Out of the Ashes
Ketrick Jordan, 25, survived the 1988 Strawberry Trail arson fire by pressing his face against the burglar bars in his big sister's bedroom and gulping in fresh air. Five other members of his family died, and Ketrick suffered burns on 50 percent of his body. Doctors were forced to amputate Ketrick's legs below the knee; he also lost fingers on his left hand. His handicap hasn't stopped him from living a full life--he's learned to drive, ski and ride a horse.
He stood on lush grass that was soft as fleece and storybook green. The sun shone a brilliant white, sending waves of gentle warmth through his body, penetrating all the way to his bones. Someone was talking to him, reciting the names of his brothers and sisters and little niece: Demetra, Bernard, Ericka, Jamaal, Jasmas.
Ketrick Jordan knew he'd gone to see Jesus.
He rested there a moment, soaking up the light.
Then he woke up in hell.
He felt a jab of pain. Someone had stepped on his little finger, snapping a bone. He let out a holler.
The boot that broke his pinkie belonged to a fireman. "We have one alive," the man said.
The boy felt pain so excruciating that it saturated his nerve endings from head to toe. He was lying on his back in the grass; it was dark. He saw his aunt's legs walking by. He passed out.
He drifted back to consciousness in the ambulance and fixed his eyes on his underwear. They were pitch-black, like charred newspaper. Then he saw his legs. They were hideously burned, right down to the bone; he could actually see the bone poking out.
One of the paramedics started smearing some kind of ointment on Ketrick's raw limbs and torso. "This cream is gonna ease the pain," he said.
He saw his little brother Jamaal lying on his side on a stretcher, back turned, dressed in Ketrick's pajamas. He didn't stir, not a twitch. He seemed almost peaceful there.
"Is he alive?" Ketrick asked in a croaking voice.
The paramedics didn't say a word. They didn't even look at him.
The sirens hurt his ears, he remembered. He was extremely thirsty. At the hospital he saw his mother, Beverly Jordan, and begged her for water. She scrambled around until she found some. A doctor smacked the cup out of her hand.
"You'll kill him if you give him that water," Ketrick heard.
Later, he vaguely remembered someone saying they had to amputate his legs. Ketrick was barely hanging onto life; his heart had stopped more than once during those critical first hours. He'd suffered severe burns on more than half of his body, including his back, buttocks, arms and legs; if he were to survive, some of him would have to go.
When he woke up days later--after the first of some 30 surgeries over the years--he couldn't have cared less about his legs. He just wanted to know what happened to his family. He was in the burn unit at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and every now and then he'd hear someone shrieking in the room next door. He thought it was one of his brothers or sisters, though he'd later realize, through an abundance of firsthand experience, that it was just another patient going through the horribly painful process of getting his burns scrubbed.
"I was calling out their names," Ketrick recalls. "I'd ask the nurse, 'Is that my brother that I hear hollering? Is he all right?' She would never say nothing."
He figured it out pretty soon afterward--suspicions confirmed one day by the television in his hospital room, where he saw the grainy pictures of his two brothers, two sisters and niece, who ranged in age from 2 to 18. They were all dead, victims of one of the most heinous crimes in Dallas history.
It would come to be known as the Strawberry Trail fire, for the street in South Oak Cliff's Highland Hills neighborhood where it took place on September 28, 1988. It remains the city's deadliest arson/murder case on record and went unsolved for 13 years, even though police and fire investigators quickly assembled a list of street names for suspects. The case got a recurring spot on the TV program Unsolved Mysteries but frustrated investigators' attempts to penetrate the fear that enveloped Highland Hills--especially the neighborhood teenagers who had a vague notion of why it occurred and who was responsible--for many years after the crime.
But two years ago, Dallas police got a breakthrough and, with virtually no publicity, arrested the first suspect. Vincent Lamont Thomas, 33, a South Oak Cliff native, was charged with capital murder, and his trial is set for October. It's no sure thing for the prosecution. While the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, Eric Mountin, declined to comment except to praise the dogged work of the Dallas police investigators, cold cases such as this are extremely difficult to bring to trial. The prosecution must re-create the 15-year-old crime in cinematic detail for a jury while relying on the blurred memories of a diminishing roster of witnesses, many of whom have credibility problems and criminal records. Thomas' lawyer, Scottie Allen, notes that his client was questioned, polygraphed and released by police in 1988. "This is obviously a very, very tragic situation, because those people did lose their lives," Allen says. "But they charged and indicted the wrong person. He didn't have anything to do with that fire. They really don't have a case."
Now, for the first time, details are emerging about the fire and the events that led up to it. Investigators got their break in 2001 when a Dallas man who had been arrested on an unrelated murder charge offered information on the 1988 fire during his interrogation. The man, who'd killed another man in apparent self-defense, admitted he'd unwittingly disposed of the gasoline-soaked clothes of several suspects in the fire back when he was working as a 15-year-old lookout for Jamaican crack dealers in South Oak Cliff. Dallas police homicide Detective Randy Loboda reopened the case and was joined by a colleague, Detective Dan Trippel. They also received help from Assistant Chief Phyllis Allen of the fire department's arson investigation section. They dusted off the old investigative notes and followed new leads, which led to several other witnesses and some real identities for their suspects. "When they pulled the case file," says fire department Assistant Chief Debra Carlin, who handled the arson investigation in 1988, "a lot of what the guy was saying jibed with the original notes"--including such street names for suspects as "Freddy Krueger," "Curly Diamond" and "Silky."
The new witnesses, most of whom had connections to the narcotics trade in the late 1980s, had sat on their information for more than a decade with good reason. Some of the new details on the fire are chilling in the extreme. One witness told police that two of the suspects, "Lupe" and "Freddy Krueger," had joked and giggled just hours after the fire about the sounds people make while they're burning alive. Another witness said that Lupe, whom police and several witnesses identify as Vincent Thomas, the only non-Jamaican among the suspects, had bragged about lighting the first match.
The rumors swirling around Highland Hills in 1988, it turns out, were essentially true: Bernard Jordan, a 16-year-old football captain and popular student at Wilmer-Hutchins High School, had begun playing on the dark side, selling drugs for the Jamaicans. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, various Jamaican factions controlled the crack cocaine trade in South Dallas and East and South Oak Cliff, generally employing local kids for street-level work. Ketrick speculates that Bernard wanted a little cash to go along with his status as a popular jock. At the time, many kids became caught up in the periphery of the drug trade. For a few weeks, Bernard had been staying out late, acting strange; what Ketrick didn't know is that someone had accused Bernard of ripping off his drug connections.
The amount of missing money was a paltry $2,000, police say, yet the Jamaican drug element in Dallas was rightly feared for strict discipline and deadly retribution. "People were petrified of the Jamaicans, and they were petrified of the repercussions," Detective Loboda says. Police who worked Southern Dallas during the city's crack epidemic have their own stories to tell of the Jamaicans' brutality, like a teenager found dead with his hands nailed to a table, or the young man shot 32 times at close range, or the kids whose legs were run over in the street during broad daylight. What Ketrick recalls vividly are the threats leading up to the fire: a series of calls to the Jordan home from a man with a thick accent vowing to burn down the house or, in the one call Ketrick took a week or two before the fire, threatening to set Bernard's bed on fire.
The threats had Bernard in a funk. He was sullen, uncommunicative, easily perturbed and, most tellingly, avoiding the very thing he loved the most: football. The star running back had begun skipping football practice, and his coach was looking for him. But Bernard wouldn't confide in his family, which had watched with concern as he adopted a new, unsettling bad attitude about life. When Ketrick took the threatening call, he told his grandmother, and only then did Bernard confess that he feared for his life. He just wouldn't say why.
The call came around 4 a.m. on a Wednesday. Someone was driving down Strawberry Trail and saw flames at a house in the 6500 block and called a neighbor, who dialed 911.
Some two dozen Dallas firefighters would descend on the house fire, which started in a converted garage and quickly spread throughout the four-bedroom brick home. As soon as they got there, neighbors told them there were several children inside.
But something besides flames stood starkly in the way of any attempts to get to them: thick metal burglar bars bolted to brick around each bedroom window, and a love seat someone had shoved against the front door.
The adrenaline was pumping, and firefighters tried every way they could to force their way past the bars. Firefighter Ronald Childre used an ax to loosen the bricks beneath the burglar bars outside one bedroom window, then rammed a crowbar in the gap and yanked off the bars. With the aid of another firefighter, he pulled out the limp body of a 10-year-old boy. It was Ketrick Jordan.
The rescuers would end up pulling all six victims from the same bedroom. Each was unconscious. The firefighters and paramedics lined them up in the grass in the front yard and frantically tried to revive them--from 2-year-old Jasmas, or "Jazz," the youngest girl, to 18-year-old Demetra, her mother.
Only Ketrick would make it. Later, he would tell how he helped his older sister break the window, then pushed his face against the burglar bars to gulp in fresh air until he passed out.
The other children who died were siblings Bernard Jordan, 16; Ericka Jordan, 9; and Jamaal Jordan, 6. Bernard was found on the floor between two twin beds, covering two of the younger children as though he were protecting them. Demetra had a severe cut on her wrist from breaking the bedroom window. All of the children succumbed to a combination of smoke inhalation and burns. The fire started while their grandmother Mollie Jordan was working back-to-back shifts at a VA hospital and convalescent home to provide for the six children in her care.
Fire investigators were quick to suspect arson and soon began hearing bizarre stories about Jamaicans, drugs and mysterious threats.
Just hours after the fire, Captain Debra Carlin was sifting through the ashes and rubble with another fire investigator, W.R. Young, trying to figure out how and where the flames ignited. While the home's interior was severely damaged, the structure was still standing, and investigators knew to dig down until they found the lowest part of the house marked by burns. "To be an arson investigator," says Carlin, who is now the Dallas fire marshal, "you have to get down and dirty; you have to literally dig all of the burned debris out to get to the lowest point." Rooting in the den and living room at the front of the house, they noticed the distinctive pattern of burn marks left on the floor by a flammable liquid.
They found other clues by a den window, the only one at the front of the house that wasn't encased in burglar bars: There was broken glass on the carpet, suggesting the window had been broken from the outside. The flames appeared to have vented through that same window, leaving heavy burn marks on the wall. When they found a charred and mostly empty gasoline can, the picture began to come into focus: The fire had been set intentionally. The burn patterns from the liquid were broken in patches; whatever liquid caused the spread of the fire had been dumped out in splashes. This wasn't a case in which a child had mistakenly kicked over a gas can and the liquid simply flowed out.
To this day, one bit of evidence--the love seat pushed against the front door, which may have prevented the Jordan children from escaping and hindered firefighters' attempts to rescue them--still doesn't make sense. Did the arsonists haul it there, blocking the most logical exit? Had Bernard pushed it there in an attempt to keep intruders out of the home?
Carlin also found a child's memento that made the tragedy hit home. "When I went into that bedroom where they were, one of my most vivid memories of any investigation I've ever done...was a picture taken out of a child's coloring book," she says. It was pinned to the wall next to the window. "It was a firefighter sliding down a pole. And one of the children had written on it, 'The firefighter is my friends.' And it just broke your heart to see that next to where they all died."
Carlin and Young called in police homicide detectives when they believed they had an arson case, and carpet and flooring samples they'd taken from the home showed up positive for gasoline soon afterward. They knew of no one, however, who'd seen intruders enter the home that night, much less set a fire. But the physical evidence seemed to indicate that the arsonists had set foot inside the home.
The investigators turned to Ketrick Jordan for information once his condition had stabilized. Today, he clearly remembers Bernard's state of agitation that night. Ketrick decided to go to bed in the girls' bedroom instead of his own because he was scared. He got up late at night for a glass of milk and found Bernard talking through the partly open front door to several men on the porch. Whatever they were saying, Bernard seemed upset by it. He quickly shooed his little brother back into bed.
No sooner had Ketrick gone to sleep, it seemed, than Bernard was waking up him and the girls, shouting that the house was on fire. Ketrick's big sister, Demetra, didn't believe it at first. But the smoke had begun to seep into the bedroom. Ketrick says he and Bernard ran down the hall into the living room, only to be driven back by flames. They tried to bust into their grandmother's room, but the door was locked.
All of the kids ended up back in Demetra's room. "It was just real hot and smoky and dark," Ketrick says. "Every breath you'd take was hot. You could hear a lot of screams and hollers. I told my little sister, 'Stick your head under the covers.' She tried that, and she said, 'Keke, it's too hot.'"
Demetra and Ketrick broke the bedroom window, trying to reach fresh air, but they couldn't go any farther than the padlocked burglar bars. Ketrick leaned on the windowsill and pressed his face against the bars. The smallest children had already passed out. "I went into a state of shock," Ketrick says, "and fell out right there."
While Ketrick says he remembers the fire "like yesterday," he couldn't offer much help to investigators in 1988. He never got a good look at the faces of the men on the porch and isn't certain how many were there. "It's hard to get a lot of information out of someone who's on morphine," Carlin says. "Frankly, I don't think Ketrick wanted to remember a lot about that night, and I can't blame him.
"I remember talking to him one time a couple months after the fire, and we were talking about his family. He said, 'I can't think of them all at one time. I can only think about Ericka right now. It hurts too much to let all of them in my heart at one time. Only Ericka's here now.' Ericka was the closest to him."
Within a few months of the fire, investigators were stuck with little more than a list of goofy street names. Some teenagers knew about the Jamaican presence in the neighborhood, that Bernard was selling drugs for them, but they were too scared to put their names on witness affidavits. By then, Carlin had found out enough about the ruthlessness of Dallas' Jamaican posses that she wasn't surprised. "You had someone go into a home and burn up children," she says. "They had to know those kids were in there. They didn't care. They had no respect for human life whatsoever, and they sent a very clear message: You mess with us, we get you back."
Ketrick Jordan's family was laid to rest on October 1, 1988. A Dallas Times Herald photograph shows five white flower-draped caskets arranged end to end at the front of Carver Heights Baptist Church, with 2,000 mourners looking on.
The arson case itself would lie dormant until a murder suspect looking to cut a deal began talking. He eventually got probation because of a "mitigating factor," Loboda says; the other man had stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver. Since the case was reopened, Dallas police have interviewed more than a half-dozen people with some knowledge of circumstances before and after the fire. The case suffered a setback in May 2001 when homicide Detective Dan Trippel died of a massive heart attack, but Loboda picked up the loose ends and plowed on. With the Jamaican narcotics presence in Dallas long gone, they found several people willing to talk for the first time.
The Dallas Observer spoke with some of those witnesses. None of them agreed to be identified. The following details of the crime are based on the recollections of those witnesses, details provided by police and fire investigators and an affidavit for an arrest warrant filed in Vincent Thomas' capital murder case.
The witnesses' recollections center on two notorious dope-dealing locations in South Oak Cliff--a crack-infested motel on Lancaster Road and the Regency Village apartments in the 2100 block of East Ledbetter Drive. Three young Jamaicans who went by the street names Curly Diamond, Silky and Freddy Krueger ran drugs out of those places, with various lookouts, runners and street-level crack peddlers in their employ, most of them local teenage boys. The trio, known on the street as the "three evil kids," worked, in turn, for two older Jamaican men named Coolie and Soldier.
One 15-year-old boy, an American who was friends with Bernard Jordan, would later tell police that he and Bernard were selling drugs for Freddy and Lupe, a local kid who worked for Freddy and aped the Jamaicans in speech and dress, with a preference for straw hats and shiny shirts. On the night of the fire, Freddy and Lupe came to him in a snit and complained that they were being ripped off. They picked up the boy, drove him to a wooded area in Dallas and pistol-whipped him until he agreed to point out the location of the Jordan house in Highland Hills. Freddy and Lupe then disappeared for several hours; when they came back, Lupe told the boy, "See, you fuck with Freddy and you burn, motherfucker."
The boy later heard about the Strawberry Trail fire and how the five Jordan kids had been burned alive. He told police that he and his grandmother were so terrified, they paid Freddy and Lupe the drug money that was supposedly missing.
Also on the night of the fire, one man who was at the motel overheard a conversation between Freddy and Lupe. "I was running drugs for Freddy Krueger, and I observed the two whispering about taking revenge on a B.J.," the witness said.
He knew who "B.J." was--Bernard Jordan. The cause for vengeance, he gathered from what he overheard, had something to do with drugs and money, and Freddy and Lupe were cooking up a plot. "They were whispering among each other," the witness said. "They left in a car--a small car. I believe Freddy was driving. There were others--how many, I can't recall." He presumed all of them were armed. "Because of their [Jamaican] affiliations, they had access to numerous weapons."
He saw Freddy and Lupe again several hours later. They were in a particularly jolly mood. The witness caught enough of the conversation to figure out what they found so funny: the sounds of people being burned alive. "I just remember that it was mocking--that people was burned and people was screaming and hollering," the witness said. "During their happy conversation, I heard that Lupe was the one that was supposed to have lit the match. He was boasting about it.
"You could see smiles and grins on their faces and frequent laughs."
Only later did he hear about the fire in Highland Hills and make the connection with what he'd heard that night.
Earlier on the night of the fire, another witness was acting as a lookout at the Regency Village apartments, which have since been torn down. The apartments boasted a slick Jamaican operation: The complex had multiple entrances, and the gangsters posted lookouts equipped with two-way radios at each end. If a lookout spotted a cop car, he'd radio the dude on the other end so the Jamaicans could slip out that side.
This witness had gotten crosswise with the Jamaicans on an earlier occasion, and he knew they didn't flinch at violence. One time some dope had shown up missing, and he and his friend were blamed for it. The gangsters tied the kids to chairs in an apartment and clobbered them on the head with pots and pans until they were convinced the boys were telling the truth that they hadn't done it.
This night, the witness would later tell police, he saw three Lincolns pull up at the apartments, and out jumped Curly, Silky, Freddy and another Jamaican nicknamed "Big Man." There were others, too, whom the boy didn't recognize. They started pulling off their silk shirts, then ordered the kid to fetch some soap at the 7-Eleven next to the apartments. They used it to scrub their hands and arms. Then Curly pulled two cans from the trunk of one of the Lincolns; the boy could smell gasoline on the cans and on the Jamaicans' clothes.
Curly had a job for the boy and another accomplice: He handed them $75, ordered them to get rid of the clothes and cans and told them to stay away from the apartments the rest of the night.
The witness would tell police, "Curly was talking and saying, 'I licked the blood-clot booty boy.'" The boy wasn't sure what that meant. "He was talking Jamaican." "Blood clot," in fact, is the basest of insults, a distinctly Jamaican expression with its own peculiar etymology. "Clot" is a Jamaican pronunciation of cloth, and a "blood" clot is a dirty menstrual rag. "Booty boy" is possibly a misunderstanding of "batty boy," a derogatory term for homosexual in Jamaican parlance.
The witness didn't hear about the fire until a couple of days later. "Everyone was afraid to say anything because we knew the Jamaicans would kill us," he told authorities.
Another witness told police she'd paged Lupe some time after hearing about the fire. She asked him if he was involved, and he said "yes." Vincent Thomas' attorney, Scottie Allen, dismisses such claims as untrue. "These people they're evidently basing their case on are drug dealers themselves," he says. "They are not credible and have an ax to grind against Mr. Thomas."
Ketrick Jordan never had a chance to say goodbye to his family. He was still in critical condition when his siblings and niece were buried; he stayed in the hospital for months, enduring burn treatments at Parkland and rehabilitation at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, where he was fitted with artificial legs and learned to walk again. The burn treatments were excruciating. "I'd rather die than go through that again," Ketrick says. "It was that painful."
All of the medical personnel in Parkland's burn unit got to know him, he says, because he'd scream and holler so loud in the whirlpool used to bathe his wounds and loosen his bandages.
News and television stories have kept up with Ketrick's recovery since then, as the boy learned to walk, shoot hoops, ski and ride a horse--even wrestle on the stumps of his legs at Skyline High School. Ketrick pumped iron, building his upper body to the point where he won several matches at 112 pounds. He was determined, he says, to live his life to the fullest. The articles leave out some parts of an otherwise inspiring story: how his family fell apart after the fire, with various relatives pointing fingers and squabbling over the flood of donations from sympathizers. "They kind of split up and went their own separate ways," Ketrick says. "We had some on high horses, and we had some on low horses. That was real sad. But what's not supposed to happen is everybody blaming everybody."
Neither did the newspapers record the times when Ketrick would drive to the house on Strawberry Trail, which his grandmother abandoned after the fire. He'd back in his car at night, cut off the lights and "just sit there and cry. I felt like they was still there. The crime hasn't been solved; they aren't resting. I felt like I needed to go there and keep them company."
Ketrick eventually moved with his grandmother to Omaha, Nebraska. A rigid disciplinarian before the fire, Mollie Jordan had gone soft and quiet. "All that anger went away," Ketrick says. "She's the sweetest lady in the world." Ketrick graduated from high school in Omaha, then moved back to Dallas in 1998. In February, he married his girlfriend, Marsha, and today they live a quiet life in Pleasant Grove with Marsha's two children. Ketrick is an unusually serene 25-year-old, quick to smile and seemingly without a trace of bitterness from his ordeal. One thing that helps is the fact he can "do just about anything," from driving a car to musing in writing about the fire and its aftermath, despite having lost part of three fingers on his left hand. He wants to record his life story some day.
It all goes back to his brief foray into heaven, he says. He describes it as "a feeling of joy, of happiness, of warmth." When he thinks about his brothers' and sisters' faces in the smoky room, the smell of the acrid smoke and the sound of his little niece crying, he remembers his near-death experience. "I guess what makes me a happy person," he says, "is the talk that the Lord had with me. That's why I keep a joyful feeling in my heart. I'm not like most people in wheelchairs; you ask them what happened, and they get all mad."
Today, Ketrick sees a chance that justice may be done, that his family members can truly rest in peace. Vincent Lamont Thomas' day of reckoning may come soon in a Dallas courtroom, though that can't be said of several of his alleged accomplices in the Strawberry Trail fire. No one, however, seems to escape the vortex of the gangsta life, pop stars and posers notwithstanding.
Dallas police know the identities of murder suspects Curly, Silky and Coolie, but it isn't clear whether they're alive or dead or still in Dallas. Silky reportedly met a violent end here, but police haven't confirmed it. Since the Jamaican gangsters tended to work under numerous aliases, it's hard to track their entrances and exits.
Coolie, the oldest of the crew and a one-time drug kingpin, was charged with an unrelated murder, for which he received probation, a year after the fire. He still may be in Dallas.
Curly appears to have lived in Dallas as late as 1999. Police aren't certain of his whereabouts today, though he showed up in Detective Loboda's database research as a recent resident of Magnolia, Arkansas.
Soldier is still feared on the streets of South Dallas and South Oak Cliff. One witness identified his photo as that of Gregory Allen, a slightly built, light-skinned Jamaican with one feature that sticks in people's minds, bloodshot hazel eyes. Allen has a lengthy criminal history in Dallas. He was charged in connection with a 1988 drug-related murder case and got off when the sole eyewitness refused to testify; he was also the reported instigator of a notorious 1990 shooting in which five teenagers were gunned down in a bathtub at a South Dallas crack house. Allen was never charged with that crime. (See "The Girl Who Played Dead" and "Four Kings," by Julie Lyons, July 17.)
Soldier's alleged involvement lies in the murky background, a few layers above the multitude of workers he reportedly ran out of a motel on Lancaster Road and in other locations in South Oak Cliff. In 2000 and 2002, he surfaced on the streets of West Harlem in Manhattan, where he was nailed on a series of petty drug charges for possession of marijuana and crack cocaine.
As for Freddy Krueger--known to law enforcement in various jurisdictions as Milton Lee Hunter Jr., David Broadbelt or David Wilson--he met his end in New York City in the summer of 1992, just as the Jamaican era was coming to a close with the bust of the Allen family narcotics syndicate in Brooklyn. New York police found him at 3:30 a.m. lying facedown on the floor of a D-train subway car. His body had seven bullet holes--four in the front and three in the back, including one at the base of his neck.
The case has never been solved. Only one thing can be surmised about the unknown killer: He wanted to be absolutely sure Freddy Krueger was dead.
Dallas Observer editorial assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this report.
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