Out of the Ashes

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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.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons

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