Ellis R. Meeks, a 52-year-old substitute baby sitter, was drunk when a fire broke out March 23 in a foster home in Southeast Washington, killing Meeks and the five children left in his care, four of whom were wards of the District.
Court records examined yesterday revealed that Meeks was convicted of manslaughter in 1972 and served a three-to-12-year sentence at Lorton Reformatory after shooting and killing a man.
D.C. Social Services Commissioner Audrey Rowe, who said last week that all city procedures had been followed at the foster home, asked the D.C. police department yesterday to take over the investigation, citing the medical examiner's finding that Meeks was "legally drunk," as well as conflicting accounts about the whereabouts of the foster parent, Frances P. Walker, on the night of the fire and possible violations of city guidelines.
Rowe also requested an investigation by the Office of Inspection and Compliance of the Department of Human Services.
Rowe said news reports and calls to the department raising questions about the fire and the city's initial investigation prompted her to request police involvement.
The Sunday morning fire, one of the city's deadliest, began in the basement of the one-story brick house and caused most of the floor to collapse. Meeks was found in the kitchen area; the children were in their bedrooms. It is still unclear exactly when the fire at 4286 Southern Ave. was reported, according to Rowe. Prince George's County and District fire trucks responded to the blaze about 12:41 a.m.
The medical examiner's autopsy found that all six victims died of asphyxiation.
The fire also has prompted city officials to promise reforms ranging from new fire inspections of its 400 foster homes in the District to publishing new foster care regulations within a month.
City officials said Walker did not tell them that she was leaving the area the weekend of the fire, a violation of the city's regulations.
Walker's sister and daughter are the two city-approved baby sitters when Walker is absent, but neither was in the home at the time of the fire.
Rowe said that Walker's sister, who is the children's usual paid baby sitter because Walker works full time for the Red Cross, was at the house earlier in the evening but that Meeks arrived between 8 and 9 p.m. to care for the children. Meeks was described as "an old family friend" by Walker's family, Rowe said.
"We don't know whether Mrs. Walker anticipated that her sister was going to be there all weekend," Rowe said.
Rowe said she learned after the fire that Meeks, who was not a city-approved baby sitter for the children, had cared for them in the past. "Mrs. Walker told us when she went out for the afternoon, he cared for them," Rowe said.
Meeks, a former District mathematics teacher, earned a master's degree while at Lorton. Records at U.S. District Court show he was convicted of manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon in the death of Everett G. Gayes and the shooting of Clifford S. Philipps in 1971. Meeks was given two concurrent sentences. It is unclear how much of the sentences he served.
Meeks' aunt, Lillie Wood, said he was separated from his wife, who lives in Florida. Meeks' brother is said to have told employes of the funeral home arranging his brother's services that Meeks lived on Southern Avenue, but his aunt said Meeks had an apartment elsewhere in the city.
Wood said her nephew had a past drinking problem, but, "As far as I knew, he had stopped drinking."
In a related development, Rowe said her department had found 22 area homes where city foster care workers had placed an "excess" number of children -- 13 homes in the District, eight in Maryland and one in Virginia. Some homes have as many as six children, she said, adding that some of the children in these homes will be moved when 42 new foster homes are fully certified in a few months.
A District guideline, which Rowe said will soon become policy, will allow no more than two infants per foster home. A current regulation allows four foster children per home. Foster parents are paid a minimum of $287 a month by the District.
Rowe's agency had placed three infants, ranging in age from 1 to 5 months, with Walker. The three infants and the fourth foster child had been involved in neglect proceedings.
City officials said they needed to bypass their guideline because two of the infants were twins and the third was an emergency placement when no other infant bed was available. Parents of all three infants have said they plan to sue the city because of the deaths.
At a news conference yesterday, Rowe said she requested the police investigation because callers had questioned whether the children "were being appropriately cared for" and because of reports of "comings and goings of people going in and out of that home."
Shirtia Edwards, mother of twins Steven and Stephanie Edwards, who died in the blaze, told a reporter that she was allowed to visit the children once in January at a city office, but that the infants were brought to the appointment in wet and dirty clothes an hour and half late by Walker's two sons. Edwards said the Walkers placed her twins on the back seat of the Lincoln Continental they were driving because there were no child car seats.
Rowe confirmed that the Walkers were late to the appointment but said a social worker who was present said the infants were properly dressed. "We do not know about the car seats," she said. Walker's sons could not be reached for comment.
Last week, Rowe said that Walker was "a very caring, responsible, loving individual." Walker recently was filmed for a District advertisement to recruit foster parents, according to city officials.
Rowe said her opinion had not changed, but she said she wanted police to question Walker about her whereabouts and other events surrounding the fire. "There is conflicting information," Rowe said.
Walker told city officials she had been at a Seventh-day Adventist conference in Pennsylvania, officials said. However, the pastor of Walker's church said there was no church-related conference that weekend. Walker, who is staying at a local hotel, could not be reached for comment.
Rowe said last week that the city had a "sufficient" number of foster homes. Yesterday, however, she said more children need foster homes this year. In December through February, the city received requests to find foster homes for 377 children, compared with 302 requests for the same period a year earlier.
The 400 homes in the District and 500 in Maryland and Virginia that shelter District foster children currently have been inspected only by social workers. But last week D.C. fire officials asked city Department of Human Services officials to change their policy, and department Director David Rivers said Monday that a plan to begin inspections was under way.