Out of the Ashes

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."