District of Columbia police early yesterday charged a 29-year-old Northwest Washington man with murder in the arson deaths of his three infant children. The deaths occurred hours after police ordered the man to stay away from the rooming house where the children and his crippled common-law wife lived.
The youngsters -- 2, 1 and 2 months -- died in a blaze at 214A Morgan St. NW that investigators said was started when a flaming can of gasoline was thrown into the bedroom where the children were sleeping. The suspect, Darnell Winfield Jackson, had been warned last year to keep his distance by social workers, attorneys and neighbors after he had stabbed his common-law wife, Rita Elizabith Fox, several times and scalded her with hot grease, according to D.C. Superior Court records.
"This is not just another case of murder where a guy had a gun and he went in and shot someone with the gun," D.C. Superior Court Judge Nicholas Nunzio said yesterday afternoon at Jackson's bond hearing. "But here is a case where a man was told to stay away repeatedly. But instead of going away when the police told him to, he went out and got a can of gasoline, threw it into a room and it landed on a bed, setting the bed on fire and the kids on fire."
Judge Nunzio set Jackson's bond at $100,000 and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric examination.
In the 200 block of Morgan Street NW, near the intersection of New York and New Jersey avenues, neighbors gathered on porch steps and wondered aloud about the tragedy.
"I don't understand it," said Lorraine Thomas, a friend and neighbor of Fox and the three children. Darnell Jr., 2, Anita, 1, and Sheila, 2 months.
"We all begged him to stay away, but Jackson would come and beat on the doors." Thomas said. "Rita complained to the police, but [Jackson] kept on coming back."
According to Superior Court records, Fox complained several times to the courts as well. In a sworn statement dated last Sept. 18, she said that Jackson, with whom she had lived for five years, stabbed her in the back and near her mouth with a butcher knife last May 5. In June, when she was three months pregnant, Fox said, " . . . he forced his way in and I jumped from a second-story window to escape him. . . . I am afraid of Mr. Jackson and ask the court to order him to stay away from me and leave me alone."
Jackson was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon in 1979 and 1980 and the charges are still pending, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. Court records also show that a deputy U.S. marshal attempted to serve Jackson with an order directing him to stay away from Fox and the children, but was unable to find him on five occasions.
While neighbors gathered outside the charred remains of the two-story brick rooming house, Frank Williams, 50, collected his smoke-damaged belongings from a room he rented just down the hall from the $100-a-month room where the children were killed.
"If I live to be 100 years old, I will never forget this," said Williams, a stocky former amateur boxer during the 1940s and now a retired laborer. "I got here just as the fire started. I was coming home around midnight and I saw [Jackson] running down the alley towards me. He saw me, stopped, and ran back the other way.
"I saw the smoke coming out the house, it was thick and black, it was a terrible thing. I tried to get up to the landing, but the smoke was too thick and I couldn't see," Williams said.
In one corner of the children's room, roughly 10 feet square, a doorless closet revealed the blackened neck of a child's T-shirt dangling on a hanger. Williams pointed through the window to the ground below at the children's charred toys: a dump truck and a plastic scooter.
"She used to call the police on him; he cut her or something like that," said Williams, still staring out the window. "Whatever it was that came through the window, I guess it just exploded. The woman was crippled, man, and she couldn't hear in one ear. When the fire started, she [went] to get help for the kids, but couldn't go back up."
Fire officials said last night that searching flames and billowing smoke made the children's rescue impossible. When firemen were able to get to the middle bedroom where the children slept, they found bodies amid heaps of smoldering debris. Fox and five other residents of the house were able to escape.
Jackson, charged with one count of murder, faces a preliminary hearing on March 17. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Finnegan said a grand jury will investigate the case.