The newly filed application for a search warrant offers a glimpse into the federal criminal investigation into the Aug. 18 fire that killed Fitsum Kebede, 40, and the boy, Yafet Solomon. Both lived in the basement.
Police and fire officials declined on Friday to comment on the new information contained in the document and other search warrant applications. They were filed in D.C. Superior Court after the searches were completed at the house that burned and a house where the landlord lives across from Rock Creek Park.
One of the documents says investigators believe the fire began in a small basement room in the rear of the Kennedy Street house that was rented by Kebede, who immigrated from Ethiopia 14 years ago and worked odd jobs at a nearby church.
Tenants have previously described the size of the dozen rooms carved into the house as no bigger than a queen-size bed. Police said in one court document that Kebede’s room measured 5½ feet by 8 feet and that the only furniture was his single-sized mattress and box-frame.
The documents say police found remnants of what appeared to be a laptop computer and a power cord in Kebede’s room, and have sent those items to a federal lab for testing. Authorities said they have not yet determined how the fire started. The owner, James G. Walker, has not responded to interview requests, including one Friday.
Kebede’s sister, Sawit Kebede, said another brother and their parents, who live in Ethiopia, are trying to get a visa to come to the United States and claim the body, which remains at the D.C. medical examiner’s office. Sawit Kebede, who lives in South Africa, said her parents have an appointment on Sept. 4 at the U.S. Consulate in Addis Ababa.
Fitsum Kebede had come to the United States with his wife hoping to continue his successful career in information technology. His siblings said he divorced, fell on hard times and became estranged from his family. They had no idea he lived in such poor conditions.
“Oh, my God,” Sawit Kebede, 36, sobbed as she learned the dimensions of his room for the first time. “I’m shattered. I don’t think I can carry on.”
Many of the Kennedy Street tenants worshiped at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and that is where Kebede is to be buried. The sister said the church is waiting for the family to come to Washington. “All they want to do is to be there to bury their son,” she said.
In addition to determining a cause of the fire and investigating the conditions inside the rowhouse, officials are looking into what they have described as failures by the city in responding to a police officer’s warning about numerous “life-safety violations” he noticed after officers went to the home in March on a routine call. Inspectors with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department failed to appropriately act on the warnings, officials have said.
Officials have described a maze of corridors and rooms throughout the rowhouse, but a precise layout has not been revealed. Police said in court documents they were searching the owner’s home for blueprints or “drafts of building layouts.” The documents say some areas were built with two-by-four lumber and drywall that were “not consistent with proper living quarters, safety guidelines or building codes.”
Officials have said the home was licensed as a mail-order pharmacy.
Police officers who were first at the fire had to pry metal bars off the front door but could not get inside because of the smoke. Court documents say firefighters who entered the front door encountered a second solid-wood door, and once they broke that down, found a locked metal gate.
A court document says the alleged code violations include windows with security bars that could not be opened from the inside, a security door and gate that also could not be opened from the inside, four smoke detectors that did not work, an electrical system not equipped for the number of tenants, and extension cords “stretched throughout the structure.”
It is not clear precisely where the security door and gate were located and whether they prevented people inside from escaping the fire.