But then one night in April 2008, an unusual fire killed Billi and both the kids, 12-year-old Caleb and 16-year-old Ami — one that authorities would spend more than a decade investigating.
Billi’s husband, Peter Romans, was the only one to escape the blaze. The fire that burned the family’s modest one-story home to the ground in rural Ohio was unusual in part because it didn’t start in the home. Somehow, it started in the family’s Ford Expedition that was parked in the carport next to the house — then rapidly spread to the home.
Peter rushed out to try to save his other truck that was parked near the Expedition, he would later say, while Billi and Ami each dialed 911 from inside. Screaming and coughing clouded the call as a dispatcher tried to ask Billi to repeat the name of her street three times. “Lily Chapel and Opossum Run Road,” Romans said, and then, to her children: “Get out!”
But they couldn’t get out. And Peter, as he would later tell investigators, couldn’t get back inside to save them. It was too late. So he ran over to a neighbor. By the time firefighters reached Billi and her kids, they were dead.
The coroner later listed the cause of death: homicide. It was arson, investigators had found in 2009.
Now, more than a decade after the fire, prosecutors say they have finally found the only person in Madison County they believe could have killed Billi and the kids: Peter, the husband, father and lone survivor.
On Monday, Peter Romans was arrested on multiple charges of aggravated murder, aggravated arson and murder in the deaths of his wife and children. Prosecutors have not revealed what new evidence has led them to arrest Romans more than 11 years after the fire and a decade after the arson determination. But his attorney, Sam Shamansky, questioned the timing of the indictment.
This October, a federal civil trial was supposed to begin in Romans’s lawsuit against Ford Motor Company, which he has blamed for the fire from the start. Now, the competing cases thrust two wildly different narratives into two different courts: Was the fire the result of a faulty cruise-control switch, tragically claiming the lives of Romans’s entire family? Or did Romans douse the Expedition in accelerant and start the fire himself?
“He is most certainly innocent,” Shamansky told WSYX. “He didn’t commit any crime. He has done nothing but cooperate fully with the authorities.”
In the aftermath of Billi, Caleb and Ami’s deaths, the family’s church rallied around Romans, trying to offer him a sense of family after losing his own. “He needs your prayers,” the Rev. Mark Fuller told the congregation in 2008, according to WBNS. “You’re about the only family he has left.”
He filed his first lawsuit against Ford in state court less than a year after the fire, claiming the automaker was aware of faulty wiring in the cruise-control switch that could start fires under the hood but did nothing to prevent the problem. (Ford has disputed these claims.) The vehicle had qualified for a recall in 2005 for this problem, according to the suit. But just a few months later in 2009, the State Fire Marshal’s Office made its ruling that the fire was arson — and said that investigators had ruled out the possibility that the fire was Ford’s fault. The cruise-control switch was found mainly intact, investigators said, and had been burned from the outside in, rather than the inside out. A significant amount of accelerant was found in the vehicle, they found.
“That appeared to eliminate, at least in our minds, that the cruise control switch was the start of the fire,” one fire investigator told the Dispatch in a short film for a 2011 story.
The questions then became, “Who would do this?" state investigator Gregg Costas told the newspaper. He said he simply couldn’t find that Billi, the beloved school receptionist and church singer, or her children had any enemies.
“To commit an arson to that degree, you gotta be pretty pissed off about something, and I’m just not finding it,” he said.
But other court records indicate authorities were much more suspicious of Romans behind closed doors.
While Romans’s 2009 lawsuit was pending in state court, he requested the entire investigative file as part of discovery. The judge said no — because an “uncharged murder suspect” essentially wanted the keys to the castle, the Dispatch reported in an update in 2015.
“Peter Romans is the prime suspect in the investigation of the arson homicides of his wife, Billi Romans, and his children,” wrote Judge Robert D. Nichols, adding: “The Court has before it the anomalous situation in which an uncharged murder suspect asserts a right to access coroner’s records related to and surrounding the deaths of his alleged victims.”
Romans dropped the case against Ford in 2015 and refiled it the next year in federal court instead. Records include testimony from the Ohio State Fire Marshal investigator Ron Stemen, who concluded the fire that killed Billi, Caleb and Ami was “incendiary in nature” in 2009.
He conceded in a 2012 deposition, however, that “the exact origin and cause is not known, and further investigation is needed in this case.” He said all investigators were able to determine was that the fire was caused by a human, and they didn’t know if it was on purpose or on accident.
It’s unclear what more investigators have found in the seven years since.
On Monday, the neighbor who lived across the street from the Romans family at the time of the fatal fire — and whom Romans ran to for help — said she and her husband had always been suspicious about why Romans was running to them, rather than helping his family.
“Most men, if their family was trapped in the house would do anything they could to get in there to help them and would die trying to get them out,” she told WSYX. “If he’s guilty, I hope he gets his just punishment,” she said.
Romans remains jailed in the Tri-County Regional Jail on no bond. Romans’s attorneys in the civil case against Ford urged the judge to reschedule the civil trial, not sure if he’ll even be able to attend in October.
“The State of Ohio is seeking the death penalty,” his attorneys wrote. “The criminal prosecution of Plaintiff unavoidably impacts this civil case.”