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Backfire

Four Lives Snuffed Out, and One Shattered: Can Janet Danahey Find Redemption Among the Ruins?

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page D01

MATTHEWS, N.C.

It all comes back in slow-motion replay now, looping through a mother's unsparing memory. First the ringing phone, piercing the silence of that winter night three years ago, jolting Mary Belle Danahey awake on the couch. Then the sheriff's voice, calm and authoritative:

"There are some officers coming to your house. Please open the door."


"I didn't mean to do this," Janet Danahey remembers sobbing after the fire she set at a former boy- friend's apartment building. "There has to be some way this can be fixed. I can't believe this is real." (Karen Tam For The Washington Post)

Mary Belle could see flashlight beams weaving slowly across the lawn. The light swept up the face of the house and back down again. A prowler, she thought groggily. Someone must have reported a prowler.

"Do not hang up," the voice on the phone instructed. "Lay the phone down and open the door."

Two deputies stood on the doorstep.

Where's Janet? they asked.

Mary Belle remembered that her 23-year-old daughter had come up from Greensboro -- a rare weekend together for the four Danaheys. Her husband, Dave, lumbered down the stairs now, bewildered, demanding to know what this was about. The deputies wouldn't say.

We need to see her, they insisted.

Mary Belle led the way, past the living room where a replica of the Olympic torch Janet had carried through her home town as a Girl Scout was proudly displayed. Midway up the stairs, the deputy following Mary Belle turned and called down to his partner: "Keep an eye on the father." Dave froze.

In the guest room, Janet's light was on. The paperback she had been reading when she nodded off was cradled across her chest, and the faded pink bedspread was pulled up over her clothes. Janet's dusky blue eyes blinked open as her mother called her name.

She rose, face ashen, and held out her arms. One of the deputies snapped on the handcuffs.

What is this? What's going on? Her mother's frantic questions went unanswered. Her father remained mute. Janet cast them a beseeching look. One of the deputies spoke up again.

Janet Danahey, you are being arrested for murder.

The prosecution would call it a Valentine's Day act of revenge by a scorned lover; the defense would insist it was an accident, just a stupid college prank gone tragically awry. What both sides agreed on was this: Janet Danahey never meant to harm anyone, much less commit murder, when she set a fire that burned out of control at the Campus Walk apartment complex in Greensboro. She had never met the man and three women who perished on the top floor.

Debate raged over the fate of the young arsonist facing life in prison or execution. Ultimately, the most perplexing questions raised by the case would prove to be not legal but ethical. The fire in many ways, it seems, never really went out, burning still through the lives of everyone it touched in unexpected ways.

Valentine's Day

In a state admired for the lyric beauty of its coastline on one side and its mountains on the other, Greensboro is sandwiched in the unremarkable middle, a college town where plenty of students cling to the campus neighborhoods after graduation day. A year after earning her degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina, Danahey was temping as a $12-an-hour gofer.

Things were no better on the personal front. Thad Johnston, her boyfriend of six months, had just dumped her. She described the split as amicable, but Johnston remembers her hysterical and in tears the last time he saw her, the day before the fire.

On that Feb. 14, Danahey invited two girlfriends over for pasta. They shared a couple of bottles of wine and sometime after midnight, decided to play a prank on Danahey's ex. Statements given to authorities and Danahey's own account provide matching versions of what happened next:

After abandoning an initial plan to pour fish oil into Johnston's radiator, Danahey suggested setting something on fire instead. Johnston and his pals had set a neighbor's welcome mat ablaze, and Johnston's roommate, Victor Medina, once jumped his skateboard over a flaming beanbag chair in the parking lot. Grabbing the can of lighter fluid beneath Danahey's sink, the girlfriends headed to Campus Walk a block away. Danahey ventured alone to the rear of the darkened apartment complex and climbed stairs to the breezeway on the second floor.

"I heard laughter from the apartment and saw lights on and that Victor was home," Danahey said later in an interview. She recalled glimpsing Medina through the sliding glass door, though Medina insists he was asleep in bed, that the apartment was dark.

Danahey quietly leaned over the balcony to squirt lighter fluid on a small box of Christmas decorations, then flicked a cigarette lighter. The tinsel inside simply melted in a puff of chemical fumes. She doused an old futon that, Johnston later recalled, had been the scene of romantic encounters. She flicked the lighter again. Just a low, blue flame, Danahey insists. She giggled and ran.

Campus Walk was a relatively new complex, 12 apartments on three floors, full of college kids or recent grads, most of them asleep at that hour.

The calls came across the 911 switchboard in a frantic burst around 2:30 a.m.

One began with a prolonged scream. Another with someone coughing and gasping between words. Pleas for help were interrupted by shouted warnings and the crackling of flames in the background.

And then came a single, harrowing cry.

We can't get out!

The wind had kicked up, and flames were devouring the wooden breezeways and outside staircases of Campus Walk, sealing off escape. Embers fell like fiery rain. People jumped from balconies and windows.

Near dawn, searchers digging by hand found ashes in a shape barely human, buried in a four-foot mountain of debris in the back breezeway. Over the next three hours, three more bodies were uncovered.

Trapped

The complex was still smoldering when Bob Harris arrived around 11 a.m. He realized that authorities wouldn't have summoned him if his 20-year-old daughter were okay. News of the deadly fire was dominating local TV and radio by then. Beth was a responsible girl who kept in close touch with her divorced parents. A music major, she had spent Valentine's Day delivering singing telegrams. She would have called to let them know she was all right.

Now Harris was directed to the fire department's command post. Assistant Fire Battalion Chief Dave Douglas met him there. Four victims had been found but not identified. The university had confirmed that Beth had never made it to class.

Harris walked back to the Campus Walk parking lot, weaving past the emergency vehicles, past the news crews and onlookers, past cars twisted and melted by the fierce heat. He came upon a 1994 red Ford Taurus. Beth's.

It was locked. He longed to sit inside, to be where Beth had been. He began pounding on the car, pounding and pounding, until a firefighter came and held him while he sobbed.

Back at the trailer, Douglas was meeting with another family.

Beth shared her apartment with nursing student Rachel Llewellyn, 21, and her sister Donna, 24, who worked in the financial aid office of another nearby college. Nobody had seen them.

"We know four bodies have been found," he told Carolyn and James Llewellyn. "There are three people we can't account for, and two are likely your daughters."

The Llewellyns absorbed the devastating news that their only children were dead.

"Was Ryan with them?" they wanted to know. Ryan Bek was Donna's boyfriend, a 25-year-old computer tech. Douglas took down the name. Soon he was notifying a parent for the third time that morning that his child was dead.

Anger demands answers, and anguish craves them. Dave Douglas told the families what he could:

Campus Walk was built to code and had passed inspection the month before. The units had working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. The fire burned straight up the wall and the wind carried it, like a horizontal chimney. The building did what it was supposed to do, keeping the fire on the outside. Most of the residents did exactly what they should have, keeping doors closed and waiting near a window for help.

But those trapped in Apartment K decided to make a run for it. Overcome by smoke, all four died on the blistering-hot breezeway, which later collapsed. Whether it was quick, whether it was painless, whether they knew they would die -- these were the questions no investigator could answer.

Decisions

The prosecutor's decision to invoke the Felony Murder Rule touched a nerve in North Carolina. The law requires no proof of intent, motive or even direct involvement if a death occurs during the commission of another felony, in this case arson. Danahey was charged with first-degree murder.

"If it truly was a prank, a joke, as innocent as she'd have you believe, then why didn't she go back?" demanded the county's district attorney, Stuart Albright.

"She did not stab her boyfriend 73 times or commit a drive-by shooting," one woman wrote the Greensboro News & Record. Countered another: "She may, eventually, receive God's forgiveness. She will never receive mine."

Locked up, fed meals through a slot, Danahey dwelled on the hurt she had caused. She asked to meet with the devastated parents. "I wanted them to get mad, to show their anger. I would rather see everyone's pain because that helps me get over my pain. It would scare me. It's like correcting the wrong in a way," she explains.

Her own family was struggling to comprehend what had happened. It was six weeks before Dave Danahey could swallow his fury enough to face his daughter. Hiring a lawyer meant plundering funds for his approaching retirement. Fighting a death penalty if Janet were convicted could bankrupt the Danaheys. Janet's only sibling, Emily, tried to regard the crisis philosophically, intellect playing emotion's vigilante. On the verge of entering divinity school, 25-year-old Emily spent hours talking to Janet about faith, honesty and moral accountability.

"I didn't mean to do this," she remembers Janet sobbing. "There has to be some way this can be fixed. I can't believe this is real."

The district attorney was offering life without parole in exchange for a guilty plea. Danahey's two girlfriends had taken police to the dumpster where Janet's lighter fluid and smoky clothes had been tossed. They were willing to testify against her. Though the felony murder rule could hold them equally responsible, prosecutors chose not to charge them.

Pleading guilty would spare everyone more pain, Emily told her sister.

Janet's mind reeled. Her choice was still unmade when the district attorney sent another message.

Beth Harris's father wanted to meet her.

It had been barely three months since his only daughter's funeral. An insurance executive, Harris is a religious man with a mind he describes as analytical. He needed to know exactly what happened, and why.

"Something wouldn't rest in me until I heard from Janet herself."

She was shackled to an eye bolt on the floor when Harris walked into the district attorney's conference room. Janet looked up and held out her arms.

"These hands are the ones responsible for your daughter's death," she began.

Again and again, Janet apologized, through heaving sobs, with her body trembling so violently that Harris couldn't help but hold and comfort her, a father's instinct.

Janet told him what she had refused to tell police, how she had seen the flames from her back porch that night, but couldn't find her cell phone to call for help. How she heard sirens, and people screaming, but thought everything was under control.

She told Harris she learned of the deaths on the evening news, then spent the night praying and sobbing and sleeping. The next morning, she drove three hours to her parents' house.

Bob Harris listened. He consoled his daughter's killer. Janet asked for his forgiveness, and he granted it. Faith demanded that of him.

"What is forgiveness?" he wonders even now in an interview. "There's an understanding in my mind that she really didn't intend for anyone to be hurt or even be put out of their apartments."

Still, Harris felt Janet had a debt to pay.

Before leaving that day, he told her that he was a firm believer in capital punishment. Was Janet ready to accept death for what she had done?

"Yes," he remembers her saying. "I'd rather die right now than live the rest of my life with this."

Shortly after, Danahey decided to take the plea bargain, live out her life behind bars. There was a chance, she felt, for redemption, "of giving back in a positive way to the world what you took away."

At her formal sentencing, the courtroom was filled with survivors, police officers, firefighters and the families and friends of Campus Walk victims. Danahey's side took up a single bench.

Danahey rose. She says she no longer recalls the rambling apology that left some spectators disgusted, others confused, still others moved. Newspaper accounts quote her vowing to spend the rest of her days trying to fulfill the promise of those lives she took.

"I can make their dreams go on," she promised the grieving parents.

"I am your family now."

A Father's Crusade

Watching the drama unfold on the evening news, a 60-year-old graphic designer named George Brown felt his heart ache at the sight of Danahey's tear-stained face. Stunned when she was locked away for life, Brown found himself calling the district attorney and Danahey's lawyer to demand answers about what had happened to this stranger who so moved him. No one called back.

Brown knew well what damage impulse could wreak. One summer afternoon when he was around 11, he discovered a pack of matches in his pocket. Walking home across a field of broom sage, he lit a clump.

"It was like it had been sprayed with gasoline," he recalls. There was a loud whooof and the whole field was ablaze. The only thing that saved his family's home was a road that formed a natural firebreak. George never did confess.

Like Danahey, he sought meaning from tragedy. Changing the felony murder rule would prove that "I did something at least once that would be meaningful to this generation and generations to come."

Danahey reminded Brown of his only child. He could easily imagine his free-spirited son trapped in a similar situation, another victim of impulse.

And so Brown launched a grass-roots campaign to change the state's felony murder rule. But first, he wrote a letter to Inmate 0774159 at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. He sent Danahey a picture of his old marmalade cat named Harry, and told her his own synopsized life story. Divorced, recently unemployed in a dot-com downsizing, he was feeling bleak about the prospects for a man his age. He never asked Danahey about the fire, nor did she volunteer. She wrote instead about a spiritual awakening. Brown found Danahey inspiring.

Brown designed a Web site and rallied volunteers to write legislators and speak out against the felony murder rule -- at churches or community centers, to legal organizations and volunteer groups. After an impassioned talk to an influential civic group Brown finally got a call back from the district attorney.

Months had passed since Stuart Albright had put Janet Danahey away for life, and public criticism that he had done so to enhance a tough-on-crime image for his reelection campaign was rankling. He invited his nemesis over for a chat.

Brown remembers a tense but polite discussion, and the moment when Albright pulled a stack of 8-by-10 photographs from a manila envelope and tossed them down on his polished conference table. Look what Janet Danahey did. The grisly photos showed the charred remains of Beth Harris, Ryan Bek and the two Llewellyn sisters. After the prosecutor was done trying to shock him, after he declared that Brown could not know what those parents must have gone through, George Brown remembers softly saying yes, he did know.

Brown's only son was just two months shy of 25 when he died on June 3, 1998. He had just quarreled with his fiancee, and George can only assume that this is what sent his bipolar child into a depressive tailspin. The railroad he was walking along that night marked a shortcut to his father's place. George wonders still if he had been on his way over to talk, deciding, instead, to lie down on the tracks.

Finding Meaning

Danahey's only brush with trouble before had been in high school, when she was caught vandalizing a boy's car with syrup and kitty litter. Now she was a lifer.

Behind prison walls, Danahey began to find what she never quite had outside: a sense of purpose, an identity. Letters filled the dull hours yawning across the prison yard. She wrote to her family, to a woman in a retirement home who corresponded out of loneliness or compassion or maybe both. She exchanged letters with George Brown. A Llewellyn cousin, and the sister of Rachel's best friend. And with Bob Harris.

She yearned to know more about Beth. About all of her victims. She read any newspaper clip she could find and studied the poem Ryan Bek's parents inserted in his published obituary.

"To know people you killed, their families, their favorites . . ." she says excitedly during a prison interview. "What their favorite song is, everything. I don't know, get to know them better in this world so you can fully get to know who you are mourning. I think it'll actually help the pain lift."

She stops, as if dismayed by her own insight.

"Gosh, if you've never killed anybody, you never go through that."

She learned that Ryan Bek had volunteered on behalf of battered women. That Beth Harris had the voice of an angel and planned to become a music teacher. She was outraged when prison authorities denied her request to start a battered-women's support group among inmates to honor Ryan. When she was told there were already too many prison choirs to launch one in Beth's memory. Bob Harris found Janet's urgent interest sincere.

"There is something there I haven't really been able to define," he says. "I do feel sorry for her both in being faced with dying in prison and admitting something that caused four deaths. She's beating herself to death."

And now this strange current keeps carrying him back to his daughter's killer. It is a connection he puzzles over, one that has cost him the comfort of the other Campus Walk families, causing them to shun him at their candlelight vigils and memorial tree-plantings. He says he is not offended, but the hurt is plain in his eyes.

"Beth can never be replaced, but part of the sensitivity of Beth, I see in Janet," he explains. "The warmth Beth had -- I see that in Janet. I don't think it's disrespecting Beth in any way."

In some ways, he goes on, "it's almost like she replaced Beth as my daughter. In a lot of ways, I have protective feelings for her. I want to help her, see whatever she does in life is good and successful.

"It's almost a warped relationship."

Collateral Damage

Mary Belle Danahey tells new acquaintances that her youngest daughter lives in Raleigh and works for the state. She dwells on what has happened to her family over a boxful of newspaper clippings and notes of support spread across the kitchen table. She gets up now and then to refill her tumbler with bourbon and water.

"Janet was ensnared by the law," she says. "Other people have done worse and got away with it. If the wind hadn't been strong that night . . ."

Her denial collides now and then with her husband's disgust, or with her older daughter's reproach. The small family hasn't yet memorized the steps of this complicated choreography. Over dinner one evening at a sports bar, they go round again.

"I feel anger at those four people," Mary Belle blurts out. "Why couldn't you get out?"

"I cannot believe that," Emily says. "You looked at those families." At the sentencing, Mary Belle had glared. "I gave them a look," Mary Belle acknowledges ruefully. "I know that. It's awful."

Emily believes Janet never learned responsibility because "Mama and Daddy always made things right."

"This time we can't, right?" Dave replies sharply.

The Danaheys held a yard sale and got rid of most of Janet's belongings to pay for her legal costs. There wasn't much. A microwave, her clothes, the brand-new set of dishes Mary Belle had bought Janet that Christmas, which she never got a chance to use.

They try to visit her once a month, write letters, talk occasionally on the phone, but the collect calls are prohibitively expensive. Janet's grandfather died. Emily gave birth to her first child, and she and her husband are expecting their second any day.

George Brown persuaded a legislator to sponsor his bill to repeal the felony murder rule, only to ask that it be withdrawn. There weren't enough votes. Maybe this year, or next, the time will be right to move forward.

Campus Walk was razed, and the lot fenced off. Construction crews showed up this spring and new apartments are starting to go up, but for the longest time all that remained in that scarred and empty space was a foundation.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company