has been staying with her relatives and not with her husband and daughters, although she has had “regular contact” with the girls.
He said he family ties make the situation even more difficult.
“Both families have to mourn the death and now they have to mourn the fact the daughter-in-law is the suspect. The two daughters have to deal with the fact she is being charged. He (William Brownlee Jr.) is not taking it too well. His main concern is the kids,” Johnson said of the situation.
The younger Brownlee and his wife had been together at least 18 years, Johnson said.
Colom said the case is “in a good posture” to be presented to the Clay County Grand Jury, but he would not say when that might occur.
But he said the scope and handling of the investigation bodes well for the community.
“This really is a good sign about how the new administration and the police department is going to deal with crime,” Colom said, referring to Cook, who was named chief four months ago.
[This story has been updated since its original posting. – Ed.]